The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White City


Erik Larson

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Themes and Colors
Sanity and Insanity Theme Icon
Modernity and Anonymity Theme Icon
Men and Women Theme Icon
Ego and Cooperation Theme Icon
Civic Pride and American Patriotism Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Devil in the White City, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.

Sanity and Insanity

The Devil in the White City consists of two main storylines: one about the life of H.H. Holmes, the notorious serial killer, the other about the creation of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. The mere fact that these two stories are being told together encourages us to compare them and compare their characters. When we do so, we notice a few things. First, there is some overlap between the two storylines; for instance…

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Modernity and Anonymity

Early in The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson writes that it is easy to disappear in Chicago in the late 19th century. At the time of the World’s Fair, Chicago is modernizing at a rapid pace: the city limits keep increasing, workers build huge, technologically advanced structures like the Ferris Wheel, and trains connect far-away parts of the city to one another. One important consequence of the rapid modernization in Chicago…

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Men and Women

One of the most important “links” between Holmes’s storyline in The Devil in the White City and Burnham’s storyline is the role of women in the lives of men. While it’s certainly true that Burnham himself has more love and respect for women than does Holmes, they are both products of their time and their culture: a culture that encourages men to be aggressive, and gives women few opportunities to assert themselves.

Larson notes at…

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Ego and Cooperation

The designers of the World’s Fair are enormously successful people even before they complete the exhibition — and they know it. Burnham, Olmsted, Sullivan, Root, Ferris, and their colleagues are proud and more than a little arrogant. They get involved with the Fair in order to ensure that their architectural legacies will survive long after they die. The size and scale of the buildings they design testify to their enormous…

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Civic Pride and American Patriotism

In interviews, Erik Larson has said that the most incomprehensible part of The Devil in the White City for modern readers is why Chicago wanted to host the World’s Fair so badly. One answer to this question is that Chicago wanted to prove itself to New York and other established American cities. In the 21st century, Chicago has a reputation as a great American city, full of rich culture and history, but in the 1890s…

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