Let the Great World Spin


Colum McCann

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Themes and Colors
Political Unrest Theme Icon
Unity & Human Connection Theme Icon
Prejudice & Stereotypes Theme Icon
Simultaneity & Time Theme Icon
Doubt & Faith Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Let the Great World Spin, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Political Unrest Theme Icon

Let the Great World spin tacitly addresses an array of political and cultural issues at play in the United States in the 1970s. When Philippe Petit walked a tightrope strung between New York’s Twin Towers on August 7, 1974, the country was undergoing a particularly turbulent political period. Only two days later, on August 9th, President Richard Nixon would resign from office due to his involvement with the break-in and wiretapping of the Democratic National Convention’s Watergate offices in Washington, D.C. What’s more, American involvement in the Vietnam War had only just ended, the last troops coming home in August of 1973, though the wildly unpopular war didn’t officially end until 1975. As such, the social and political climate was paranoid and agitated—Nixon’s administration had set an example of institutional dishonesty while the messiness of the Vietnam War raged on without America, furthering the idea that the many years and lives spent in the endeavor had all been wasted.

Let the Great World Spin uses Petit’s tightrope walk as a centerpiece, a story that brings together the many lives existing on its peripheries. In this way, the book frames the daring act as something to be witnessed and shared by all, despite the current moment’s political turmoil. Though the walk does not explicitly champion a political viewpoint, there is an implied defiance of authority and dogmatic rules, a striking and refreshing attitude in a political moment in which presidents and other politicians run the country without obeying the laws themselves.

By organizing the stories around Petit’s walk, McCann is able to make use of what the World Trade Center stood for in the public eye of the 1970s. The tallest buildings in the world, the Twin Towers had only been standing for a year when Petit walked between them, and their presence elicited a vast amount of criticism from New Yorkers and architects alike. Minoru Yamasaki, the Towers’ architect, was accused of creating uselessly large buildings that were not only ugly, but also hindering to the city’s day-to-day operation: some worried that they would inhibit television reception, while others complained that the buildings were a physical danger for migrating birds—and perhaps most importantly, the offices that the Towers offered were at the time largely unnecessary, since most businesses that needed office space were not located in Lower Manhattan. Overall, the buildings were very poorly received, a sentiment echoed in the chapter “Miró, Miró, on the Wall” when Claire calls them “monstrosities.”

By the time McCann was writing Let the Great World Spin, though, the Twin Towers had already taken on a deep sense of national significance; in the post-9/11 political climate, the Towers became symbolic of American strength and unity, the two buildings firmly fixed within the country’s historical consciousness. By organizing his characters’ stories around an act of beauty that took place on the Towers, McCann is able to harness this sense of national unity long before the World Trade Center actually stood for such togetherness.

Political unrest in Let the Great World Spin also manifests itself in the presence of violence and war. In fact, war is in the background of many of the book’s stories. For Ciaran, narrator of “All Respects to Heaven, I Like it Here,” the violence of the Northern Ireland Conflict drives him to move to America, a country tangled up in its own war (albeit safely far from the violence). In “A Fear of Love,” Blaine is well-known for his anti-Vietnam films. In “Roaring Seaward, and I Go,” Jaslyn’s sister is stationed in Baghdad, and when she visits Claire’s apartment, a newspaper in the hallway bears news of the Iraq War. In this way, violence, strife, and conflict all serve as a backdrop for ordinary life. Even quiet domestic scenes—perhaps especially quiet domestic scenes—are unable to extricate themselves from the world’s senseless calamities, even if these grand-scale tragedies don’t act as a central focus. Life, it seems, goes on in spite of its turbulent political circumstances.

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Political Unrest ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Political Unrest appears in each chapter of Let the Great World Spin. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Political Unrest Quotes in Let the Great World Spin

Below you will find the important quotes in Let the Great World Spin related to the theme of Political Unrest.
Book 3, Chapter 11 Quotes

My grandmother was a slave. Her mother too. My great-grandfather was a slave who ended up buying himself out from under Missouri. He carried a mind-whip with him just in case he forgot. I know a thing or two about what people want to buy, and how they think they can buy it. I know the marks that got left on women’s ankles. I know the kneeling-down scars you get in the field... I’ve listened to the southern men in their crisp white shirts and ties. I’ve seen the fists pumping in the air. I joined in the songs. I was on the buses where they lifted their little children to snarl in the window. I know the smell of CS gas and it’s not as sweet as some folks say.

If you start forgetting you’re already lost.

Related Characters: Gloria (speaker), Claire Soderberg
Page Number: 299
Explanation and Analysis: