two female faces superimposed upon a desert landscape

The Glass Castle

by Jeannette Walls

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What does the Joshua Tree symbolize in The Glass Castle?

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A Joshua tree is a succulent desert plant with a gnarled appearance that some compare to Dr. Seuss’s trees in The Lorax. Despite growing in severe conditions, the uniquely shaped Joshua tree thrives in a harsh landscape. In The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls’s memoir of her difficult childhood, the Joshua tree represents the triumph of strength, self-sufficiency, and beauty over obstacles.

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The Joshua tree is a twisty, sturdy succulent plant that grows in the desert. In The Glass Castle, Rose Mary Walls—mom to protagonist Jeannette—spots a Joshua tree as the family flees from San Francisco to the Mohave Desert. Captivated by its beauty, Jeannette's mom has her husband stop the car so that she can set up an easel and paint its picture. In this memoir of an incredibly challenging childhood and family life, the Joshua tree represents resilience, strength, and beauty evolving from harsh circumstances.

Although gnarled and grotesque in appearance, the Joshua tree has valuable properties. It is a good source of fiber and food; Native Americans used its tough leaves for weaving textiles and its seeds for nutrition. Nineteenth-century homesteaders used the plant’s limbs and trunks for construction. Most importantly, the Joshua tree thrives under severe external conditions, flowering despite its hostile environment. Jeannette's mother first spots the tree:

It stood in a crease of land where the desert ended and the mountain began, forming a wind tunnel. From the time the Joshua tree was a tiny sapling, it had been so beaten down by the whipping wind that, rather than trying to grow skyward, it had grown in the direction that the wind pushed it. It existed now in a permanent state of windblown-ness, leaning over so far that it seemed ready to topple, although, in fact, its roots held it firmly in place.

Similarly, Jeannette and her siblings are buffeted by and must follow along with their parents’ nomadic lifestyle. From the time they are young (i.e., tiny saplings), they are “beaten down” by their parents’ neglect. Always ready to flee, the family is in a constant state of “windblown-ness.” Fall-out from neglect and conflict frequently make the family seem “ready to topple,” but the members’ strong bonds (like the tree’s roots) hold them “firmly in place” and together.

Despite negative outward appearances, the Walls family cultivates valuable properties in the children, such as self-sufficiency and resourcefulness. For example, although toddler Jeannette should not have been operating a stove (nurses and doctors “asked what I was doing cooking hot dogs by myself at the age of three”), her parents’ lack of attention forces her and her siblings to develop practical skills; they learn to take care of themselves at an early age. Mature leaves on a Joshua tree are sharp, pointed, and concave, in order to provide protection as well as minimize water loss through evaporation. The leaves need to retain what little water they receive from infrequent desert rain showers. Similarly, the children learn how to protect and fend for themselves as well as make do with little. For example, when Jeannette and her older sister, Lori, fight over the last piece of food in the house—a stick of margarine—they display ingenuity. Lori mixes some margarine with sugar to form a frosting-like treat and shows Jeannette how to do the same to fix herself a snack.

Adding to the Joshua tree’s unique appearance is its irregular shape. A vertical stem/trunk grows up from the ground; branches then veer off and grow into different directions at various angles. Likewise, the four Walls children—Lori, Jeannette, Brian, and Maureen—all follow divergent paths and develop lives and identities away from their parents.

Finally, the Joshua tree represents how beauty can develop within hostile conditions that appear extremely negative on the outside. When Jeanette first sees the tree, she thinks it looks awful. "It looked scraggly and freakish, permanently stuck in its twisted, tortured position.” Her mother, however, thinks it is “one of the most beautiful trees she had ever seen.” Jeanette later tries to protect a young Joshua tree just as the siblings learn to watch out for and help each other survive:

One time I saw a tiny Joshua tree sapling growing not too far from the old tree. I wanted to dig it up and replant it near our house. I told Mom that I would protect it from the wind and water it every day so that it could grow nice and tall and straight.

Mom frowned at me. "You'd be destroying what makes it special," she said. "It's the Joshua tree's struggle that gives it its beauty."

As harsh and dysfunctional as their childhood and upbringing was, it actually motivates Jeannette and her three sibling to thrive as adults. Lori is a successful illustrator in Manhattan, Brian is a retired police officer studying to become a teacher, and Maureen is childhood trauma survivor. Jeannette herself is a renowned and bestselling writer and journalist.

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What could the Joshua tree symbolize?

Perhaps the most helpful quote to understand what the Joshua tree symbolizes comes from Jeannette's mother:

"You’d be destroying what makes it special," she said. “It’s the Joshua tree’s struggle that gives it its beauty.”

While enduring harsh conditions, Joshua trees are known for growing very slowly and forming unusual shapes. Jeannette's mother points out that the beauty of the Joshua tree comes from its struggle as well as its strength. Growing up, Jeannette and her family endure many of their own harsh conditions. The Joshua tree could symbolize her own unique growth and strength, shaped by hardship.

The Joshua tree also functions as metaphor for her family and their dynamic and progression. While they're in the desert, we've become aware that they move around quite often and will likely continue to move without warning. In a way, unpredictable movement is the most stable and defining aspect of their family unit. A Joshua tree is also defined by certain yet erratic movement with the wind and by its staying power.

Throughout the memoir, we see various desert plants used to represent Jeanette's family and how it evolves overtime. One example is the cactus. Early on, Jeanette describes her family as poor, often without enough to eat. Much like a cactus, her family must sustain itself for long periods of time on very little nourishment. However, the Joshua tree is meant to stand out as a symbol. To Jeannette, it is bare, twisted, and "ugly." Her mother finds it beautiful and often paints it. Like her family, the Joshua tree is a unique product of its environment because of the way it has persevered, instead of falling victim to the dysfunction it grew within.

While its "ugly" appearance may tell us something about the Joshua tree's surroundings, its appearance cannot reveal how deep the roots go or its true strength. The same can be said of Jeannette's family and Jeannette herself. Their existence starts out as a symbol of dysfunction but evolves into a symbol of strength.

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