Let the Great World Spin

Let the Great World Spin

Summary
Analysis
Lara Liveman and her husband Blaine are driving out of New York City on the FDR Drive. Blaine, who is driving, has just lit a joint, and they are both coming down from a night of intense partying in the city. With their antique 1920s-era car, they rear-end a van in front of them, which is sent careening across the lanes.
Unlike the previous two sections, it is immediately clear that Lara and Blaine’s story directly relates to Corrigan’s, since they are plainly the ones who hit his van. We are suddenly forced to hear the other side of this tragic story (which was, notably, only briefly described in the earlier section).
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As cocaine still moves through her bloodstream from the night before, Lara watches the van spin out of control, noting the driver’s bewildered face as the steering wheel spins through his hands. She wonders what he thinks when he looks at her and sees that she is dressed in flapper-era clothes. She then notices bare feet propped on the van’s dashboard—the insteps white and vulnerable—and then the woman’s face to whom they belong; she is in the passenger seat, and her face is young and calm. Lara thinks that this woman’s eyes travel across her own, “as if asking, What are you doing, you tan blond bitch in your billowy blouse and your fancy Cotton Club Car?”
Like Claire, Lara experiences a certain kind of guilt about her status, though in this case it is more directly related to the fact that she done something to harm another person, and she is projecting ideas of racial scorn. Despite this, though, Lara emerges as a generally sympathetic character, for she exhibits the ability to empathize as she studies Corrigan’s petrified face and Jazzlyn’s vulnerable feet—it is clear she understands the tragedy of ending a human life, no matter how it came about.
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The van spins out and hits a newspaper truck, but Lara and Blaine’s car moves steadily forward without harm. Looking over his shoulder for an instant, Blaine presses the accelerator and speeds away until Lara pleads with him to stop. He pulls over on the side of the road, where the two of them step out of the car and survey the crash from afar.
Blaine’s initial gut reaction—to speed away from the accident—is telling, ultimately displaying a fundamental selfishness and lack of empathy. It seems in this moment that Lara and Blaine are perhaps incompatible, for their instinctual values clearly differ greatly.
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Lara has the clear thought that this crash will destroy her relationship with Blaine, perhaps most of all because of the fact that he seems more concerned with the damage done to their car than with the terrible tragedy they have just inflicted upon strangers. Although she feels terrible for what has happened, she looks at Blaine and tells him to get back in the car, saying that they should quickly leave the scene.
Blaine’s priorities are evident when he inspects the car: he is chiefly concerned with that which immediately affects him. And although Lara intuits the impending dissolution of their relationship, in this moment she seems to want to salvage their marriage, acquiescing to his way of thinking (and perhaps her own fear and guilt) by telling him that they should flee the scene.
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At this point we learn that Lara and Blaine have for the past year been living outside the city in a small cabin on a lake. They removed themselves from city life to escape a pattern of drug use and partying that had worn them down over the years. They are both artists and have taken up painting in the style of the 1920s, deciding to live off the grid to focus on their craft while also giving up drugs and alcohol. This trip was their first return to the city, where they hoped to sell some of their paintings. Despite their ambitions, though, nobody was interested in their work, and they ended up spending most of the visit binging on drugs once again.
What becomes most apparent about Lara and Blaine’s lifestyle is that, though they strive to be original and genuine, they ultimately indulge the most superficial aspects of artistic life: drugs, partying, and public image. Their relationship is built, then, on feeble values rather than on deep and creative artistic grounds (as they would like to think it is).
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Upon returning to the cabin, Blaine puts the car in a shed and sweeps the tracks out of the dirt. Then he and Lara sit on the dock and snort the dwindling amount of cocaine left over from their visit to the city. Lara is distraught by what happened on the FDR, but Blaine is adamant that it was not their fault. He urges her to drop the matter, pointing out that she was, after all, the one who told him to flee the scene of the accident. At this remark, Lara slaps him across the face and goes inside. Blaine eventually follows her and finds her facedown on the bed. He lifts back the bed sheets and sprinkles cocaine onto Lara’s back; he snorts it off of her bare skin, and then they have sex.
