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The Devil in the White City

  • Study Guide
Main Ideas

Motifs

Main Ideas Motifs

Fire

The motif of fire crops up in the text from the beginning to the end. The Great Fire of 1871 has a huge impact on Chicago, and is probably one reason why Burnham is so afraid of fire on the fairgrounds. Despite Burnham’s precautions, fire takes the lives of many in the poorly constructed Cold Storage tower. While the tower fire is an accident, fire is also often used purposefully. Holmes intentionally lights his hotel on fire for the insurance money. Harrison and the architects suggest using fire to destroy the Fair buildings after the Fair ends to save themselves from the pain of watching it decay. Although they do not set them on fire, many of the buildings catch on fire anyway, some due to arson. It is interesting to note that fire destroys both Burnham’s and Holmes’ creations.

The Color Blue

The color blue is the most common motif throughout the book. Many times, the color blue is used to describe someone’s eyes, especially Burnham’s and Holmes’ eyes, which is interesting since both men fall on opposite ends of the morality spectrum, yet they share similar physical characteristics. Olmsted’s depression is characterized as a deep blue melancholia. The dazzling blue of the lake comprises the central beauty of the Fair. The blue haze in the buildings caused by so much breath makes the air unclear. The color blue supposedly conveys trust, as it does for both Burnham and Holmes’ eyes, even though the latter man is not trustworthy at all. At other times, however, the color blue also conveys sadness, confusion, beauty, and calmness.

Sickness

Sickness occurs many times throughout the story. Codman dies from appendicitis, Root dies from pneumonia, Hunt is bedridden by gout, and Burnham is immobilized by pain in his legs from diabetes. Olmsted is perhaps the most sick, as he must convalesce in Europe. He is often confined to bed and deals with insomnia, leg pain, toothaches, and roaring in his ears. He is also mentally ill and battles severe depression. Prendergast also struggles mentally, and would be diagnosed with a paranoid disorder today. This motif of sickness asks readers to bear in mind the importance of our own physical and mental health as we take on projects and stresses in our lives.