Shaker Heights, Ohio, the real town in which Little Fires Everywhere takes place, was one of the very first planned communities in the United States. When the plans for its development were created in the early 1900s, they were laid out with a motto in mind: “Most communities just happen; the best are planned.” Planning completely rules the world of Little Fires Everywhere, since order, as Celeste Ng describes it, allows one to “avoid the unseemly, the unpleasant, and the disastrous.” Though Ng’s narration delivers this statement in a tongue-in-cheek manner, many of the characters in Little Fires Everywhere sincerely do believe it, clinging to an ideal of regulation and discipline that ultimately fails them. Over the course of the novel, Ng shows that every person, family, and community must sometimes confront disorder in life, and this fact makes the need for order a liability rather than a strength. The relationship between order and chaos, then, is one of give and take, and the characters who achieve order in every aspect of their lives are no happier than the characters whose lives are in disarray. Additionally, as the novel progresses, characters who seemed to have it all together begin to fall apart, and those who’d started out in shambles make clear progress towards plans, order, and rule-making.
Shaker Heights is a largely affluent community, and the area is governed by rules that attempt to give every aspect of “Shaker,” as the residents call it, the appearance of wealth, security, and order. Trash cans are not permitted to be left at the curb; garages must be built at the back of houses so as not to interrupt the landscape and the pristine look of each street; the grass on any Shaker Heights lawn must be mowed before it reaches six inches in height. Mrs. Richardson is the character who most embodies this micro-managerial commitment to order and regulation. She was born and raised in Shaker, she has been told all her life that there is tremendous value in following rules and sticking to the status quo, and she describes her life as following a pre-determined pattern. Her family, too, is immersed in her rules and values and subject to her attempts at total control. In addition to working to control her own children, Mrs. Richardson attempts control Pearl, Mia, Mia’s parents, her friend Elizabeth (who works at the women’s clinic), and her tenants—current and former—at the rental house she and her husband own. Mrs. Richardson takes great pleasure in controlling who gets to rent the space and how they occupy it, and she loves to check in on her tenants to ensure that they are following the rules of the building and the community. Yet as Mrs. Richardson loses her ability to control the people around her and the circumstances of her life, her children’s lives, and the lives of her friends the McCulloughs, she slips further and further into personal disarray, culminating in a massive fight with Mia—a fight during which Mia accuses Mrs. Richardson of taking out her misery over having spent her life obsessed with plans, order, and regulations on everyone around her. When Izzy runs away at the novel’s end, Mrs. Richardson experiences only the second loss of control she’s ever had—the first being Izzy’s premature birth. Mrs. Richardson finally realizes that her allegiance to order has ultimately failed both her and her children, and left all their lives in disarray. Her plan to search for Izzy “for as long as it takes” to find her, then, is both an attempt to make up for the pain she has caused and, true to her unchangeable nature, a last-ditch attempt to assert her control over an uncontrollable situation and return her life—and her family’s lives—to the normal, orderly way they once were.
Despite having grown up in an orderly community and within a strict family, the Richardson children—inadvertently or deliberately—invite disorder into their lives, embodying a blend of the order with which they grew up and the rule-breaking to which they’re drawn. Lexie, who takes after her mother, is the most orderly of the children; she plans to go to Yale and dreams of marrying her Princeton-bound boyfriend. She subverts the status quo, though, when she accidentally becomes pregnant, suggesting that even an earnest commitment to order does not keep disorder at bay. While Lexie seeks to restore order by getting an abortion, her brother Trip justifies his womanizing through heavily regulating his “bad” behavior. When he and Pearl begin sleeping together, Trip arranges their meetings on a careful schedule to avoid being caught. Though humorous, his allegiance to order—even when breaking the rules—paints order and regulation as psychological defenses, rather than meaningful bulwarks against disorder. While Lexie and Trip try to appear orderly, their sister Izzy openly invites disorder, since she finds the regulations of her family and community to be harmful and hypocritical. Her rebellion ranges from the purely symbolic (refusing to participate in the dance recital) to the outright destructive, when she sets the house on fire after discovering her family’s many slights against Mia and Pearl. This complex mingling of order and disorder is also embodied in the siblings’ daily routine of watching the Jerry Springer Show together. They are fascinated by the disruption of order and authority that they see on the show, which demonstrates that—despite (or perhaps because of) their upbringings—they are attracted to chaos.
