Let the Great World Spin

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The Tightrope Walker (Phillipe Petit) Character Analysis

A performance artist from France who, after years of training, sneaks to the top of the World Trade Center and walks across a tightrope strung between the north and south towers. Although this character remains unnamed in the novel, he is based on Philippe Petit, who did in fact walk between the Towers on August 7, 1974 (the same day that the event takes place in the book).

The Tightrope Walker (Phillipe Petit) Quotes in Let the Great World Spin

The Let the Great World Spin quotes below are all either spoken by The Tightrope Walker (Phillipe Petit) or refer to The Tightrope Walker (Phillipe Petit). For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Political Unrest Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Random House edition of Let the Great World Spin published in 2009.
Those Who Saw Him Hushed Quotes

Those who saw him hushed. On Church Street. Liberty. Cortlandt. West Street. Fulton. Vesey. It was a silence that heard itself, awful and beautiful.

Related Characters: The Tightrope Walker (Phillipe Petit)
Related Symbols: The Tightrope Walk
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:

These are Let the Great World Spin’s opening lines, which constitute an “en medias res” opening, meaning that readers are thrown into the middle of the action without very much in the way of preface or background information. The second sentence, though, catalogues the surrounding street names, thereby establishing the city’s landscape and a sense of its sprawling geography. The idea of a busy and unfathomably large city immediately emphasizes the significance of the bystanders’ collective silence. This silence is significant because it emphasizes the tightrope walker’s ability to bring people together even in the midst of their hectic lives.

The notion of “a silence that heard itself” foregrounds the novel’s interest in portraying the hypersensitive awareness that often comes with intense emotion, a sentiment that runs throughout the book to the very end, when Jaslyn experiences a peace so intense that she can feel the world spinning.

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It was the dilemma of the watchers: they didn’t want to wait around for nothing at all, some idiot standing on the precipice of the towers, but they didn’t want to miss the moment either, if he slipped, or got arrested, or dove, arms stretched.

Related Characters: The Tightrope Walker (Phillipe Petit)
Related Symbols: The Tightrope Walk
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage emphasizes the doubt and uncertainty that ripples throughout the crowd as they peer up at the tightrope walker from the streets. It also reminds us that these people—these New Yorkers—lead busy lives and are unaccustomed to stopping their daily routines in the name of curiosity. As such, they approach the event with indecision, slightly resenting their own inquisitiveness. As New Yorkers, they have grown used to purposely ignoring anything out of the ordinary—perhaps a survival technique in a dangerous and eccentric city—but in this moment they find themselves unable to resist watching the tightrope walker.

Book One, Chapter 2: Miró, Miró, on the Wall Quotes

All of it like a slam in the chest. So immediate. At all of their coffee mornings, it had always been distant, belonging to another day, the talk, the memory, the recall, the stories, a distant land, but this was now and real, and the worst thing was that they didn’t know the walker’s fate, didn’t know if he had jumped or had fallen or had got down safely, or if he was still up there on his little stroll, or if he was there at all, if it was just a story, or a projection, indeed, or if she had made it all up for effect—they had no idea—maybe the man wanted to kill himself, or maybe the helicopter had a hook around him to catch him if he fell, or maybe there was a clip around the wire to catch him, or maybe maybe maybe there was another maybe, maybe.

Related Characters: The Tightrope Walker (Phillipe Petit), Claire Soderberg, Marcia
Related Symbols: The Tightrope Walk
Page Number: 99
Explanation and Analysis:

This follows follows the end of Marcia’s story, in which she tells the other women that she decided not to watch the tightrope walker anymore because she didn’t want to know if he fell. For the other women—like Claire—not knowing the end of the story seems to rankle their spirits, distracting them from their coffee morning and bringing them into the unbearable present rather than allowing them to dwell in the past, where they can reminisce about their sons. The possible outcome of the walker’s stunt is rather dizzying for somebody like Claire, who naturally gravitates to the worst case scenario, given her son’s death: “maybe the man wanted to kill himself.” The passage’s concluding repetition of the word “maybe” emphasizes not only the women’s uncomfortable uncertainty, but also the sentiment felt throughout the book at various moments and by multiple characters—why did he do it, how did he do it, what was the point? This is, of course, a testament to the walk’s quality as an artistic act, for each person seems to answer these questions differently.

So flagrant with his body. Making it cheap. The puppetry of it all. His little Charlie Chaplin walk, coming in like a hack on her morning. How dare he do that with his own body? Throwing his life in everyone’s face? Making her own son’s so cheap? Yes, he has intruded on her coffee morning like a hack on her code. With his hijinks above the city. Coffee and cookies and a man out there walking in the sky, munching away what should have been.

Related Characters: The Tightrope Walker (Phillipe Petit), Claire Soderberg, Joshua Soderberg
Related Symbols: The Tightrope Walk
Page Number: 113
Explanation and Analysis:

Although she was previously unable to articulate what bothered her about the tightrope walker, now Claire’s reaction edges toward anger. This progression illustrates the often unpredictable cycle of emotional unease, proving that nobody ever truly just feels one thing. Rather, feelings are made up of multiple emotions that all exist in concert with one another. And it is certainly the case that this moment of anger is perfectly justified, for there is no doubt that the tightrope walker’s actions are “flagrant” and dangerous, a fact that would of course bother a woman whose son’s body was blown to pieces in a café.

