Cultural and economic divides are felt quite strongly in Let the Great World Spin, and these divisions often bring about an array of prejudices and stereotypes that the characters perpetuate and endure. For instance, characters from drastically different backgrounds are frequently paired with one another, a technique that ultimately emphasizes the rifts between them while simultaneously seeking to explore their prejudices in a more nuanced manner. As such, one of the novel’s primary concerns is to deconstruct the beliefs that wedge themselves between human relationships.
Throughout the novel, characters often use bigotry—relying on prejudices and stereotypes—to justify their own shortcomings and frustrations. Other characters are subsequently forced to bear the brunt of this mistreatment. One way McCann creates this dynamic is by placing the Bronx at the heart of the book. In the 1970s the Bronx had crime and poverty rates that were notably higher than other New York City boroughs. The government housing facilities were deemed especially unsafe. Into this environment McCann places an array of characters from varying backgrounds, thus inviting confrontations and racial or socioeconomic tensions to rise to the surface. For a book interested in the concept of unity, prejudice and stereotyping can be seen as the antagonistic forces that work to drive people apart.
There are several instances in which, despite how desperately a character might want to step outside his or her own prejudices, it proves almost impossible to overcome various deep-seated, widespread paradigms. Claire’s friendship with Gloria, for example, transcends racial and cultural divides, but even this relationship is alive with the racial tensions at large in American society in the 1970s. It is McCann’s clear intention to explore how people might come together without fully freeing themselves of their most strongly held prejudices.
At the same time, McCann is also interested in subverting the stereotypes he establishes. For example, despite the assumption that she is unintelligent, Tillie—a lifelong prostitute, drug user, and petty criminal—quotes 13th century Persian poetry and has an above-average IQ. Even Judge Soderberg—who might be easily characterized as indifferent to the circumstances of those less fortunate than him—has moments in which he displays empathy. It becomes clear that this is a novel that wants to champion the human capacity to contain multitudes; the entire book’s project serves as a testament to the fact that people are never simply who they appear to be at first glance.
Rather complicatedly, though, such subversions of stereotypes sometimes emphasize the moments in which characters fail to show empathy for one another. By revealing a character’s capacity to step outside his or her own perspective, McCann illustrates the fact that all humans—even the most criminally-inclined or hopelessly bigoted—are complex and unique. For example, when Judge Soderberg—who is chiefly concerned with getting through his day quickly and without hassle—sentences Tillie Henderson, he momentarily recognizes her as more than just another criminal to be done away with: “Her face seemed for a second almost beautiful, and then the hooker turned and shuffled and the door was closed behind her, and she vanished into her own namelessness.” In this moment we, as readers, feel Soderberg’s ability to transcend his own institutionalized racism, but then we watch as he immediately reverts back to apathy, letting Tillie disappear “into her own namelessness,” swallowed by the court system. In Let the Great World Spin, even momentary instances of transcending bigotry—that split second in which a character sees somebody as a human rather than as a stereotype—serve as vitally important examples of our capacity to connect with one another despite the greater antagonistic forces working to drive us apart. When this realization is ignored, though, the presence of stereotypes and prejudices are felt even more strongly than before.
Prejudice & Stereotypes ThemeTracker
Prejudice & Stereotypes Quotes in Let the Great World Spin
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.
“It’s like dust. You walk about and don’t see it, don’t notice it, but it’s there and it’s all coming down, covering everything. You’re breathing it in. You touch it. You drink it. You eat it. But it’s so fine you don’t notice it. But you’re covered in it. It’s everywhere. What I mean is, we’re afraid. Just stand still for an instant and there it is, this fear, covering our faces and tongues. If we stopped to take account of it, we’d just fall into despair. But we can’t stop. We’ve got to keep going.”
Maybe she should meet other women, more of her own. But more of her own what? Death, the greatest democracy of them all. The world’s oldest complaint. Happens to us all. Rich and poor. Fat and thin. Fathers and daughters. Mothers and sons. She feels a pang, a return.
A few people were gathered outside the doorway, black women, mostly, in dark mourning clothes that looked as if they didn’t belong to them, as if they’d hired the clothes for the day. Their makeup was the thing that betrayed them, loud and gaudy and one with silver sparkles around her eyes, which looked so tired and worn-down. The cops had said something about hookers: it struck me that maybe the young girl had just been a prostitute. I felt a momentary sigh of gratitude, and then the awareness stopped me cold, the walls pulsed in on me. How cheap was I?
So I got clean. I got myself housing. I gave up the game. Those were good years. All it took to make me happy was finding a nickel in the bottom of my handbag. Things were going so good. It felt like I was standing at a window. I put Jazzlyn in school. I got a job putting stickers on supermarket cans. I came home, went to work, came home again. I stayed away from the stroll. Nothing was going to put me back there. And then one day, out of the blue, I don’t even remember why, I walked down to the Deegan, stuck out my thumb, and looked for a trick.
Oh, but what I shoulda done—I shoulda swallowed a pair of handcuffs when Jazzlyn was in my belly. That’s what I shoulda done. Gave her a heads-up about what was coming her way. Say, Here you is, already arrested, you’re your mother and her mother before her, a long line of mothers stretching way back to Eve, french and nigger and dutch and whatever else came before me.
Oh, God, I shoulda swallowed handcuffs. I shoulda swallowed them whole.
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.
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.