While the Richardson children flirt with disorder, the Warren family—whose life has always been chaotic and nomadic—aspires to the orderly life of Shaker Heights. After so many years of living a transient lifestyle, Mia and Pearl—a “struggling artist” and her free-spirited daughter—adjust their behavior to fit in with the Shaker Heights norms in hopes of being accepted into the community. For Pearl, who longs to fit in somewhere, the clear rules and norms of Shaker Heights seem to offer her a roadmap to the life she wants, and through her following of the Richardsons’ “rules” and her adoption of some of their behaviors, she finds herself on what she believes is the road to earning their total acceptance. Mia is more reluctant to embed herself in the community, and into the Richardson family, but it is she who is perhaps the most devastated when her and Pearl’s life in Shaker is disrupted and the two of them are ostracized and expelled by Mrs. Richardson for not following the “rules.” After having taken two jobs in order to support her and her daughter’s lifestyle and assure that they’re seen as a part of the community, Mia is crushed to have it all brought down by Mrs. Richardson—the one person who had most symbolized, to both Mia and her daughter, the possibility of achieving control over one’s circumstances and deriving happiness from order.
Despite the fact that Mia and Pearl largely succeed, for a while at least, in integrating into the community, they maintain their eccentricities and values, which influence the values and behavior of other community members. Mia’s influence is central to Bebe Chow’s decision to fight the McCullough family for custody of her daughter. Bebe’s aggressive and impassioned disruption of the McCulloughs’ adoption process then shakes the general sense of calm in Shaker Heights, forcing the community to confront new questions about transracial adoption, what makes a parent, and whether the community is really as stable and orderly as it seems to be. The media circus that overtakes Shaker Heights at the height of Bebe’s custody battle against the state—and, by proxy, the McCulloughs—disrupts the public’s view of both parties at alternating turns. Mia also influences Izzy Richardson’s decision to burn down the Richardson family’s house. Izzy, who is inspired by Mia’s comfort with disorder and endorsement of pranks, burns down the house after taking Mia’s metaphor about starting her life over like soil after a prairie fire literally.
At the novel’s end, some characters have become casualties of the need for order and found themselves plunged into chaos, such as the McCulloughs and Mrs. Richardson; while others, such as Izzy and Bebe, have cemented their status as disruptors. Others still, such as Lexie, Pearl, and Mia, have found a way to live with the give-and-take nature of order and disruption, and have paved a path for themselves that, while not orderly by Shaker Heights standards, nonetheless makes sense for them and allows them to remain in control of their lives and circumstances.
Order vs. Disruption ThemeTracker
Order vs. Disruption Quotes in Little Fires Everywhere
This was how Moody made a decision he would question for the rest of his life. Until now he had said nothing about Pearl or her mother to his family, guarding their friendship like a dragon guards treasure: silently, greedily. Deep down he had the feeling that somehow it would change everything. If he had kept her to himself, perhaps the future might have been quite different. All he had to offer her, he felt, was what his family had to offer, his family itself, and it was this that led him to say, one afternoon in July, “Come over. You can meet my family.”
“Mom,” [Pearl] began, then found she could not repeat Lexie’s blunt words. Instead she asked the question that ran below all the other questions like a deep underground river. “Was I wanted?”
…Mia said nothing for such a long time that Pearl wasn’t sure if she’d heard. After a long pause, Mia turned around, and to Pearl’s amazement, her mother’s eyes were wet.
“Were you wanted?” Mia said. “Oh, yes. You were wanted. Very, very much.” She walked rapidly out of the room without looking at her daughter again.