Book One, Chapter 4: Let the Great World Spin Forever Down Quotes

The core reason for it all was beauty. Walking was a divine delight. Everything was rewritten when he was up in the air. New things were possible with the human form. It went beyond equilibrium.

He felt for a moment uncreated. Another kind of awake.

Related Characters: The Tightrope Walker (Phillipe Petit)
Related Symbols: The Tightrope Walk
Page Number: 164
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage is perhaps the only one in the book that states an explicit reason for the tightrope walker’s walk: beauty. It is notable, though, that this reason does not explain away the act itself. It is not a prescriptive explanation of exactly why the walker attempted to do what he did, nor does it enumerate the precise effect of the walk. The concept of beauty is broad and subjective and invites multiple interpretations, just like the walk itself, which each character encounters in his or her own way with his or her own mindset. The idea that the walker feels “uncreated” for a moment speaks to this avoidance of definitive meaning, for something that is created ultimately presents itself concretely and is capable of being defined, whereas something that is uncreated eludes all definition, all sense of origin or placement.

Book Two, Chapter 8: The Ringing Grooves of Change Quotes

It was like some photograph his body had taken, and the album had been slid out again under his eyes, then yanked away. Sometimes it was the width of the city he saw, the alleyways of light, the harpsichord of the Brooklyn Bridge, the flat gray bowl of smoke over New Jersey, the quick interruption of a pigeon making flight look easy, the taxis below. He never saw himself in any danger or extremity, so he didn’t return to the moment he lay down on the cable or when he hopped, or half ran across from the south to the north tower. Rather it was the ordinary steps that revisited him, the ones done without flash. They were the ones that seemed entirely true, that didn’t flinch in his memory.

Related Characters: The Tightrope Walker (Phillipe Petit)
Related Symbols: The Tightrope Walk
Page Number: 242
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage gives us a glimpse of the tightrope walker’s retrospective thoughts about the walk, which seems to have left a permanent mark on his memory. Still, though, there is a fleeting quality to that permanence, as when the mental picture of the moment is “yanked away” suddenly. It seems he randomly relives little slivers of the walk, and it is significant that many of his recollections are visual panoramas of the city and its outskirts. In reading this passage, we once more remember that the other characters are below the walker in the city, moving about their lives. In this way, we are reminded of the walk’s unifying qualities.

Book Four, Chapter 12: Roaring Seaward, and I Go Quotes

A man high in the air while a plane disappears, it seems, into the edge of the building. One small scrap of history meeting a larger one. As if the walking man were somehow anticipating what would come later. The intrusion of time and history. The collision point of stories. We wait for the explosion but it never occurs. The plane passes, the tightrope walker gets to the end of the wire. Things don’t fall apart.

Related Characters: The Tightrope Walker (Phillipe Petit), Jazzlyn Henderson, Jaslyn
Related Symbols: The Tightrope Walk
Page Number: 325
Explanation and Analysis:

Jaslyn looks at a picture of the tightrope walker and knows that the walk took place on the same day her mother died. This is the only passage in the entire novel that addresses the destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001 (though even here it is a rather subtle allusion). The reference is embedded in the attention on the plane as it seems to disappear into the edge of one of the towers. An acknowledgement of the disaster is also evident in the sentence, “We wait for the explosion but it never occurs.” As Jaslyn studies the photograph of the man on the wire, we feel “one small scrap of history meeting a larger one,” and we are once again thrown into a contemplation of chronology—“the intrusion of time and history.” We also feel a convergence of multiple storylines: the tightrope walker’s, Jazzlyn’s, Jaslyn’s, and—for those of us alive when the Towers fell—our own.

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The Tightrope Walker (Phillipe Petit) Character Timeline in Let the Great World Spin

