Let the Great World Spin

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Themes and Colors
Political Unrest Theme Icon
Unity & Human Connection Theme Icon
Prejudice & Stereotypes Theme Icon
Simultaneity & Time Theme Icon
Doubt & Faith Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Let the Great World Spin, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Doubt & Faith Theme Icon

Doubt is a common theme in Let the Great World Spin, whether it is in regards to religion, relationships, or the self. Perhaps the most evident of these is the doubt experienced in relation to the existence of God, as exemplified by Corrigan; he wants a “fully believable God, one you could find in the grime of the everyday.” God, he believes, ought to be doubted because the struggle for belief is divine in and of itself. Other kinds of doubt surface throughout the novel in similar ways. Take, for example, the watchers of Petit’s tightrope walk; what captivates them about the walk is a lack of faith that Petit will be able to safely pull it off. And although Petit himself remains confident throughout his training, the pages that profile him do in fact imply a certain kind of doubt: the harder he trains—the harder he dedicates himself to this crazy stunt—the more the book seems to acknowledge the catastrophic possibilities inherent in the act.

Every character in the novel experiences doubt in some form or another, though the gravity of this doubt varies. Nonetheless, the lives in Let the Great World Spin often take shape in ways that are informed by second-guessing or fear; in some cases a character’s life changes for the better because he or she acts so as to confront his or her own doubt or fear. In other cases, a character is immobilized by strong misgivings that he or she finds himself unable to eradicate. Regardless, doubt is upheld as something that can strongly influence a person’s life.

The fact that the book’s most unifying event—the tightrope walk—has such a large margin for error strangely forges something close to the “fully believable God” that Corrigan yearns for; he believes that there is “no better faith than a wounded faith.” Of course, the walk is not godlike in the literal sense, but it does draw upon belief (much like religion). The fact that the characters doubt Petit’s ability to walk the tightrope unharmed gives rise—by negation—to a faith of sorts. To be sure, when Marcia tells Claire and the other women about seeing the tightrope walker, Gloria asks if the man was like an angel. Eventually Marcia says, “And all I could think of, was, Maybe that's my boy and he's come to say hello.” In this way McCann places his characters into a discourse of faith by way of doubt, even if for some of the characters (like Jaslyn, for example) this is a purely secular kind of faith.

Faith is also involved in the various interpersonal relationships in Let the Great World Spin. The strongest bonds between characters seem to arise out of those relationships in which both parties trust one another. We see this in Corrigan and Adelita’s relationship, in which Adelita must, after Corrigan’s death, allow herself to have faith in the fact that he would have chosen her over his religion if he had lived. Faith is also present in the way Corrigan treats the prostitutes like Jazzlyn and Tillie: he is sure that they—like anybody else—deserve love and good treatment despite their occasional immoral actions. He has faith in them. Thus it seems that even secular kinds of faith can strengthen bonds, enlivening a person’s empathetic faculties.

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Doubt & Faith ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Doubt & Faith appears in each Chapter of Let the Great World Spin. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Doubt & Faith Quotes in Let the Great World Spin

Below you will find the important quotes in Let the Great World Spin related to the theme of Doubt & Faith.
Those Who Saw Him Hushed Quotes

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.


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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.

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.

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

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

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 Three, Chapter 11: All Hail and Hallelujah Quotes

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.