Summary and Analysis
Part 3: Welch Sections 13-17
Dad's mom, Erma, dies and the entire family goes to the funeral. While Mom tries to get the kids to kiss the corpse, Dad fidgets with his necktie. After the funeral he goes on a four-day drinking binge and on the fourth day Mom sends Jeannette into town to find him. She finds him at the fourth bar she goes to. He insists on taking a few more shots of whiskey before leaving; by the time he finishes, he can barely stand up. One of the men at the bar offers to give them a ride home and Jeannette takes him up on the offer.
Shortly after Erma's death, Uncle Stanley burns down the farmhouse by falling asleep while smoking a cigarette; he and Grandpa move into an apartment. The apartment has running water, so the family takes to visiting on the weekends to bathe. While Jeannette waits for her turn, she and Stanley watch TV. She is totally disgusted when he starts feeling her thigh while playing with his private parts. Mom, however, is nonplussed when Jeannette tells her what happens. Jeannette stops going on the weekly shower trips and does her best to bathe at home.
In early spring, Jeannette and Brian find a diamond ring underneath a piece of rotting lumber in their yard. They give it to Mom who has it appraised; it is indeed a real, two-carat diamond. Mom says she is going to keep the ring to boost her self-esteem instead of selling it to buy food. Jeannette is furious with this decision and finally confronts Mom, suggesting that the only way for the family to survive is if they leave Dad so they can go on welfare and get out of Welch. Mom refuses. However, a few weeks later, after a child-welfare officer visits the house, Mom realizes, to some extent, how bad the situation is. She agrees, reluctantly, to find a job and gets one quickly. Because of her and Dad's inability to budget, however, the family lives much as they did before.
Fire returns as motif in these sections; additionally, more of Mom and Dad's characters are shaped by the action in these sections, namely Erma's death, the discovery of the diamond ring, and the welfare officer's visit. First, when Stanley burns down Erma's house, fire once again ushers in a series of difficulties for the Walls. For one, the fire indirectly results in Stanley's thwarted molestation of Jeannette. Recall that Jeannette was nearly molested before, when a stranger entered her Phoenix bedroom. These similar instances suggest how the family, lacking the relative security of middle class existence, is not only threatened by the elements and hunger, but also predation by other, more desperate people on the outskirts of society.
Furthermore, Dad's reaction to Erma's death and Mom's reaction to the diamond ring and the welfare officer add depth to their characters. First, Dad's binge after Erma's death suggests that he is still unable to cope with his past and face his present despite the fact that the woman who probably molested him is now permanently out of his life. Jeannette's growing awareness that Dad's inability to recover moves her to influence Mom to take the children, leave Dad, and receive government aid. However, Mom's reaction — she refuses to leave Dad, saying things are not so bad — and her decision to keep a diamond ring instead of supporting her family, indicates that her first priority is herself, not her children. Mom regrets having children; she resents the impact they have had on her art career, blaming them for her lack of success. In the end, though, Mom rises to the occasion after hearing about the child-welfare officer's visit. In light of this visit she sees she is at risk of having her children taken away by the government. While she can live with the fact that her children are often hungry and cold, the idea of losing them is too much to bear. In the end she gets a job, yet she and Dad are unable to overcome their character flaws to provide a better — or at least less hungry — life for their children.