Already, the accident begins drawing fault lines in Blaine and Lara’s marriage. Still, though, personal histories run deep and often obscure or overcome immediate problems and stressors, something that is surely the case when Lara yet again acquiesces to Blaine as she allows him to have sex with her in a rather objectifying manner, a style of lovemaking that all but ignores her feelings and agency.
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Lara awakes early the next day and steps outside without waking Blaine. She sees that they forgot to take the paintings inside the night before, and now they are sitting propped against the shed, ruined by rain. She does not tell Blaine what has happened, avoiding him throughout the day as he fervently licks the plastic bag for any remnants of cocaine that might be left.
Lara’s reaction to the ruined paintings is somewhat mild, intimating that she is perhaps not so invested in the work. The fact that she doesn’t tell Blaine about the destruction emphasizes the rift growing between them, as well as her reluctance to upset him. This is yet another indication that, much like her feelings about the paintings, Lara isn’t wholly invested in her relationship with Blaine.
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The following morning, Lara walks into town and enters a diner. She feels out of place and senses an energy of sorts coming from the men sitting on stools at the other end of the room. She wonders whether or not Blaine has found the paintings yet and thinks about what he might do when he does. Across the room, a man unfolds his newspaper and Lara sees President Richard Nixon’s face on the front page. The waitress comes to take her order and tells her that Nixon has resigned.
The political climate of the 1970s comes careening into this moment, creating a backdrop of tension that exists in conjunction with Lara’s own disillusionment and regret. In this way, Lara has something in common with the men in the diner, men who are otherwise very different than her. Together they exist as Americans living in a very turbulent political time.
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The thought of Nixon brings something else to Lara’s mind: she remembers a boy she’d been in love with before Blaine. He went to Vietnam and came back in a wheelchair. To her surprise, though, he then campaigned for Nixon in 1968. Lara wonders now what would have happened if she had stayed with him. She remembers that the boy once wrote her a letter after watching one of Blaine’s antiwar art films. The letter said that the film had made him laugh so hard that he fell out of his wheel chair and now he couldn’t get up. It ended with the line, “Fuck you, you heartless bitch, you rolled up my heart and squeezed it dry.
The intense political stratification of the 1960s and ’70s comes to Lara’s mind and reminds us again of the many forces that keep people apart. Lara, it seems, is capable of loving people despite their beliefs, though perhaps this tendency is what gets her into the kind of situation she’s in, one in which her husband devalues her opinions and thinks only of himself.
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Lara finds a newspaper on the floor. It is open to an article about the tightrope walker. She flips through the pages, looking for anything about a car crash on the FDR Drive, but there is nothing of the sort. Still, though, Lara can’t shake the image of the woman in the passenger seat who stared at her as the van skidded toward destruction.
The presence of the tightrope walker in this scene is in keeping with the sense that, despite the difficult thoughts running through Lara’s head, the outside world is busy going on with its own excitements and complications.
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Outside the diner, Blaine pulls up in the car. He joins Lara at her table and tells her that he found the paintings. He’s excited and full of smiles. Lara tells him that Nixon has resigned, but he doesn’t pay much attention to what she says. She apologizes that the paintings got left in the rain, but Blaine says they’re even better now. He says the rain changed the paintings, giving them different endings. Lara is unable to care; “That girl was killed,” she says. They have yet another argument about the accident, with Blaine urging her to forget the entire ordeal. He tells her that they need to focus on the paintings, and that they should document their new artistic process. After arguing some more, they leave the diner.
Yet again, Blaine is uninterested in anything that doesn’t immediately influence him. This time this not only includes Jazzlyn’s and Corrigan’s deaths, but also Nixon’s resignation. Furthermore, the fact that he is so excited about the ruined paintings demonstrates again his superficial approach to art, his tendency to value an idea not for its originality or actual merit, but for its edginess and shock value. This is a disposition that Lara seems to be moving away from as the crash continues to bother her.
