Let the Great World Spin

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Let the Great World Spin Quotes

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 1: All Respects to Heaven, I Like it Here Quotes

He still drank with them, but only on special days. Mostly he was sober. He had this idea that the men were really looking for some type of Eden and that when they drank they returned to it, but, on getting there, they weren’t able to stay. He didn’t try to convince them to stop. That wasn’t his way.

Related Characters: Ciaran Corrigan (speaker), John Andrew Corrigan (“Corrigan”)
Page Number: 17-8
Explanation and Analysis:

Having been caught drinking by his mother, Corrigan has recently promised to stop getting drunk with the local alcoholics. Despite this promise, though, he is seemingly unable to stay away from the drunks. It is significant that he frames his time with these vagrants in terms of religion. Rather than approaching their addiction as a vice, he believes that these men are tragically searching for happiness—a happiness that might otherwise be accessed through religious practice and an aspiration to regain the divine paradise of Eden. And although Corrigan’s religious outlook is developing quite strongly, he maintains the kindness and patience necessary to allow others to live differently than him, marking him as a gentle and accepting soul.

“It’s like dust. You walk about and don’t see it, don’t notice it, but it’s there and it’s all coming down, covering everything. You’re breathing it in. You touch it. You drink it. You eat it. But it’s so fine you don’t notice it. But you’re covered in it. It’s everywhere. What I mean is, we’re afraid. Just stand still for an instant and there it is, this fear, covering our faces and tongues. If we stopped to take account of it, we’d just fall into despair. But we can’t stop. We’ve got to keep going.”

Related Characters: John Andrew Corrigan (“Corrigan”) (speaker), Ciaran Corrigan, Jazzlyn Henderson
Page Number: 29-30
Explanation and Analysis:

In this moment, Corrigan explains to his brother that Jazzlyn and Tillie and the other prostitutes are not bad people, but rather individuals who have spent their entire lives in dire circumstances that are difficult to overcome. Corrigan outlines the trying aspects of life in the Bronx, ultimately attempting to show his brother that fear is an ever-present aspect of daily life, an inescapable and oppressive force that everybody chooses to deal with differently.

It is notable that Corrigan includes himself in his analysis of fear, tacitly admitting that he too is affected by it; he says that “we can’t stop,” that “we have to keep going.” As such, it is evident that, unlike his brother, Corrigan does not seem himself as so different from the prostitutes, ultimately speaking to a universal human experience rather than maintaining the prejudiced assumption that only the poor or “criminal” undergo such hardships.

We seldom know what we’re hearing when we hear something for the first time, but one thing is certain: we hear it as we will never hear it again. We return to the moment to experience it, I suppose, but we can never really find it, only its memory, the faintest imprint of what it really was, what it meant.

Related Characters: Ciaran Corrigan (speaker), John Andrew Corrigan (“Corrigan”), Adelita
Page Number: 47
Explanation and Analysis:

Ciaran has just learned that Corrigan has fallen in love with Adelita, but he hasn’t yet internalized the information. What he’s hearing from his brother is a confession of sorts, since Corrigan’s religion should keep him from falling in (romantic) love. The significance of this confession is somewhat stunning, and Ciaran reflects on the nature of memory, upholding that certain experiences—especially those that are unexpected and that carry great significance—are often fleeting. A reaction can’t be crystallized and perfectly preserved, because our internal emotional lives are ever-changing and mutable. This is an important observation in a novel that seems to often purposefully evade presenting concrete meanings or interpretations; the idea that we can only really ever find “the faintest imprint” contributes to the novel’s constantly evolving emotional tenor and its approach to time’s mysterious influence on the past.

We have all heard of these things before. The love letter arriving as the teacup falls. The guitar striking up as the last breath sounds out. I don’t attribute it to God or to sentiment. Perhaps it’s chance. Or perhaps chance is just another way to try to convince ourselves that we are valuable.

