The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White City

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Themes and Colors
Sanity and Insanity Theme Icon
Modernity and Anonymity Theme Icon
Men and Women Theme Icon
Ego and Cooperation Theme Icon
Civic Pride and American Patriotism Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Devil in the White City, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Men and Women Theme Icon

One of the most important “links” between Holmes’s storyline in The Devil in the White City and Burnham’s storyline is the role of women in the lives of men. While it’s certainly true that Burnham himself has more love and respect for women than does Holmes, they are both products of their time and their culture: a culture that encourages men to be aggressive, and gives women few opportunities to assert themselves.

Larson notes at several points that the head designers of the World’s Fair are all male. While there are female architects who design buildings at the exhibition, they’re paid less and treated less seriously; indeed, when one of them has an argument with another organizer of the World’s Fair, Burnham has her sent to an asylum, where she falls into depression. The World’s Fair itself is successful in part because men are willing to pay money to disrespect women: they watch women “belly dance” and, according to the owner of a brothel at the time, hire prostitutes almost constantly.

Similarly, Holmes lives in a world where women, many of whom have just moved to Chicago, are weak and vulnerable, and must take jobs where they’re subservient to men. While many of Holmes’s victims stay in his building because they’re attracted to him, others are forced to stay because of their economic need. After Holmes impregnates Julia, for instance, he exerts total control over her due to the sexism and the stigma of pregnancy out of wedlock at the time.

In a sense, the real horror of The Devil in the White City is the city and culture that allows Holmes’s brutal murders to occur without any immediate repercussions — the same city and culture that allow tourists to patronize brothels. There is a frightening similarity between Holmes’s crimes and the World’s Fair’s success. Both involve treating women like mere objects. Rather than dismiss this information as history, readers should think about the close connection between voyeurism and crimes directed at women in their own societies.

Men and Women ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Men and Women appears in each chapter of The Devil in the White City. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Men and Women Quotes in The Devil in the White City

Below you will find the important quotes in The Devil in the White City related to the theme of Men and Women.
Part 1, Chapter 1 Quotes

How easy it was to disappear. A thousand trains a day entered or left Chicago. Many of these trains brought single young women who had never seen a city but now hoped to make one of the biggest and toughest their home.

Page Number: 11
Explanation and Analysis:

In this early quote, Larson establishes the setting of his story: Chicago—and, in a more abstract sense, the contemporary metropolis. In the late 19th century, big cities (cities with tall steel buildings, light-rail systems, etc.) were still something of a novelty in the United States. The vast majority of people in America had never lived in a town of more than a few thousand people. As a result, when people moved from a small town to a big city, they continued to behave as if they were in a smaller, closer-knit community.

The new environment of the American metropolis posed a threat to many people, especially women coming from small towns. Accustomed to being safe and protected, women weren't prepared for the murderers, sexual predators, etc. who inhabited places like Chicago—and from their own anonymity in such a huge, unwelcoming city. One such criminal, Holmes, will be the focal point of the book. 


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Part 1, Chapter 5 Quotes

There were rules about courtship. Although no one set them down on paper, every young woman knew them and knew instantly when they were being broken. Holmes broke them all … it frightened [Myrta], but she found quickly that she liked the heat and the risk.

Related Characters: H. H. Holmes, Myrta Belknap
Page Number: 63
Explanation and Analysis:

Holmes is a seductive man, and as the passage explains, he's seductive because he knows the unwritten rules of courtship in America, and then proceeds to break them. One of the basic rules of courtship between men and women is "no touching." Holmes breaks this rule constantly—but the women he flirts with seem to enjoy it.

One of the reasons that Holmes is such a fascinating figure is that he feels strangely modern to readers. While the other characters in the novel are overly trusting and formal in their behavior (i.e., they're basically 19th century people), Holmes is a 21st century man—at once more immediately understandable to modern readers, and also frighteningly impossible to understand. Holmes's violation of courtship rules is a great example of why he seems modern to us—while everyone else in the novel is caught up in old-fashioned rules, Holmes breaks the rules with ease. Holmes's behavior in the quote further ties him to Chicago itself: like Chicago, Holmes is hot, risky, and dangerous—and yet also completely alluring.

Part 2, Chapter 4 Quotes

Though sexual liaisons were common, society tolerated them only as long as their details remained secret. Packinghouse princes ran off with parlormaids and bank presidents seduced typewriters; when necessary, their attorneys arranged quiet solo voyages to Europe to the surgical suites of discreet but capable doctors. A public pregnancy without marriage meant disgrace and destitution. Holmes possessed Julia now as fully as if she were an antebellum slave, and he reveled in his possession.

