two female faces superimposed upon a desert landscape

The Glass Castle

by Jeannette Walls

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What is Jeanette's physical appearance in The Glass Castle?

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In The Glass Castle, Jeannette’s physical appearance is distinctive for its extremes: she is very pale, tall, and thin. “Long” and “bony” at birth, she grows up as an outsider. Teased by classmates for her height and scrawniness, she appears that way due to her home’s lack of food. Luckily, this boniness and a childhood burn scar save her from molestation due to parental neglect. Ironically, parental neglect led to her emaciated appearance and gruesome scar in the first place.

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Often neglected by her parents, Jeannette Wall endures a difficult, impoverished childhood and is viewed by others as an outsider. In The Glass Castle, Jeannette’s distinctive appearance amplifies her otherness in opposition to society.

Like her siblings, she is a scrawny redhead. Her mother says to her about her birth,

You were such a skinny baby… The longest, boniest thing the nurses had ever seen.

The fact that Jeannette seems unusual to others continues to plague her beyond infancy. She notes that she is already an outcast by the first grade in school.

The other students didn't like me very much because I was so tall and pale and skinny and always raised my hand too fast and waved it frantically in the air whenever Miss Cook asked a question.

Her odd appearance—a white stick figure towering over others—is not helped by her precocious nature. When her grandmother notices that Jeannette is not being properly cared for, the girl tries to defend her mother through reasoning. One day, her grandmother tries to comb her hair,

cursing out of the corner of her mouth because it was so tangled. "Doesn't that goddamn lazy-­ass mother of yours ever comb your hair?" she once said. I explained that Mom believed children should be responsible for their own grooming. Grandma told me my hair was too long anyway. She put a bowl on my head, cut off all the hair beneath it, and told me I looked like a flapper.

Jeannette’s very thin physique (like that of a flapper) results partly from genetics and partly from starvation. The Walls family is so poor that the children often do not have enough food to eat and thus go hungry. They are left to forage for anything edible—even discarded and rotting food—anywhere. By the sixth grade, Jeannette is ridiculed for her skinny appearance.

They called me spider legs, skeleton girl, pipe cleaner, two-­by-­four, bony butt, stick woman, bean pole, and giraffe, and they said I could stay dry in the rain by standing under a telephone wire.

In fact, she avoids lunchtime at school because she has no food to bring for lunch or money to purchase lunch. Jeannette retrieves her classmates’ discarded leftovers—apples, eggs, crackers, pickles, milk, sandwiches “with just one bite taken out”—from the garbage to devour in private.

The following year, Jeannette possesses what her mother describes as “distinctive looks”:

I was nearly six feet tall, pale as a frog's underbelly, and had bright red hair. My elbows were like flying wedges and my knees like tea saucers. But my most prominent feature—my worst—was my teeth. They weren't rotten or crooked. In fact, they were big, healthy things. But they stuck straight out. The top row thrust forward so enthusiastically that I had trouble closing my mouth completely, and I was always stretching my upper lip to try to cover them.

Still too tall, pale, and gangly, Jeannette is cursed with buck teeth. She becomes extremely self-conscious, and she covers her mouth while laughing. Instead of offering Jeannette any emotional support or reassurance, her mother tells her that the overbite gives her “face character.” Her parents are too poor for dental visits, much less orthodontal care. Therefore, Jeannette decides make her own braces.

Jeannette’s appearance is striking enough, though, for her father to use to attract and scam a man named Robbie out of money in a pool game. Fortunately, her skinniness saves her when he declares her “too bony to screw.” Also, a gruesome scar resulting from a serious burn—when Jeannette was three years old and left alone to boil hot dogs without any parental supervision—luckily causes Robbie to hesitate long enough for her to escape a potential gang rape.

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