Yet the plain fact of the matter is that it happened and there was nothing we could do to stop it…

Related Characters: Ciaran Corrigan (speaker), John Andrew Corrigan (“Corrigan”)
Page Number: 68
Explanation and Analysis:

This rumination comes after Ciaran reveals that Corrigan has been in a car crash on the FDR, bringing to the forefront the notion of life’s inscrutable simultaneity and the ways in which we are, as humans, often desperate to find meaning in even the most trivial serendipities. Ciaran, a nonreligious man, is left searching for significance in his brother’s death. Without a god of any sort, though, he is overwhelmed by the tragedy and by the fact that it is possible to pass a pleasant and happy day while something horrific is unknowingly happening to a loved one. When he says rather begrudgingly that the “plain fact of the matter is that” the accident happened, he emphasizes the sad immutability of the situation—so much of life, it seems, is out of our hands, and this is what Ciaran hints at when he says that “perhaps chance is just another way to try to convince ourselves that we are valuable.” Even chance, it seems in this moment, romanticizes the idea that somebody might be able to find meaning in life’s unforgiving cruelty and randomness. Ciaran’s skepticism here indicates his unwillingness to view the world sentimentally and, in a way, religiously.

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

Joshua liked the Beatles, used to listen to them in his room, you could hear the noise even through the big headphones he loved. Let it be. Silly song, really. You let it be, it returns. There’s the truth. You let it be, it drags you to the ground. You let it be, it crawls up your walls.

Related Characters: Claire Soderberg, Joshua Soderberg
Page Number: 81
Explanation and Analysis:

While reminiscing about Joshua, Claire’s mind wanders to how much her son used to like The Beatles. She is able to recall the sound of their song “Let it Be” as it pattered out of his oversized headphones, and this leads her to once again consider her own emotional stability. That she can so vividly conjure such a small detail—the soft presence of her son’s music through his headphones—indicates the extent to which she clings to the memory of Joshua. It also hints at her detail-oriented personality: here is a woman who easily gets caught up in the minutiae of days long since past. Through this brief insight into Claire’s internal world, her nervousness begins to make a bit more sense, and we begin to understand how it might be that somebody could obsess so much over hosting friends for morning coffee. We see that Claire’s concerns are ever-present, her grief over Joshua’s death inescapable and impossible to ignore as it “drags [her] to the ground” and “crawls up [the] walls.”

It was as if she could travel through the electricity to see him. She could look at any electronic thing—television, radio, Solomon’s shaver—and could find herself there, journeying along the raw voltage. Most of all it was the fridge. She would wake in the middle of the night and wander through the apartment into the kitchen and lean against the freezer. She would open the door…and she could see him, all of a sudden she was in the same room, right beside him…

Related Characters: Claire Soderberg, Joshua Soderberg
Page Number: 86
Explanation and Analysis:

As Claire continues to think about Joshua despite herself—for she should be focusing, it seems, on preparing to host her friends—her desperation and loneliness becomes the primary focus. Unable to talk to Solomon about her grief, she seeks out the spirit of her son in the thing that best represents him: electricity. Because he was involved in writing code, she feels his essence in the electrical currents thrumming through the refrigerator. Rather than exploring the conventional ways humans alleviate loneliness, McCann is clearly interested in dwelling in the strange moments that elude reason. Of course it isn’t logical to see the refrigerator as a portal to the afterlife, but neither is grief and neither is desperation. Loneliness is abstract, and so are the ways in which the desperate find solace.

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.

Maybe she should meet other women, more of her own. But more of her own what? Death, the greatest democracy of them all. The world’s oldest complaint. Happens to us all. Rich and poor. Fat and thin. Fathers and daughters. Mothers and sons. She feels a pang, a return.

Related Characters: Claire Soderberg
Page Number: 107
Explanation and Analysis:

In this moment, Claire is a bit hurt by her friends’ behavior, as they have not only neglected to talk about Joshua, but also rudely abandoned her in the kitchen in order to try to see the tightrope walker from the apartment’s rooftop. Offended, she doubts the validity of the group’s bond. As a rich woman, she wonders if she should perhaps find other grieving mothers with money. This is, of course, an elitist sentiment, and we see once again how prejudice and stereotypes can often serve as scapegoats to relieve people of complicated or distressing emotions.

But Claire is more compassionate and levelheaded than that, at least in this moment. She shows a keen understanding of the human condition when she forces herself to consider death as “the greatest democracy of them all.” And she is right: death is the only thing that will happen to every single person, no matter their race or economic standing or cultural background. This is an important thing to remember, especially in a city like New York, where so many people think of themselves as unshakably unique because of small—ultimately inconsequential—characteristics.

