two female faces superimposed upon a desert landscape

The Glass Castle

by Jeannette Walls

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Why is the Tinkerbell doll symbolic of Jeanette's experience in The Glass Castle?

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The Tinkerbell doll is symbolic of Jeanette's experience in her home because the character represents magic and fantasy. Jeannette wants to believe in the fantasies of her father, but ultimately she learns that magic won't save her and that she will need to be strong enough to save herself.

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As a character, Tinkerbell often represents magic, fantasy, and the ideal of never growing up. Jeannette gravitates to this as her favorite toy perhaps because she exists in the world of fantasy and perpetual childhood. The ideas of her father, from the glass castle to the Prospector, are objects of his fantasies. Rex refuses to live a stable life and earn a dependable income for his family. He is intent on being free and heading in any direction at a moment's notice. Although a father, he has never grown up into a responsible man.

After Jeannette suffers burns and experiences her father rush her out of the hospital before she can fully heal, Jeannette clearly begins to process her pain in terms of her favorite toy. She inflicts a similar pain on Tinkerbell, holding a match close to her face until her features begin to melt. Perhaps she wants someone to share this sense of pain she has experienced and cannot share with any responsible adult in her life—there are none to be found.

Her burning of Tinkerbell may also suggest she wants this life of fantasy and magic to end. On some level, young Jeannette likely recognizes the hardship of always leaving places behind and being robbed of a sense of stability. Since Tinkerbell represents these ideals, Jeannette has a moment of trying to take control of her situation by taking away Tinkerbell's magic.

In the next scene, even Tinkerbell is left behind as Rex wakes the family in the middle of the night and tells everyone they have to leave home within fifteen minutes. Jeannette begs to go back for her. Not only does Rex deny her this request, but he grabs Jeannette's cat from her lap and tosses it from the car as well.

Jeannette learns from a young age that she can't depend on magic to save her and that she will need to be tough to save herself.

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Tinkerbell represents the lost innocence of Jeannette's troubled childhood. The burn marks on the doll's face can be seen as a further symbol of how something so fragile and so precious can be so easily damaged. And yet Tinkerbell wasn't completely destroyed by the fire; she lived on to fight another day.

So does Jeannette, which is why she identifies so strongly with the doll. Tinkerbell acts as a constant reminder to Jeannette that, however bad things get during her constant travels around the country with her family, she has the inner strength to come out the other end, bloodied but unbowed. Jeannette may have lost her innocence, but she hasn't lost her strength. She's a survivor, and Tinkerbell is a symbol of that fortitude in the face of near-constant adversity.

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Tinkerbell experiences some of the same pains and hardships that Jeanette does; at one point, Jeanette thinks that she wants Tinkerbell to see how a traumatic experience she went through felt.

After Jeanette is terribly burned, she becomes fascinated with fire. One day she takes her favorite toy—a plastic, two-inch-tall Tinkerbell figure with a high ponytail and a cocky pose—and lights a match to hold it close to the doll's face. She lights a second one and panics when she realizes that the doll's face is starting to melt. The doll's face melts until her lips are a red smear.

Jeanette puts bandages on the doll. She wishes that she could give her skin grafts. It wasn't her intention to damage Tinkerbell. Jeanette just wants her to see how the fire felt.

Later, when Jeanette's father comes home in the middle of the night and declares that they're leaving right then, she forgets Tinkerbell in the rush. Her father refuses to go back to get the doll. He makes the same connection between Jeanette and the doll; he says that Tinkerbell is like Jeanette because she's brave and can make it on her own. This situation is mirrored later when Jeanette herself is left behind.

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Tinkerbell is a symbol of Jeannette because of the terrible things she endures (as a doll) that are very similar to the things Jeannette must endure as a little girl who's nearly as helpless as a doll. 

When the author first mentions her doll, Tinkerbell, she's a symbol for Jeannette in a very literal way. Jeannette has just gotten out of the hospital after having burned herself cooking hot dogs (all by herself, as a three-year-old). Jeannette decides to put her doll through the same thing. She lights a match and holds it to Tinkerbell's face.

Jeannette winds up melting her doll's face, but that doesn't stop her from loving Tinkerbell. She writes, "Even though her face was melted, she was still my favorite toy."

Tinkerbell has been permanently affected by the fire, but Jeannette tries her best to ignore it and still love her. This is symbolic of the way her parents deal with Jeanette's own burns—they try to pretend it wasn't that big a deal.

In the next chapter, as Jeannette's family is "doing the skedaddle," Jeanette realizes she's left Tinkerbell behind. Instead of going back for the doll, her parents drive on.

"Tinkerbell can make it on her own," Dad said. "She's like my brave little girl. You are brave and ready for an adventure, right?"

Tinkerbell becomes a symbol for Jeannette again, because they're both being told they're brave, not because they've displayed any real courage, but because that's what her parents need to believe to be able to convince Jeanette that she's okay. Later, Jeannette herself is temporarily left behind during another of her family's "skedaddles."

At the end of the book, Jeannette actually proves that she is "brave and ready for an adventure" like Tinkerbell was by leaving her parents behind and going off to New York City by herself.

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