Let the Great World Spin

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.
Prejudice & Stereotypes Theme Icon

Cultural and economic divides are felt quite strongly in Let the Great World Spin, and these divisions often bring about an array of prejudices and stereotypes that the characters perpetuate and endure. For instance, characters from drastically different backgrounds are frequently paired with one another, a technique that ultimately emphasizes the rifts between them while simultaneously seeking to explore their prejudices in a more nuanced manner. As such, one of the novel’s primary concerns is to deconstruct the beliefs that wedge themselves between human relationships.

Throughout the novel, characters often use bigotry—relying on prejudices and stereotypes—to justify their own shortcomings and frustrations. Other characters are subsequently forced to bear the brunt of this mistreatment. One way McCann creates this dynamic is by placing the Bronx at the heart of the book. In the 1970s the Bronx had crime and poverty rates that were notably higher than other New York City boroughs. The government housing facilities were deemed especially unsafe. Into this environment McCann places an array of characters from varying backgrounds, thus inviting confrontations and racial or socioeconomic tensions to rise to the surface. For a book interested in the concept of unity, prejudice and stereotyping can be seen as the antagonistic forces that work to drive people apart.

There are several instances in which, despite how desperately a character might want to step outside his or her own prejudices, it proves almost impossible to overcome various deep-seated, widespread paradigms. Claire’s friendship with Gloria, for example, transcends racial and cultural divides, but even this relationship is alive with the racial tensions at large in American society in the 1970s. It is McCann’s clear intention to explore how people might come together without fully freeing themselves of their most strongly held prejudices.

At the same time, McCann is also interested in subverting the stereotypes he establishes. For example, despite the assumption that she is unintelligent, Tillie—a lifelong prostitute, drug user, and petty criminal—quotes 13th century Persian poetry and has an above-average IQ. Even Judge Soderberg—who might be easily characterized as indifferent to the circumstances of those less fortunate than him—has moments in which he displays empathy. It becomes clear that this is a novel that wants to champion the human capacity to contain multitudes; the entire book’s project serves as a testament to the fact that people are never simply who they appear to be at first glance.

Rather complicatedly, though, such subversions of stereotypes sometimes emphasize the moments in which characters fail to show empathy for one another. By revealing a character’s capacity to step outside his or her own perspective, McCann illustrates the fact that all humans—even the most criminally-inclined or hopelessly bigoted—are complex and unique. For example, when Judge Soderberg—who is chiefly concerned with getting through his day quickly and without hassle—sentences Tillie Henderson, he momentarily recognizes her as more than just another criminal to be done away with: “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.” In this moment we, as readers, feel Soderberg’s ability to transcend his own institutionalized racism, but then we watch as he immediately reverts back to apathy, letting Tillie disappear “into her own namelessness,” swallowed by the court system. In Let the Great World Spin, even momentary instances of transcending bigotry—that split second in which a character sees somebody as a human rather than as a stereotype—serve as vitally important examples of our capacity to connect with one another despite the greater antagonistic forces working to drive us apart. When this realization is ignored, though, the presence of stereotypes and prejudices are felt even more strongly than before.

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Prejudice & Stereotypes ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Prejudice & Stereotypes 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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Prejudice & Stereotypes 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 Prejudice & Stereotypes.
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.

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“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.

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

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.

Book One, Chapter 3: A Fear of Love Quotes

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.

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.

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.