The timeline below shows where the character The Tightrope Walker (Phillipe Petit) appears in Let the Great World Spin. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Book One, Chapter 2: Miró, Miró, on the Wall
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...turns out that, on her way to Manhattan on the Staten Island Ferry, Marcia saw the tightrope walker as he walked between the buildings on the wire. She is deeply upset, and the... (full context)
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...docked, she dashed onto land, running frantically down various side streets to try to see the tightrope walker . Unable to find a good vantage point, she suddenly stopped running, halting in the... (full context)
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...flowers (which Gloria brought) in water. She finds herself vaguely unsettled by the thought of the tightrope walker , though she doesn’t fully understand why. When she returns to the living room, the... (full context)
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Back in the living room, Janet asks them if they think the tightrope walker fell. They rebuke her for her morbidity, but the question hangs in the air. Claire... (full context)
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...to hear about her son’s death, Claire realizes what it is that bothers her about the tightrope walker ’s walk: there are so many ways to die, especially in war, and yet here... (full context)
Book One, Chapter 3: A Fear of Love
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Lara finds a newspaper on the floor. It is open to an article about the tightrope walker . She flips through the pages, looking for anything about a car crash on the... (full context)
Book One, Chapter 4: Let the Great World Spin Forever Down
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The tightrope walker trains for his performance in a meadow with high winds. This is only one of... (full context)
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The tightrope walker stays in an abandoned wood cabin whenever he visits the meadow to train. It is... (full context)
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The tightrope walker visits the cabin one winter with the intention of relaxing and reviewing his plans. He... (full context)
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During his training, the tightrope walker has fallen just one time. He views this as a good thing: “A single flaw... (full context)
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The tightrope walker goes to New York City to plan the walk. He sneaks into the World Trade... (full context)
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The tightrope walker continues planning for the walk. One day, while examining the perimeter of the buildings, he... (full context)
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On the night before the walk, the tightrope walker unravels the wire. It is as long as a city block. This wire, he knows,... (full context)
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It takes the tightrope walker and his friends ten hours to sneak into the World Trade Center and string the... (full context)
Book Two, Chapter 6: Etherwest
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...Twin Towers. The programmers—The Kid, Compton, Dennis, and Gareth—have placed bets on whether or not the tightrope walker will fall, and now they are calling payphones in the vicinity and trying to convince... (full context)
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...up on them. Compton speaks to the man through a microphone, asking him questions about the tightrope walker . The conversation is full of stops and starts and misunderstandings as the man—whose name... (full context)
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...Now somebody with a deep voice comes onto the line and tells the programmers that the tightrope walker has fallen. “He splattered all over the place,” he says. Compton begins to suspect that... (full context)
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...answers. She proves much better at explaining the scene than José. She tells them that the tightrope walker has walked back and forth six or seven times. She says that there are helicopters... (full context)
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...crush on this strange faraway woman. In the middle of their conversation, Sable explains that the tightrope walker has finished, that he has walked off onto the other side, greeted by a swarm... (full context)
Book Two, Chapter 8: The Ringing Grooves of Change
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Before the walk, the tightrope walker used to stage smaller acts of performance art. He would go to Washington Square Park... (full context)
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The tightrope walker rented a cheap apartment in the East Village, where he was robbed one night while... (full context)
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From time to time the tightrope walker would perform at parties because he needed the money. Although he was hired as a... (full context)
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The tightrope walker ’s arrogance is a virtue on the wire. He tunes out everything when he’s on... (full context)
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Realizing that he only ever thought about the first step on the wire, the tightrope walker decides that he needs to figure out how he will finish the walk—he wants to... (full context)
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For years and years the tightrope walker returns to the moments he spent on the wire. The memory comes to him randomly... (full context)
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Upon coming off the wire, the tightrope walker is exhausted and thirsty, but he can’t relax until he sees that somebody is taking... (full context)
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Handcuffed, the tightrope walker is brought through the crowds at the bottom of the towers. With a paper clip... (full context)
Book Three, Chapter 9: A Part of the Parts
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...at the courthouse—the judges and the officers and the reporters and the stenographers—speak excitedly about the tightrope walker . Judge Soderberg considers to himself the way that New York has a way of... (full context)
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...settles in at his desk, the door opens and a fellow judge starts talking about the tightrope walker . Soderberg rushes to the window but can only see the north tower, and his... (full context)
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The two judges start discussing the possible charges and sentences that could be leveled against the tightrope walker , who has been arrested and will be tried in their precinct. Much to his... (full context)
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Judge Soderberg is sure he will get the tightrope walker , but he calls the D.A.’s office to try to ensure that he will—he figures... (full context)
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...where he orders wine and talks to Harry, the owner. The two men talk about the tightrope walker . As he drinks wine, Soderberg thinks about the balance between recklessness and freedom that... (full context)
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...Joshua, but he doesn’t let himself. He starts to think that perhaps he doesn’t want the tightrope walker to come into his court after all. (full context)
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...returns to the court, a line of defendants walk through the door. Among them is the tightrope walker . He is smaller than Soderberg imagined, but he emits a confidence that the judge... (full context)
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...his sharp efficiency. He hopes that the reporters in the courtroom—who are there to watch the tightrope walker ’s case—are taking note of his prowess as a judge. As he proceeds, however, Tillie... (full context)
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Judge Soderberg waves the court officer over to him and whispers about getting the tightrope walker up next. As Tillie is being led out of the room, Soderberg watches her and... (full context)
Book Three, Chapter 10: Centavos
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Of course, Adelita heard about the tightrope walker . She knows that Corrigan spent the night in his van near the courthouse in... (full context)
Book Three, Chapter 11: All Hail and Hallelujah
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...is going to take a shower. He starts unbuttoning his shirt and telling them about the tightrope walker , bragging about the sentence he came up with: he explains that he found the... (full context)
Book Four, Chapter 12: Roaring Seaward, and I Go
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It is 2006 and Jaslyn studies a photograph of the tightrope walker . It was taken, she knows, on the exact same day that her mother, Jazzlyn,... (full context)