The image of the tightrope walker standing on the wire is indicative of the human ability to find beauty even in the most ordinary things, for the Twin Towers themselves are familiar, common structures. To this end, the walker doesn’t need a reason to explain why he wanted to walk between the towers; “He didn’t like the idea of why. The towers were there. That was good enough.” This is, of course, similar to the way Corrigan approaches religion, wanting a God “you could find in the grime of the everyday.” The image of the walker all the way up in the sky making something extraordinary out of two very ordinary structures resonates throughout the novel, urging readers and characters alike to strive for beauty within even the most banal contexts. For some—like Marcia, who decides to think that the walker is actually her deceased son coming to say hello—the walker takes on a deep personal significance where there would otherwise have been nothing but sadness. For others, he simply represents the baffling yet astonishing outer edge of the human will. Regardless of each character’s individual interpretation, though, the beauty of the walk comes to stand for something larger: unity and connection. The walk brings the lives that run throughout Let the Great World Spin into concert with one another even if they don’t all perfectly link up together. And the tightrope itself—strung between the two towers—symbolizes the book’s interest in exploring connections that are forged despite seemingly insurmountable rifts, whether physical or social.
The Tightrope Walk Quotes in Let the Great World Spin
Those who saw him hushed. On Church Street. Liberty. Cortlandt. West Street. Fulton. Vesey. It was a silence that heard itself, awful and beautiful.
It was the dilemma of the watchers: they didn’t want to wait around for nothing at all, some idiot standing on the precipice of the towers, but they didn’t want to miss the moment either, if he slipped, or got arrested, or dove, arms stretched.
All of it like a slam in the chest. So immediate. At all of their coffee mornings, it had always been distant, belonging to another day, the talk, the memory, the recall, the stories, a distant land, but this was now and real, and the worst thing was that they didn’t know the walker’s fate, didn’t know if he had jumped or had fallen or had got down safely, or if he was still up there on his little stroll, or if he was there at all, if it was just a story, or a projection, indeed, or if she had made it all up for effect—they had no idea—maybe the man wanted to kill himself, or maybe the helicopter had a hook around him to catch him if he fell, or maybe there was a clip around the wire to catch him, or maybe maybe maybe there was another maybe, maybe.
So flagrant with his body. Making it cheap. The puppetry of it all. His little Charlie Chaplin walk, coming in like a hack on her morning. How dare he do that with his own body? Throwing his life in everyone’s face? Making her own son’s so cheap? Yes, he has intruded on her coffee morning like a hack on her code. With his hijinks above the city. Coffee and cookies and a man out there walking in the sky, munching away what should have been.
The core reason for it all was beauty. Walking was a divine delight. Everything was rewritten when he was up in the air. New things were possible with the human form. It went beyond equilibrium.
He felt for a moment uncreated. Another kind of awake.
It was like some photograph his body had taken, and the album had been slid out again under his eyes, then yanked away. Sometimes it was the width of the city he saw, the alleyways of light, the harpsichord of the Brooklyn Bridge, the flat gray bowl of smoke over New Jersey, the quick interruption of a pigeon making flight look easy, the taxis below. He never saw himself in any danger or extremity, so he didn’t return to the moment he lay down on the cable or when he hopped, or half ran across from the south to the north tower. Rather it was the ordinary steps that revisited him, the ones done without flash. They were the ones that seemed entirely true, that didn’t flinch in his memory.
His fellow judges and court officers and reporters and even the stenographers were already talking about it as if it were another of those things that just happened in the city. One of those out-of-the-ordinary days that made sense of the slew of ordinary days. New York had a way of doing that. Every now and then the city shook its soul out. It assailed you with an image, or a day, or a crime, or a terror, or a beauty so difficult to wrap your mind around that you had to shake your head in disbelief.
A man high in the air while a plane disappears, it seems, into the edge of the building. One small scrap of history meeting a larger one. As if the walking man were somehow anticipating what would come later. The intrusion of time and history. The collision point of stories. We wait for the explosion but it never occurs. The plane passes, the tightrope walker gets to the end of the wire. Things don’t fall apart.