Doubt is a common theme in Let the Great World Spin, whether it is in regards to religion, relationships, or the self. Perhaps the most evident of these is the doubt experienced in relation to the existence of God, as exemplified by Corrigan; he wants a “fully believable God, one you could find in the grime of the everyday.” God, he believes, ought to be doubted because the struggle for belief is divine in and of itself. Other kinds of doubt surface throughout the novel in similar ways. Take, for example, the watchers of Petit’s tightrope walk; what captivates them about the walk is a lack of faith that Petit will be able to safely pull it off. And although Petit himself remains confident throughout his training, the pages that profile him do in fact imply a certain kind of doubt: the harder he trains—the harder he dedicates himself to this crazy stunt—the more the book seems to acknowledge the catastrophic possibilities inherent in the act.
Every character in the novel experiences doubt in some form or another, though the gravity of this doubt varies. Nonetheless, the lives in Let the Great World Spin often take shape in ways that are informed by second-guessing or fear; in some cases a character’s life changes for the better because he or she acts so as to confront his or her own doubt or fear. In other cases, a character is immobilized by strong misgivings that he or she finds himself unable to eradicate. Regardless, doubt is upheld as something that can strongly influence a person’s life.
The fact that the book’s most unifying event—the tightrope walk—has such a large margin for error strangely forges something close to the “fully believable God” that Corrigan yearns for; he believes that there is “no better faith than a wounded faith.” Of course, the walk is not godlike in the literal sense, but it does draw upon belief (much like religion). The fact that the characters doubt Petit’s ability to walk the tightrope unharmed gives rise—by negation—to a faith of sorts. To be sure, when Marcia tells Claire and the other women about seeing the tightrope walker, Gloria asks if the man was like an angel. Eventually Marcia says, “And all I could think of, was, Maybe that's my boy and he's come to say hello.” In this way McCann places his characters into a discourse of faith by way of doubt, even if for some of the characters (like Jaslyn, for example) this is a purely secular kind of faith.
Faith is also involved in the various interpersonal relationships in Let the Great World Spin. The strongest bonds between characters seem to arise out of those relationships in which both parties trust one another. We see this in Corrigan and Adelita’s relationship, in which Adelita must, after Corrigan’s death, allow herself to have faith in the fact that he would have chosen her over his religion if he had lived. Faith is also present in the way Corrigan treats the prostitutes like Jazzlyn and Tillie: he is sure that they—like anybody else—deserve love and good treatment despite their occasional immoral actions. He has faith in them. Thus it seems that even secular kinds of faith can strengthen bonds, enlivening a person’s empathetic faculties.
Doubt & Faith ThemeTracker
Doubt & Faith Quotes in Let the Great World Spin
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.
He still drank with them, but only on special days. Mostly he was sober. He had this idea that the men were really looking for some type of Eden and that when they drank they returned to it, but, on getting there, they weren’t able to stay. He didn’t try to convince them to stop. That wasn’t his way.
We have all heard of these things before. The love letter arriving as the teacup falls. The guitar striking up as the last breath sounds out. I don’t attribute it to God or to sentiment. Perhaps it’s chance. Or perhaps chance is just another way to try to convince ourselves that we are valuable.
Yet the plain fact of the matter is that it happened and there was nothing we could do to stop it…
Joshua liked the Beatles, used to listen to them in his room, you could hear the noise even through the big headphones he loved. Let it be. Silly song, really. You let it be, it returns. There’s the truth. You let it be, it drags you to the ground. You let it be, it crawls up your walls.
It was as if she could travel through the electricity to see him. She could look at any electronic thing—television, radio, Solomon’s shaver—and could find herself there, journeying along the raw voltage. Most of all it was the fridge. She would wake in the middle of the night and wander through the apartment into the kitchen and lean against the freezer. She would open the door…and she could see him, all of a sudden she was in the same room, right beside him…
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.
He let the pieces of the napkin flutter to the floor and said something strange about words being good for saying what things are, but sometimes they don’t function for what things aren’t. He looked away. The neon in the window brightened as the light went down outside.
His hand brushed against mine. That old human flaw of desire.
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.
He said to me once that most of the time people use the word love as just another way to show off they’re hungry. The way he said it went something like: Glorify their appetites.
Then again, I was thinking that I shouldn’t be acting this way, maybe I was getting it all wrong, maybe the truth is that she was just a lonely white woman living up on Park Avenue, lost her boy the exact same way as I lost three of mine, treated me well, didn’t ask for nothing, brought me in her house, kissed me on the cheek, made sure my teacup was full, and she just flat-out made a mistake by running her mouth off, one silly little statement I was allowing to ruin everything. I had liked her when she was fussing all over us, and she didn’t mean harm, maybe she was just nervous. People are good or half good or a quarter good, and it changes it all the time—but even on the best day nobody’s perfect.
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.
We stumble on, thinks Jaslyn, bring a little noise into the silence, find in others the ongoing of ourselves. It is almost enough.
Quietly, Jaslyn perches on the edge of the bed and then extends her feet, moves her legs across slowly so as not to disturb the mattress. She fixes a pillow, leans, picks a hair out of Claire’s mouth…
The world spins. We stumble on. It is enough.