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The Devil in the White City

  • Study Guide
Main Ideas

Themes

Main Ideas Themes

Motivation

Larson begins the book with a central question: why do some men choose to use their skills for greatness and some for destruction? In every achievement of Burnham’s and the other architects, the common denominator of intention is that their work will extend beyond themselves to better their city and their country. Burnham and Root solve a foundation problem and build the first skyscraper. Now, all architects can build skyscrapers. Olmsted designs Central Park and plans for it to last for decades, if not centuries. Burnham contributes his model of city planning for free to several cities across the country to change their design for the better. Regarding the World’s Fair, the architects know the buildings will only last one or two years, but they design it so that it will be a living memory of beauty that inspired the country. Countless inventions are premiered at the Fair, and there exists an unprecedented meeting of cultures on the fairgrounds. The architects create something beautiful that grows beyond themselves.

Holmes, on the other hand, purely seeks power and personal enjoyment. He never accomplishes anything meant to last beyond the climax of its usefulness for himself. For example, Holmes seduces women, extracts his own pleasure from manipulation, then kills them and disposes of their bodies when he gets bored or when he decides he wants the consequential sexual release. He builds his hotel knowing that he will set it on fire later when he leaves Chicago. Nothing Holmes does looks toward the future, making him stand in stark contrast to the World’s Fair architects.

Persistence

The World’s Fair could not have been accomplished without the incredible persistence of everyone involved. The architects and builders work within tight time constraints to finish construction, and while they do not finish by Opening Day, their effort is valiant. Burnham displays persistence most clearly in his ability to undertake the massive construction of the World’s Fair, assembling an elite team, casting his vision, and skillfully negotiating with everyone involved. Ferris’s persistence in inventing the Ferris wheel results in what is considered one of the greatest engineering feats of the time, and it has lasted into the present. Had he accepted the Fair’s first or second denial, there would have been nothing to challenge the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

There are many significant health issues among the architects that slow the progress of the Fair, but they power through. Even in the case of Root and Codman’s deaths, the architectural team picks replacements and continues their progress. Millet’s persistence in coming up with new ways to boost attendance saves the Fair and keeps the city out of debt. Perhaps the greatest example of persistence is the most sobering one, when Detective Frank Geyer persists in retracing Holmes’ footsteps and finding the bodies of the Pitezel children Holmes murdered. Because of Geyer’s determination, Holmes is found guilty of murder.

Pride

For modern readers, it may seem strange that Chicago wanted to host the 1893 World’s Fair so badly, especially since Chicago is now a thriving American city. In the 1890s, however, Chicago needs a reputation change. Chicago is less established than other large cities, such as New York and Boston, and is known to be “dirty,” because of both the proliferation of slaughterhouses and the apparent moral decay and corruption of the city. Chicago wants to host the Fair because their pride is at stake. Once they secure the Fair, however, they fight over where the fairgrounds will go, placing them so behind schedule that they are unable to properly finish in time for Opening Day. Chicago’s civic pride costs them attendance for a couple months.

Pride also affects individuals. Burnham’s pride causes his insecurity about his rejection from Harvard and Yale, and this intellectual and professional anxiety weighs on him unnecessarily for much of his life. Many of the architects deeply care what their colleagues think of their work, and their egos often result in disagreements and setbacks in the construction of the Fair. Sullivan’s pride costs him valuable business relationships and his firm fails as a result. Finally, Holmes’ pride that emerges from his narcissism keeps him in disbelief that he can be indicted, and he continues to commit atrocity after atrocity.