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Later—perhaps the next day—Lara drives alone back to the city. She goes to a hospital and asks if there was a man and woman that came in on the previous Wednesday after a car crash. Thinking she’s a relative, a hospital worker gives Lara the left-behind belongings: a pair of black pants, a black shirt, an undershirt, underwear, socks, a religious medal, sneakers, a ticket for illegal parking in Lower Manhattan at 7:44 AM on August 7th, a bag of tobacco, cigarette papers, some money, a lighter, a key ring with the picture of two black girls, and the driver’s license of John A. Corrigan.
For the first time, Lara is acting so as to remedy her misgivings, a seeming liberation from Blaine’s oppressive indifference. In addition, it’s noteworthy that amongst Corrigan’s belongings is a parking ticket from Lower Manhattan, issued around the time that the tightrope walker would have been between the towers; it seems Corrigan may have been present to witness the walk, which was perhaps the “something beautiful” he mentioned before dying.
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Lara learns that the girl she’d seen in the passenger’s seat died before reaching the hospital and that Corrigan died shortly after arriving. Lara drives away from the hospital in tears. Her original reason for coming to the city had been to buy a video camera to document Blaine’s new painting series, but now she finds herself driving toward the Bronx. When she arrives, several police officers—after warning her that she is in a rough neighborhood—direct her to Corrigan’s apartment, where she meets Ciaran and Adelita.
Couched within the police officers’ warning is a racial assumption that Lara—a well-off white woman—has no business visiting the Bronx housing projects. And though Lara must clearly feel out of place, she continues on nonetheless, a clear testament to how much she wants to do whatever she can to right her wrongs.
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Lara lies and says that she works for the hospital and that she is returning Corrigan’s belongings. When she finds out that Ciaran is about to leave for Jazzlyn’s funeral, she asks if she can accompany him. He shrugs, clearly confused, but does not object.
It seems that Lara is willing to overstep what’s considered polite in order to involve herself in the lives of those related to Corrigan and Jazzlyn. Her attention to the situation begins to seem more self-interested than altruistic, however, as if she needs to involve herself for her own peace of mind.
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When she arrives at the cemetery, Lara parks the car out of sight. At the ceremony she stands next to Ciaran while the preacher speaks. Looking through the crowd, she identifies Tillie as Jazzlyn’s mother; she is handcuffed and weeping. Lara also notices a mean-looking man standing at the back of the crowd, and the implication is that he is a pimp. Halfway through the service, Tillie yells at him, saying, “Get the fuck out, Birdhouse.” When he finally leaves, the entire funeral procession cheers.
In this moment, the entire community comes together to condemn Jazzlyn’s pimp, who represents one of the groups who exploits and oppresses young impoverished women in the city. Another source of oppression is present in the form of two police officers guarding Tillie, but they are, of course, not banished. Even in moments of mourning and death there is no escape from the structures of injustice.
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At one point during the funeral, Tillie gets up to speak. She tells a story about how when Jazzlyn was ten she used to collect pictures of castles from magazines. One day, years later, Jazzlyn told Corrigan about her fantasy of living in a castle, and he said that he used to know castles like the ones she admired; he had seen them in Ireland. After that, he would come out every day and bring her coffee and tell her that he was getting her castle ready. This story eventually devolves into sadness as Tillie breaks down, saying that she was a bad mother, that she let Jazzlyn shoot up heroin. She then asks the crowd where her grandchildren are, and they tell her that the girls are being cared for.
Corrigan’s devotion to bettering the lives of others becomes tangible in this moment, as Tillie describes specifically how he improved Jazzlyn’s day-to-day existence. Tillie’s confession that she let Jazzlyn use heroin hints at the difficulty of raising a child while surrounded by crime and drugs, and we are reminded by her mention of Jazzlyn’s children that this sort of thing—the perpetual worry of protecting children in difficult environments—is dangerously cyclical. We are left to wonder who exactly is caring for the grandchildren, an unnerving question altogether.
