The Devil in the White City

  • Study Guide
Summary

Part III: In the White City (Chapters 43-47)

Summary Part III: In the White City (Chapters 43-47)

The Exposition Company cancels the closing ceremony and celebration. Instead, there is a funeral. For Burnham, riding in the procession is difficult. The Fair began with the death of his partner John Root, and now ends in another death. The Fair remains open unofficially on October 31st, and people say their goodbyes, to both Harrison and the Fair.

Summary: Chapter 47: The Black City

The following winter is brutal. The homeless population swells, filled with displaced workers from the Fair, and they take refuge in the huge abandoned buildings. The community finds the contrast between the dreamland and its desolation heartbreaking. Charles Arnold, the Fair’s photographer, documents this season, too. On January 8th, a fire with an undetermined cause destroys several buildings.

The union battle intensifies, led in Chicago by Eugene Debs and Samuel Gompers. George Pullman, of the railcar company, cuts jobs and wages without reducing rent, sparking a strike from his workers. Arsonists burn the palaces of the Exposition on July 5th, 1894. 

In the year following the Fair, police begin to realize just how many people are missing. Later, the New YorkWorld ponders how many people disappeared from Holmes’ “castle.”

Analysis: Chapters 43-47

In these chapters, the most striking element is the contrast of the extremes of pride and humiliation. The pride of Chicago’s citizens erupts on Chicago Day. We see the magnitude of this pride in how many more people attend the Fair on Chicago Day than on the Fourth of July. The whole city closes, and everyone celebrates. In the midst of labor unrest, Mayor Harrison takes the time to urge everyone to close down and attend the Fair. When Larson says that “silver coins began piling on the floors and burying the ticket-takers’ shoes,” he provides us with imagery that depicts how much the citizens have come to love and take pride in the Fair. The Chicago Day attendance breaks the Paris record “to smithereens” by noon. The pride of Chicago saves the city by vanquishing the Fair’s debt. Amid this triumph, however, Larson foreshadows that something bad is about to happen. Larson says that Burnham believes “nothing could tarnish the Fair’s triumph or his own place in architectural history,” implying that this is exactly what will happen.

Humiliation belongs to Prendergast. His delusion reaches such an intensity that he feels betrayed by Harrison, because he has not yet been appointed as Corporation Counsel. Prendergast doesn’t register that Harrison might not even know who he is, or that he might be wrong about the way the “political machine” works. If we need further evidence of his delusion, we get it in chapter forty-three when Prendergast goes to City Hall and sees Kraus, the current Corporation Counsel. Prendergast is incredulous that nobody knows his name. Here, Kraus makes a critical mistake by mockingly introducing Prendergast to the men in his office as his successor. Though Prendergast clearly does not have a firm grip on reality, he hasn’t lost the ability to recognize when someone is making fun of him. In his mind, the mayor crossed a line by betraying him and not appointing him, or even acknowledging his efforts. The receivers of his postcards have crossed a line by not responding to him. Kraus and his friends have crossed a line by mocking him. All these things cause Prendergast the pain of humiliation. His humiliation turns to anger, and he snaps.

Prendergast buys a gun at the very time that Harrison is being honored by mayors across the country, on American Cities Day. For reference, his gun cost $4, and the cost of bringing one’s own tripod to the Fair (mentioned in chapter thirty-four) is $10. Harrison does not appear to be Prendergast’s specific target, as he first goes to the Unity Building, where the governor has an office. A guard turns Prendergast away, as he looks “pale and strangely excited.” Ironically, it is Harrison’s open-door policy that ultimately allows his death. He accepts any visitor at any time, because he vowed to be a friend to the working man. This quality is what made Prendergast support him in the first place. Tragically, Harrison had just mentioned in his earlier speech that he felt he had been given “a new lease on life.”

These chapters also explore how the characters deal with endings. For Burnham, the end is heartbreaking because the Fair comes full circle with death. He reflects on his friend Root’s death as he travels the same path for Harrison’s funeral. Even though Burnham didn’t necessarily approve of the way Harrison ran Chicago, we know from Burnham’s innately moral character that it pains him to see Harrison’s death end the magic of the Fair. Burnham never receives his day of praise. We are led to wonder if he struggles with his pride after Harrison’s death in the same way that he struggled when Root died. Olmsted, on the other hand, approaches his end with acceptance, not only of the Fair but of his life. The beauty in his resigned acceptance is that he struggled with depression his whole life, yet ultimately can say he is at peace.

As a city, Chicago ends the Fair in grief and transitions back into a “black city,” a place of strife and homelessness. The following brutal winter symbolizes this decay. The architects prophetically speak of burning the White City fairgrounds. While that never happens officially, it occurs anyway, either by accident or arson, as if the Fair cannot stand to exist in Chicago as a dead relic. Holmes, his debts having finally caught up to him, runs away from his problems when he flees the meeting of his creditors and their lawyers. When the usefulness of his hotel ends, he just burns it, tries to profit from the insurance, and skips town to Fort Worth. Both Burnham’s and Holmes’ labors burn, bringing us back to an idea in the prologue: these men are similar.