Little Fires Everywhere

Little Fires Everywhere Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Celeste Ng's Little Fires Everywhere. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Celeste Ng

Born in Pittsburgh to immigrants from Hong Kong—both scientists, a physicist and a chemist—Celeste Ng was raised in Shaker Heights, Ohio, the town in which Little Fires Everywhere is set. A graduate of Harvard and the prestigious creative writing program at the University of Michigan, Ng has published essays and short fiction widely in literary magazines. Her debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, was released to critical acclaim in 2014; like Little Fires Everywhere, it’s a mystery-driven thriller that deals with the insidiousness of racism and the crumbling of an American family.
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Historical Context of Little Fires Everywhere

Little Fires Everywhere is set in Shaker Heights, Ohio—one of the nation’s first planned communities, envisioned as a utopia by its founders—in the late 1990s. Ng engineered the novel’s timeline to reflect several important historical events. The text unfolds against the backdrop of the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal, the opening of Titanic (the highest-grossing film in history at the time), the nationwide rise of American adoptions of Chinese infants and orphans, and the American unemployment rate’s dip below 5% in the middle of 1997, which was the lowest it had been since 1973 and was indicative of the nation’s moment of financial prosperity. The utopic qualities that the community of Shaker Heights—and, more specifically, the Richardsons—are trying to embody mirror the qualities that the America of the nineties was attempting to reflect.

Other Books Related to Little Fires Everywhere

Little Fires Everywhere follows a single mother and her daughter, Pearl, as they navigate life in a close-knit, highly-regulated, often falsely altruistic community—sound familiar? Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter, penned in 1850 but set in the puritanical Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1640s, also focuses on themes of ostracism, motherhood, order, and anarchy. Hester Prynne, having given birth to an illegitimate daughter named Pearl after an affair with Arthur Dimmesdale, a Boston minister, is punished and shamed for her sins and transgressions. Hester and Pearl, though shunned by their community, are close, and Pearl grows into a precocious child whose unruly actions threaten her removal from her mother’s custody. Ng draws heavily on themes, symbolism, and characterization found in The Scarlet Letter, from choosing the name Pearl—a whole, shining, pure object of luxury and beauty—to delving into the slights and small corruptions found in a rigid American community.
Key Facts about Little Fires Everywhere
  • Full Title: Little Fires Everywhere
  • When Written: 2014-2016
  • Where Written: Cambridge, MA
  • When Published: 2017
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Literary fiction; realism
  • Setting: Shaker Heights, OH, USA
  • Climax: Mia Warren is revealed to have agreed to act as a surrogate in college for a wealthy couple unable to conceive, only to change her mind and run away with the baby, who is now her daughter Pearl. The reason for their transient, on-the-lam-like lifestyle is revealed, as are Mia’s motivations for helping Bebe.
  • Point of View: Third-person omniscient

Extra Credit for Little Fires Everywhere

Baby Jessica. In 1993, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Roberta DeBoer and her husband Jan were forced to return their adopted daughter Jessica, whom they had raised nearly from birth, to her adoptive parents in Iowa. The story featured in the national media, with articles in People and Newsweek detailing both the DeBoer’s fight to keep the child they’d come to love as their own and the joy the Schmidt family—Jessica’s birth parents—felt at welcoming her home after a long legal battle. Ng reverses the outcome of the Baby Jessica case—Bebe Wong is denied custody of her daughter—but complicates the already difficult moral debate by ending the novel with Bebe’s retaliation against the McCullough family, and her triumph over them. Mirabelle, or May Ling, just like Baby Jessica, is the object of tensions, debates, and moral grey areas, though as an infant she has no agency of her own. Ng uses the complicated precedent set in the original case to delve deeper into themes of motherhood, ostracism, assimilation, and altruism.