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Tillie approaches Ciaran and asks him if he remembers what they did together. Then the other women—the other prostitutes in the procession who were close to Corrigan—come to him and hug him. Ciaran reaches into his pocket and produces the key ring with the pictures of Tillie’s grandchildren. He gives it to Tillie and she studies it for a moment before slapping Ciaran across the face. Lara notes that it seems as if he is grateful for this slap. She wonders what kind of complicated situation she has placed herself in the middle of.
What Tillie says to Ciaran serves as a reminder that he is not, in fact, so different than her, and this reminder clearly makes him feel guilty for perhaps acting like he is superior. Perhaps it’s because of this that he is grateful when she slaps him, for it strips any semblance of power from him and puts it in her hands, thereby relieving him of his guilty position.
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When the funeral ends, Lara offers Ciaran a ride home. He accepts, and when he sees the car’s smashed frontend, he knows that it is the car that sent his brother to his death. He asks if she was the one driving, and she says yes, though it is a lie. By this point they are sitting in the car together. He asks why she didn’t stop, and as she thinks of an answer, another car pulls into the lot and starts trying to parallel park behind them, eventually tapping Lara’s car with its back bumper. The driver comes out ready to defend his actions, but Lara waves him away, and he hesitantly rushes off, looking back now and again as he goes.
In the same way that Ciaran feels he deserves Tillie’s slap, Lara seems to feel she deserves Ciaran’s anger, self-destructively showing him the car and saying that she was the driver. By doing so, she invites him to shame her. But the man who accidentally taps Lara’s car while parking reminds Ciaran that accidents happen sometimes, and Lara’s easy dismissal of the man invites Ciaran to assume a similar stance of forgiveness.
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Finally answering Ciaran’s question, Lara says she doesn’t know why she didn’t stop after hitting Corrigan’s van. She tells him that there is no explanation. He thinks this over, then tells her he needs to get away from the cemetery and asks her to drop him off. When she asks him where he wants to be taken, he asks if she wants to get a drink somewhere. It is clear to both of them that there is something very complicated between them. She accepts his invitation, and they go to a bar.
Ciaran seems to have been humbled by his brother’s death and by his experience with Tillie at the funeral. In conjunction with witnessing Lara’s immediate forgiveness of the man parking his car, Ciaran appears too tired and lonely to dismiss Lara as a terrible person, perhaps seeing in her some of Corrigan’s kindness or a capacity for compassion he now aspires to have himself.
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When Lara arrives home later that night, she goes swimming in the lake while Blaine waits for her on the dock. Back in the cabin, he tries to get her to come to bed with him, but she refuses. It seems that his painting experiment is off to a bad start. Lara, on the other hand, is slightly renewed, and as Blaine sleeps, she stays up sketching at the kitchen table. She realizes in that moment that she wants to leave him.
Going to Jazzlyn’s funeral and talking with Ciaran provided Lara with closure, which ultimately allows her to more self-assuredly deflect Blaine’s advances and, more importantly, decide that he is not somebody she wants in her life—she now has the faith in herself required to leave him.
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Lara narrates in greater detail the specifics of her time with Ciaran. They drove to a bar, avoiding the FDR. Ciaran told her about his childhood, about how his mother used to play piano for them. As she drove to the bar, Lara saw a kid spray-painting a bridge, and this made her think of Blaine’s work. At the bar they talked about Corrigan, and at one point Lara confessed that she hadn’t been the one driving the car that killed him. Ciaran leaned across the table, kissed her, and said that he had sensed this all along. When Lara decided to leave, she looked back through the window at Ciaran, who was drinking the remaining two drinks. He looked up and she turned away quickly. The chapter concludes with her assertion: “There is, I think, a fear of love. There is a fear of love.”
With love comes the responsibility of deeply caring for somebody. After seeing how fragile life really is, Lara is hesitant to commit herself to love, for it means investing wholeheartedly in somebody’s life, a life that could end at any moment on, say, the FDR on a fine summer morning.
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