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This section begins with the most vivid of Jeannette’s early memories: the day she is set on fire at age three. The incident illustrates a few main themes of the novel. Firstly, the presence of fire is introduced in this scene. Initially, it is something that has the potential to nourish (it allows Jeannette to cook her hot dogs) but instead causes great damage to the young Jeannette’s body. Secondly, the nature of the Walls’ parenting becomes clear. This is a home in which three year olds are permitted to cook on the stove, in which injured youth are broken out of the hospital before the doctor clears her dismissal.
Positioning the hospital as a symbol of cultural order and privilege, Jeannette shows how her parents taught their children to avoid conformity and to disdain the unnecessary frills in life. Further, the hospital illustrates the Walls’ apprehensions about their children realizing that they have few means in life compared to others in society. Mr. and Mrs. Walls do not want Jeannette to receive gum from the hospital staff not because it is unhealthy for her but rather because she will know what she is missing when there is no gum regularly available to her outside the hospital.
This entrée into Jeannette’s early childhood also introduces another common theme of the work: movement and mobility. The family frequently moves around to avoid paying bills or having property repossessed. Young Jeannettte learns to think of the moves as adventures when she is told by her father that they are being chased by the FBI. Though her experiences as a young child are not ideal, in a sense her conception of what was going on at the time is idealized.