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 3: A Fear of Love Quotes

The moment he turned to check the front of the car I recall thinking that we’d never survive it, not so much the crash, or even the death of the young girl—she was so obviously dead, in a bloodied heap on the road—or the man who was slapped against the steering wheel, almost certainly ruined, his chest jammed up against the dashboard, but the fact that Blaine went around to check on the damage that was done to our car, the smashed headlight, the crumpled fender, like our years together, something broken, while behind us we could hear the sirens already on their way, and he let out a little groan of despair, and I knew it was for the car, and our unsold canvases, and what would happen to us shortly, and I said to him: Come on, let’s go, quick, get in, Blaine, quick, get a move on.

Related Characters: Lara Liveman (speaker), John Andrew Corrigan (“Corrigan”), Jazzlyn Henderson, Blaine
Page Number: 118
Explanation and Analysis:

Lara reveals that, immediately after hitting Corrigan’s van, she knew her relationship with Blaine was doomed. Blaine’s concern about the car—“the smashed headlight, the crumpled fender”—is indicative of his obsession with all that is superficial. He is unable empathize with others, unable to look beyond the things that directly affect him. Lara recognizes this after the crash, and it is clear that this is perhaps the first time she is able to articulate to herself that she and Blaine are ill-suited for one another, as they clearly have opposing values. It is strange, then, that she ushers him along by telling him to get back in the car in order to flee the scene of the accident. This ultimately speaks to her own fear and guilt, but also her empathetic capacity, for in this moment she finds herself sympathizing with Blaine’s fear—his “little groan of despair” for “what would happen to [them] shortly”—while simultaneously disagreeing with him.

A few people were gathered outside the doorway, black women, mostly, in dark mourning clothes that looked as if they didn’t belong to them, as if they’d hired the clothes for the day. Their makeup was the thing that betrayed them, loud and gaudy and one with silver sparkles around her eyes, which looked so tired and worn-down. The cops had said something about hookers: it struck me that maybe the young girl had just been a prostitute. I felt a momentary sigh of gratitude, and then the awareness stopped me cold, the walls pulsed in on me. How cheap was I?

Related Characters: Lara Liveman (speaker), Jazzlyn Henderson
Page Number: 141
Explanation and Analysis:

Lara thinks this to herself upon arriving in the Bronx to deliver Corrigan’s belongings. Police officers outside the building had mentioned the presence of prostitutes in the government housing facilities, and Lara finds herself allowing this bit of information to frame her entire perception. This is a prejudiced impulse. Note the use of the word “just” in the sentence, “it struck me that maybe the young girl had just been a prostitute.” Before we even learn that Lara allows herself “a momentary sigh of gratitude” upon having this thought, we discover her implicit bias in her offhanded dismissal of Jazzlyn (as evidenced by “just”); it’s as if she believes she no longer has to feel bad about having played part in Jazzlyn’s death because she—Jazzlyn—was a prostitute. But the fact that she catches herself in this line of thinking, saying that an “awareness stopped [her] cold,” shows us that she is a self-reflexive person constantly working to transcend her own privileged perspective. Again, Lara emerges as an empathetic character even in the wake of her flaws.

He let the pieces of the napkin flutter to the floor and said something strange about words being good for saying what things are, but sometimes they don’t function for what things aren’t. He looked away. The neon in the window brightened as the light went down outside.

His hand brushed against mine. That old human flaw of desire.

Related Characters: Lara Liveman (speaker), Ciaran Corrigan
Page Number: 155
Explanation and Analysis:

Lara narrates what happens at the bar with Ciaran after they leave Jazzlyn’s funeral together. Ciaran’s assertion that sometimes words “don’t function for what things aren’t” is cryptic, but it can at least be understood when applied to the immediate scenario: what Ciaran and Lara can’t seem to find the words for is the strange and somewhat forbidden attraction running between them despite the awful circumstances. It’s significant that he touches her hand after declaring the inefficacy of language, as if establishing a connection through the fraught absence of the right words. This is, of course, also relatable to Corrigan’s approach to religion, the idea that one must fight for a connection with the divine and that sometimes it is this struggle that brings a person closest to God. It can be seen, then, that absence and lack weave themselves throughout the book: the absence of language, the absence of God, the absence of logic, the absence of certainty—these privations are, according to Let the Great World Spin, worth embracing.