Related Characters: H. H. Holmes, Julia Conner
Page Number: 146
Explanation and Analysis:

In the 19th century, having a baby outside of marriage was a truly shocking thing: it would ruin a woman's reputation for life. Women who'd had affairs that didn't end in marriage couldn't find employment, get married to someone else, etc. As the quotation explains, H. H. Holmes has struck up an affair with a young woman named Julia, and gotten her pregnant. Holmes knows full well that he now has complete control over Julia's actions, since he could ruin her life at any time by telling people about the affair or the pregnancy.

The quotation explains a lot about Holmes's psychology. Although Holmes seems to genuinely enjoy killing people, he gets the most pleasure from the sense of power he wields over women: he savors Julia's hopelessness and her desperation. Even more generally, though, the passage criticizes 19th century gender norms. It's important to remember that Holmes's reputation wouldn't be ruined if he were to disclose news of his affair; only Julia's. The gender biases of the era kept women dependent on men's discretion, not the other way around. One could even say that sexism is the real "villain" of this passage (and of the entire book) because it created vast numbers of desperate young victims for Holmes.

Part 3, Chapter 1 Quotes

As a crowd thundered, a man eased up beside a thin, pale woman with a bent neck. In the next instant Jane Addams realized her purse was gone. The great fair had begun.

Related Characters: Jane Addams
Page Number: 239
Explanation and Analysis:

In this amusing scene, Jane Addams, the Nobel Prize-winning community organizer and founder of Hull House, gets her purse stolen by an anonymous onlooker at the World's Fair of 1893. The scene is interesting for a number of reasons. First, note the contrast between Addams's fame and the thief's anonymity: it's precisely this clash between high and low, famous and obscure, that Larson is trying to convey in his account of the Fair (and more particularly through his initial description of Addams herself as just another anonymous woman). More generally, though, the passage suggests that the Chicago World's Fair was an extension of life in Chicago, not an escape from it: i.e., the World's Fair was messy, dirty, unpredictable, and crime-ridden. Finally, the passage foreshadows the murders committed by H. H. Holmes during the time of the Fair: like the pickpocket, Holmes would take advantage of the disorder and anonymity of the Fair, committing crimes that he knew the Chicago police would never get around to solving.

Part 3, Chapter 12 Quotes

Holmes was such a charming man. And now that Anna knew him, she saw that he really was quite handsome. When his marvelous blue eyes caught hers, they seemed to warm her entire body. Minnie had done well indeed.

Related Characters: Minnie R. Williams
Related Symbols: Blue Eyes
Page Number: 292
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Holmes works his seductive magic on Anna Williams, the naive sister of Minnie Williams—the woman whom Holmes has already seduced, with the aim of stealing her inheritance. The passage is written in "indirect discourse"—written in the third person, yet also from the limited perspective of one of the characters (in this case, Anna). By writing the scene indirectly, Larson allows readers to note the contrast between what we know about Holmes (namely, that he's a despicable murderer) and what Anna thinks she knows about Holmes (that he's a handsome, charming man). By this point in the novel, we know that Holmes's blue eyes are fearsome—a symbol of his cold, uncaring nature. Yet they're also attractive and alluring; here, for example, the last sentence clearly shows that Anna is infatuated with Holmes.

Part 3, Chapter 14 Quotes

The panic came, as it always did. Holmes imagined Anna crumpled in a corner. If he chose, he could rush to the door, throw it open, hold her in his arms, and weep with her at the tragedy just barely averted. He could do it at the last minute, in the last few seconds. He could do that.

Related Characters: H. H. Holmes, Anna Williams
Page Number: 295
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, Holmes listens calmly as his latest victim, Anna, suffocates to death. He's locked her in a vacuum-sealed vault downstairs, and can hear her panicking.

Part of what makes the passage so striking (and frightening) is that it shows Anna's death from Holmes's point of view—we're told exactly what Holmes is thinking as Anna dies. Based on this and other similar passages, it's clear that Holmes enjoys murder in part because he enjoys the control he exerts over his victims, and particularly his female victims. There's something unmistakably sexual about Holmes's pleasure here; he seems to enjoy dominating Anna, savoring his own power.

The passages that are narrated from Holmes's perspective (like this one) are the most novelistic in Larson's book. Although he's writing about real historical events, he's often put in a position where he needs to imagine the psychology of real people. Thus, he gives Holmes psychological depth that makes him both more of a literary character and more of believable historical character.