Let the Great World Spin

Let the Great World Spin

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The Tightrope Walk Symbol Analysis

The Tightrope Walk Symbol Icon

The image of the tightrope walker standing on the wire is indicative of the human ability to find beauty even in the most ordinary things, for the Twin Towers themselves are familiar, common structures. To this end, the walker doesn’t need a reason to explain why he wanted to walk between the towers; “He didn’t like the idea of why. The towers were there. That was good enough.” This is, of course, similar to the way Corrigan approaches religion, wanting a God “you could find in the grime of the everyday.” The image of the walker all the way up in the sky making something extraordinary out of two very ordinary structures resonates throughout the novel, urging readers and characters alike to strive for beauty within even the most banal contexts. For some—like Marcia, who decides to think that the walker is actually her deceased son coming to say hello—the walker takes on a deep personal significance where there would otherwise have been nothing but sadness. For others, he simply represents the baffling yet astonishing outer edge of the human will. Regardless of each character’s individual interpretation, though, the beauty of the walk comes to stand for something larger: unity and connection. The walk brings the lives that run throughout Let the Great World Spin into concert with one another even if they don’t all perfectly link up together. And the tightrope itself—strung between the two towers—symbolizes the book’s interest in exploring connections that are forged despite seemingly insurmountable rifts, whether physical or social.

The Tightrope Walk Quotes in Let the Great World Spin

The Let the Great World Spin quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Tightrope Walk. 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 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.

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 Walk Symbol Timeline in Let the Great World Spin

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Tightrope Walk appears in Let the Great World Spin. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Those Who Saw Him Hushed
Unity & Human Connection Theme Icon
Simultaneity & Time Theme Icon
Doubt & Faith Theme Icon
...between the two buildings. Below, the watchers collectively hold their breath in silence. The man walks onto the wire. (full context)
Book One, Chapter 2: Miró, Miró, on the Wall
Political Unrest Theme Icon
Unity & Human Connection Theme Icon
Simultaneity & Time Theme Icon
Doubt & Faith Theme Icon
...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)
Unity & Human Connection Theme Icon
Simultaneity & Time Theme Icon
Doubt & Faith Theme Icon
...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 is... (full context)
Book One, Chapter 4: Let the Great World Spin Forever Down
Doubt & Faith Theme Icon
The tightrope walker goes to New York City to plan the walk. He sneaks into the World Trade... (full context)
Doubt & Faith Theme Icon
The tightrope walker continues planning for the walk. One day, while examining the perimeter of the buildings, he... (full context)
Doubt & Faith Theme Icon
On the night before the walk, the tightrope walker unravels the wire. It is as long as a city block. This... (full context)
Simultaneity & Time Theme Icon
Doubt & Faith Theme Icon
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
Unity & Human Connection Theme Icon
Simultaneity & Time Theme Icon
Doubt & Faith Theme Icon
...ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, an early precursor to the Internet) about a man walking a tightrope between the Twin Towers. The programmers—The Kid, Compton, Dennis, and Gareth—have placed bets... (full context)
Unity & Human Connection Theme Icon
Simultaneity & Time Theme Icon
Doubt & Faith Theme Icon
...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 is... (full context)
Unity & Human Connection Theme Icon
Simultaneity & Time Theme Icon
Doubt & Faith Theme Icon
...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)
Unity & Human Connection Theme Icon
Simultaneity & Time Theme Icon
Doubt & Faith Theme Icon
...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
Political Unrest Theme Icon
Before the walk, the tightrope walker used to stage smaller acts of performance art. He would go to... (full context)
Doubt & Faith Theme Icon
The tightrope walker’s arrogance is a virtue on the wire. He tunes out everything when he’s on the... (full context)
Unity & Human Connection Theme Icon
Simultaneity & Time Theme Icon
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)
Unity & Human Connection Theme Icon
Doubt & Faith Theme Icon
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
Political Unrest Theme Icon
Unity & Human Connection Theme Icon
Simultaneity & Time Theme Icon
...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 presenting... (full context)
Simultaneity & Time Theme Icon
Judge Soderberg does not witness the walk, which upsets him greatly. He misses it by the smallest margin, noticing people leaning out... (full context)
Book Three, Chapter 10: Centavos
Simultaneity & Time Theme Icon
Doubt & Faith Theme Icon
Of course, Adelita heard about the tightrope walker. She knows that Corrigan spent the night in his van near the courthouse in Lower... (full context)
Book Three, Chapter 11: All Hail and Hallelujah
Prejudice & Stereotypes Theme Icon
...first part of their friendship. Gloria then transitions into describing the morning of the tightrope walk, when she and the other women are at Claire’s apartment. While Claire is in the... (full context)