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 7: This is the House That Horse Built Quotes

So I got clean. I got myself housing. I gave up the game. Those were good years. All it took to make me happy was finding a nickel in the bottom of my handbag. Things were going so good. It felt like I was standing at a window. I put Jazzlyn in school. I got a job putting stickers on supermarket cans. I came home, went to work, came home again. I stayed away from the stroll. Nothing was going to put me back there. And then one day, out of the blue, I don’t even remember why, I walked down to the Deegan, stuck out my thumb, and looked for a trick.

Related Characters: Tillie Henderson (speaker), Jazzlyn Henderson
Page Number: 216-7
Explanation and Analysis:

After her pimp L.A. Rex broke her arms, Tillie decided to stop working as a prostitute for the first time in her adult life. In this period, she found a simple form of happiness, the kind of almost trivial elation that comes from ordinary delights, like finding a nickel. It’s interesting that she says that “things were going so good,” since she so readily reverted back to her old lifestyle. Despite the fact that she was happy existing outside a life of prostitution, she gravitated back, and this is a sad illustration of the ways in which cycles—both those of an individual and those of society’s hierarchal structures—are difficult to break. Since prostitution was essentially all Tillie ever knew, establishing a completely separate life most likely felt unnatural. Thus, the pull back to her old life enacted itself on her, and we see the extent to which crime engenders and perpetuates itself (an observation later made by Judge Soderberg in a somewhat more callous way).

Oh, but what I shoulda done—I shoulda swallowed a pair of handcuffs when Jazzlyn was in my belly. That’s what I shoulda done. Gave her a heads-up about what was coming her way. Say, Here you is, already arrested, you’re your mother and her mother before her, a long line of mothers stretching way back to Eve, french and nigger and dutch and whatever else came before me.

Oh, God, I shoulda swallowed handcuffs. I shoulda swallowed them whole.

Related Characters: Tillie Henderson (speaker), Jazzlyn Henderson
Page Number: 219
Explanation and Analysis:

In this moment, Tillie considers the ways in which she failed Jazzlyn as a mother by setting a negative example. This thought process again brings to the forefront the idea that crime (or at least imprisonment) is cyclical and even institutionalized, as symbolized by the image of handcuffs as an oppressive mechanism used, in this case, to tell a young black woman that no matter what she does, she will be punished by those more powerful than her. This is a complicated moment in which we see two things at once: Tillie’s scorn for the system of oppression enacting itself on her and her daughter, and her own guilt at playing into this life of crime she is expected to lead.

He said to me once that most of the time people use the word love as just another way to show off they’re hungry. The way he said it went something like: Glorify their appetites.

Related Characters: Tillie Henderson (speaker), Ciaran Corrigan
Page Number: 225
Explanation and Analysis:

This memory arises when Tillie fondly remembers Corrigan. The passage builds upon Corrigan’s already complex ideas about love by suggesting that he frames romance in terms of overindulgence. Love, it seems, is too often used to justify desire. This is, of course, a sentiment that Corrigan would obsess over, especially as he contemplated the validity of his relationship with Adelita. This philosophy—which tries to dismiss earthly, humanly yearnings—sounds like an attempt to talk himself out of his own natural “appetites,” a headstrong effort to ground himself in what he believes rather than what he feels. And it’s worth noting, too, that this idea most likely resonates strongly with Tillie because she has spent her life allowing others to indulge their desires but has perhaps never thought of this in terms of love.

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 Three, Chapter 9: A Part of the Parts Quotes

His fellow judges and court officers and reporters and even the stenographers were already talking about it as if it were another of those things that just happened in the city. One of those out-of-the-ordinary days that made sense of the slew of ordinary days. New York had a way of doing that. Every now and then the city shook its soul out. It assailed you with an image, or a day, or a crime, or a terror, or a beauty so difficult to wrap your mind around that you had to shake your head in disbelief.

