The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White City

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The Devil in the White City Part 3, Chapter 15 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Burnham works hard to attract visitors to the World’s Fair. On July 9, visitors crowd into the Ferris Wheel and Midway’s hot air balloon to avoid the heat. In the afternoon, a storm arrives, and a manager orders the balloon to be grounded. The Ferris Wheel continues to spin. The weather becomes cloudy and windy, and the winds damage various buildings and blow a boa over onto its side.
Larson builds suspense by describing the difficult process of grounding the hot air balloon. The Ferris Wheel, looks unstable and unsafe, but it continues to spin, even as the storm causes damage on buildings and boats — presumably much more stable objects.
Themes
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The Ferris Wheel passengers are terrified by the storm, and close the doors of their cars with great difficulty. Nevertheless, the wheel continues to spin ordinarily, and they feel only a slight vibration from the wind. Meanwhile, the storm tears the hot air balloon into pieces.
Amazingly, the storm doesn’t do any damage to the Ferris Wheel. Ironically, the hot air balloon which is grounded for safety, is destroyed, while the wheel, which isn’t halted or even slowed, is perfectly fine. It truly is a marvel of engineering.
Themes
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The next day, July 10, a fire breaks out at the top of the Cold Storage Building, the same place where a fire had broken out the previous month. This happens because, paradoxically, enormous heat is needed to create cold. The fire department for the World’s Fair arrives quickly, and climbs up in the Tower as the fire loses oxygen, creating an extremely hot area that only needs new oxygen to reignite.
The success of the Ferris Wheel is even more amazing when one considers the damage that occurs in other structures, like the Cold Storage Building. In a sense, disasters like the fire are inevitable at the WF, since the exposition is so enormously complicated. But the fire is also a testament to the negligence of the Fair’s organizers, who should have learned from their own mistakes in the previous month.
Themes
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Ego and Cooperation Theme Icon
Passengers in the Ferris Wheel and visitors eating lunch watch as oxygen rushes into the Cold Storage Tower and triggers an explosion at its base. One firefighter, John Davis, manages to jump from high up in the Tower by catching the fire hose on his way down. The other firefighters realize that they’re going to die, and say goodbye to one another. Some jump to their deaths, while others are burned alive. Three workers and twelve firefighters die in the explosion. But the next day, attendance exceeds 100,000 because visitors want to see the smoldering Cold Storage building.
There’s a disturbing contrast between the horrors of the fire itself — men jumping to their deaths or being burned alive — and the fascination with which the visitors eat their lunch and watch. This contrast is reinforced the next day, when an especially large number of visitors attend the WF, seemingly because they want to see the destroyed building. This is the dark side of the WF: there’s something insensitive and even psychopathic about the way the tourists absorb entertainment, and it again connects such voyeurism with the pleasure that Holmes gets from committing murder..
Themes
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An inquest is held to determine the cause and blame for the fire. Burnham testifies that he didn’t know about the previous fire at the building, and had no authority over its design, since it was a private concession. The jury charges him and several other officials with criminal negligence, and sends him to a grand jury.  Burnham is surprised, and privately calls his charge an outrage. Instead of being arrested prior to his trial, Burnham posts bond. He closes the Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building, afraid that a similar explosion could take place there.
It’s not clear if we should believe that Burnham does the right thing by claiming that he didn’t know about the fire. While he’s telling the truth, the fire occurred on his watch, which makes his surprise when he’s sent to a grand jury for his criminal negligence seem unmerited. Still, Burnham seems cautious and careful for closing down other buildings to avoid a similar accident.
Themes
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On the same day that Burnham is charged with criminal negligence, the directors of the World’s Fair vote to form a Retrenchment Committee to cut costs. The committee’s main target is Burnham’s Department of Works. Burnham and Millet have planned elaborate shows in the coming months, which they think will boost attendance and make the Fair profitable. They know that the new committee will cancel these events — Burnham thinks that this will ruin the World’s Fair.
The chapter ends on a low note — three or four bad things happen to Burnham at the same time. Murphy’s Law says that anything that can go wrong will, and the state of the WF at this point in its history seems to confirm that rule. Nevertheless, Burnham has not given up on the WF. He wants to make the Fair profitable, even if it means spending more money in the short term — for the bank to control the Fair means that the organizers accept that it will lose money, and want to minimize that loss.
Themes
Ego and Cooperation Theme Icon