“Listen to this dumbass question,” [Lexie] groaned, fishing the application from her bag. “Rewrite a famous story from a different perspective. For example, retell The Wizard of Oz from the point of view of the Wicked Witch.”
“How about a fairy tale,” Moody suggested. “‘Cinderella’ from the point of view of the stepsisters.”
“‘Little Red Riding Hood’ as told by the wolf,” Pearl suggested.
“Or ‘Rumplestiltskin,’” Lexie mused. “That miller’s daughter cheated him. He did all that spinning for her and she said she’d give him her baby and then she reneged. Maybe she’s the villain here. She shouldn’t have agreed to give up her baby in the first place, if she didn’t want to.”
“Well,” Mia put in suddenly. “Maybe she didn’t know what she was giving up. Maybe once she saw the baby she changed her mind. Don’t be too quick to judge.”
“You see now,” Moody said. “What they’re like.”
[Mrs. Richardson] turned her attention to the largest print, which had been stuck up alone over the mantelpiece. It was a photograph of a woman, back to the camera, in mid-dance. The film caught her in blurred motion—arms everywhere, stretched high, to her sides, curved to her waist—a tangle of limbs that, Mrs. Richardson realized with a shock, made her resemble an enormous spider, surrounded by a haze of web. It perturbed and perplexed her, but she could not turn away.
Mia could see there was no point in protesting, that protesting, in fact, would only make things worse and lead to ill will. She had learned that when people were bent on doing something they believed was a good deed, it was usually impossible to dissuade them. Then she imagined herself safely installed in the Richardsons’ kingdom, half obscured in the background, keeping watch over her daughter. Reasserting her presence in her daughter’s life.
“Well?” said Mia. “What are you going to do about it?”
It was not a question Izzy had been asked before. Until now her life had been one of mute, futile fury. What was she going to do about it? The very idea that she could do something stunned her.
She had learned, with Izzy’s birth, how your life could trundle along on its safe little track and then, with no warning, skid spectacularly off course.
“I believe in knowing where your roots lie. That kind of thing shapes your identity so much.”
It was so easy, she thought with some disdain, to find out about people. It was all out there, everything about them. You just had to look. You could figure out anything about a person if you just tried hard enough.
It had been a long time since her daughter had let her be so close. Parents, she thought, learned to survive touching their children less and less. It was like training yourself to live on the smell of an apple alone, when what you really wanted was to devour it, to sink your teeth into it and consume it, seeds, core, and all.
It came, over and over, down to this: What made someone a mother? Was it biology alone, or was it love?
For [Mrs. Richardson] it was simple: Bebe Chow had been a poor mother; Linda McCullough had been a good one. One had followed the rules, and one had not. But the problem with rules, [Mr. Richardson] reflected, was that they implied a right way and a wrong way to do things. When, in fact, most of the time there were simply ways, none of them quite wrong or quite right, and nothing to tell you for sure which side of the line you stood on.
Since the visit to the clinic, Pearl had felt a strange sense of reversal: as if, while she and Lexie slept under the same roof, Lexie had somehow taken her place and she’d taken Lexie’s and they had not quite disentangled.
“Is she going to be okay?”
“She’s going to survive, if that’s what you mean.” Mia stroked Izzy’s hair. It was like Pearl’s, like her own had been as a little girl: the more you tried to smooth it, the more she insisted on springing free. “She’s going to get through this because she has to.”
“I don’t know, honestly. But she will. Sometimes, just when you think everything’s gone, you find a way. Like after a prairie fire. I saw one, years ago. It seems like the end of the world. The earth is scorched and black and everything green is gone. But after the burning the soil is richer, and new things can grow. People are like that, too, you know. They start over. They find a way.”
The police would find Izzy, she told herself. They would find her and she would be able to make amends. She wasn’t sure how, but she was certain she would. And if the police couldn’t find her? Then she would look for Izzy herself. For as long as it took, for forever if need be. Years might pass and they might change, both of them, but she was sure she would still know her own child, just as she would know herself, no matter how long it had been. She was certain of this.