Related Characters: Judge Solomon Soderberg
Related Symbols: The Tightrope Walk
Page Number: 248
Explanation and Analysis:

As Judge Soderberg prepares for his day at the courthouse, talk about the tightrope walker swirls around him, prompting him to reflect on some of his theories about New York City life and the way it sometimes presents strange wonders, both beautiful and horrific. For a man so used to hearing the same kinds of court cases over and over, the walk excites him and presents him with a day that, because of its unpredictability, makes “sense of the slew of ordinary days.”

This speaks to the way the walk interacts with the city’s life, which, despite its chaos, falls into a pattern of its own, one that has the power to numb its inhabitants until, finally, it “[shakes] its soul out” and redefines what it means to live in such a place. This is an important thought process, for it shows that Soderberg is aware of the power that monotony—especially in terms of the justice system—can have on him, a dynamic that shows itself when he sentences Tillie and tries (however briefly) to see her not as a criminal caught up in the system, but as a human.

Soderberg glanced at Tillie Henderson as she was escorted out the door to his right. She walked with her head low and yet there was a learned bounce in her gait. As if she were already out and doing the track… Her face looked odd and vulnerable, and yet still held a touch of the sensual. Her eyes were dark. Her eyebrows were plucked thin. There was a shine to her, a glisten. It was as if he were seeing her for the first time: upside down, the way the eye first sees, and then must correct. Something tender and carved about the face… Her face seemed for a second almost beautiful, and then the hooker turned and shuffled and the door was closed behind her, and she vanished into her own namelessness.

Related Characters: Tillie Henderson, Judge Solomon Soderberg
Page Number: 274
Explanation and Analysis:

As Soderberg looks at Tillie after sentencing her, he tries to truly see her as an individual, not as a career criminal. His attempt to do so reveals a sense of compassion within him, despite his otherwise steely approach to serving as a judge. When he really looks at her, he is disarmed by his own sudden acceptance of her humanity; “It was as if he were seeing her for the first time: upside down, the way the eye first sees, and then must correct.” As a judge, it behooves him to avoid recognizing a criminal’s humanity, for he is required to punish that person in some form or another. The word “correct” in the previous quotation is worth paying attention to, for it embodies Soderberg’s attempt to protect himself from feeling compassion for his defendants. In order to more easily do his job, he corrects his view so that he sees a criminal first, a human second.

And just when he sees Tillie’s true form—her humanity—she conveniently “vanishe[s] into her own namelessness,” a namelessness Soderberg relies on in order to avoid the most difficult part of his job: empathizing with somebody who has committed a crime.

Book Three, Chapter 10: Centavos Quotes

I know already that I will return to this day whenever I want to. I can bid it alive. Preserve it. There is a still point where the present, the now, winds around itself, and nothing is tangled. The river is not where it begins or ends, but right in the middle point, anchored by what has happened and what is to arrive. You can close your eyes and there will be a light snow falling in New York, and seconds later you are sunning upon a rock in Zacapa, and seconds later still you are surfing through the Bronx on the strength of your own desire. There is no way to find a word to fit around this feeling. Words resist it. Words give it a pattern it does not own. Words put it in time. They freeze what cannot be stopped.

Related Characters: Adelita (speaker), John Andrew Corrigan (“Corrigan”)
Page Number: 278-9
Explanation and Analysis:

In the wake of Corrigan’s death, Adelita finds herself returning time and again to the memory of the first night he spent at her house. The notion of a nonlinear timeline is very much alive in this passage, as Adelita eschews the notion that what has already happened is fully finished. Rather, she prefers to think of the present and the past as inextricably intertwined, and she places an emphasis on the mind’s ability to freely roam, closing large gaps of time and enormous distances.

Adelita considers the way language interacts with memory, asserting that “they freeze what cannot be stopped.” In order to remember Corrigan linguistically, she would need to think in the past tense, and this gives the memory “a pattern,” a false imposition upon the actual experience. This is, of course, similar to Ciaran’s idea that words so often fail to say what something is not: in this case, Adelita’s experience of that slow morning with Corrigan is not over.

