How the Other Half Lives

by

Jacob A. Riis

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The Potter’s Field Symbol Analysis

The Potter’s Field  Symbol Icon

In chronicling the desperation of the city’s poorest residents, Riis also draws attention to the ways this population attempts to maintain a sense of pride and dignity in the face of squalid conditions. One of these ways manifests itself in the desire to have a proper funeral for family members, even or especially if they die as a result of starvation or diseases directly related to poverty. While Riis spends time moralizing about the expense of such funerals for people who cannot afford them, he also recognizes the significance of such rituals—especially given the fact that the lack of a proper burial can be considered a profound dishonor. The common grave or Poor Burying Ground—also known in the book by the ancient characterization of the “potter’s field”—inevitably awaits many of the tenement inhabitants whose lives Riis chronicles. After death, their bodies are dumped in a common grave without an individual tombstone or marker, a process that Riis describes as a fulfillment of the anonymity and lack of social care that defined these people’s identities while they were alive. Death, rather than serving as a final resting place or freedom from life’s difficulties, only confirms the inequalities and injustices embedded within late-nineteenth-century New York society.

The Potter’s Field Quotes in How the Other Half Lives

The How the Other Half Lives quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Potter’s Field . 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:
Housing, Reform, and Improvement  Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Martino Fine Books edition of How the Other Half Lives published in 2015.
Chapter 22 Quotes

There is often tragic interest in the struggles of the ensnared wretches to break away from the meshes spun about them. But the maelstrom has no bowels of mercy; and the would-be fugitives are flung back again and again into the devouring whirlpool of crime and poverty, until the end is reached on the dissecting-table, or in the Potter’s Field.

Related Characters: Dr. Louis L. Seaman (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Potter’s Field
Page Number: 198
Explanation and Analysis:
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The Potter’s Field Symbol Timeline in How the Other Half Lives

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Potter’s Field appears in How the Other Half Lives. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 14
Poverty and Morality  Theme Icon
The Progressive Era and Immigration Theme Icon
...the undignified burial in the common trench of the City Cemetery’s Poor Burying Ground (or Potter’s Field ), “saving space” by being crowded as they were in life.  (full context)
Chapter 16
Poverty and Morality  Theme Icon
The Progressive Era and Immigration Theme Icon
...dead by the time they are picked up, sent ultimately to a trench in the Potter’s Field . Most of these are found in the East Side, left by unmarried mothers. Others... (full context)
Chapter 21
Housing, Reform, and Improvement  Theme Icon
Poverty and Morality  Theme Icon
Corruption   Theme Icon
The Progressive Era and Immigration Theme Icon
...tenth of those who died in the city during that period were buried in the Potter’s Field . These statistics are rigorously researched, but they are almost certainly incomplete. Riis estimates that... (full context)
Chapter 22
Housing, Reform, and Improvement  Theme Icon
Poverty and Morality  Theme Icon
Photography and Visual Language Theme Icon
...sent back to what Riis calls a “whirlpool” of crime and poverty until reaching the Potter’s Field .   (full context)