Book Three, Chapter 11: All Hail and Hallelujah Quotes

My grandmother was a slave. Her mother too. My great-grandfather was a slave who ended up buying himself out from under Missouri. He carried a mind-whip with him just in case he forgot. I know a thing or two about what people want to buy, and how they think they can buy it. I know the marks that got left on women’s ankles. I know the kneeling-down scars you get in the field... I’ve listened to the southern men in their crisp white shirts and ties. I’ve seen the fists pumping in the air. I joined in the songs. I was on the buses where they lifted their little children to snarl in the window. I know the smell of CS gas and it’s not as sweet as some folks say.

If you start forgetting you’re already lost.

Related Characters: Gloria (speaker), Claire Soderberg
Page Number: 299
Explanation and Analysis:

This directly follows the moment in which Claire offers Gloria money to stay in the apartment after the other women leave. As Gloria recalls a troubled history of racism that has plagued her and her family for generations, readers are brought into the idea that prejudice and hate is essentially unforgettable and ever-present for those who have experienced it. Gloria carries this history with her, and though racism may be the furthest thing from Claire’s mind, the offensive request recalls that history. Unwittingly or not, Claire plays into a racial paradigm. When Gloria says, “I know a thing or two about what people want to buy, and how they think they can buy it,” she is referencing both the story of her enslaved ancestors and Claire’s reckless and racist assumption that she can buy a black woman’s friendship.

Then again, I was thinking that I shouldn’t be acting this way, maybe I was getting it all wrong, maybe the truth is that she was just a lonely white woman living up on Park Avenue, lost her boy the exact same way as I lost three of mine, treated me well, didn’t ask for nothing, brought me in her house, kissed me on the cheek, made sure my teacup was full, and she just flat-out made a mistake by running her mouth off, one silly little statement I was allowing to ruin everything. I had liked her when she was fussing all over us, and she didn’t mean harm, maybe she was just nervous. People are good or half good or a quarter good, and it changes it all the time—but even on the best day nobody’s perfect.

Related Characters: Gloria (speaker), Claire Soderberg
Page Number: 301
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Gloria doubts whether or not her reaction to Claire’s racist offer to pay her was too strong. By wondering if she was “allowing it to ruin everything” for no good reason, Gloria’s indecision illustrates one of the many tense and unfortunate results of racism: self-doubt. Though it is perhaps true that Claire “just flat-out made a mistake by running her mouth off,” it is also true that Gloria had every right to act the way she did, and it is Claire, not Gloria, who should feel badly.

Of course, Let the Great World Spin is a book interested in the difficult complexities inherent in human relationships, so this moment evolves into a study of forgiveness. Despite the fact Gloria is justified in her anger, she shows enormous magnanimity by giving Claire the benefit of the doubt. Gloria is able, it seems, to empathize with this woman despite the offense she caused; “People are good or half good or a quarter good, and it changes all the time—but even on the best day nobody’s perfect.” Gloria allows for the flexibility of human identity, acknowledging that people are complicated and changing “all the time.” As such, she gives Claire the benefit of the doubt—a deeply empathetic kindness on her part.

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.

We stumble on, thinks Jaslyn, bring a little noise into the silence, find in others the ongoing of ourselves. It is almost enough.

Quietly, Jaslyn perches on the edge of the bed and then extends her feet, moves her legs across slowly so as not to disturb the mattress. She fixes a pillow, leans, picks a hair out of Claire’s mouth…

The world spins. We stumble on. It is enough.

Related Characters: Claire Soderberg, Jaslyn
Page Number: 349
Explanation and Analysis:

As Jaslyn watches Claire sleeping on her deathbed, she feels meaning and significance surround them in the room. In this moment, we witness Jaslyn bridging the novel’s generational gap by interacting tenderly with Claire, who we now know became lifelong friends with Gloria. As such, there is a sense of conclusion, at least in terms of the way time flows throughout the book. And once again, we feel different storylines coming together, even if this is manifested abstractly in the spinning of the world or the idea that each person stumbles through his or her life. Just as Claire maintains that death is “the greatest democracy of them all,” Jaslyn feels that the stumbling nature of humanity—the mistakes we make, the blindness we experience as we move through our lives—is a unifying force, a common struggle shared by everyone as we “find in others the ongoing of ourselves.” Knowing this, it seems, should be enough to keep us going, for it is a faith of sorts—a faith in humanity.

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