During the Gilded Age,
Chicago hit a low point; the economy crashed, labor unions formed, and
unemployment soared. The Columbian Exposition of 1893 was meant to be a source
of light for those that could see only hardship, yet this fair brought nothing
but more suffering and death until its opening day. In Erik Larson’s the Devil
in the White City (2003), he uses two seemingly unconnected characters to
create an overall picture of Chicago during this time- one being an architect
that struggles to meet the deadline to open the fair on time and the other
being a serial killer who uses the fair to lure his victims into his hands.
The literary criticism written by the author known only
as Clare sheds light on both the successes and the faults of the nonfiction
novel. Clare applauds Larson’s use of suspense to “make the success of the fair
feel hard-earned” and differing viewpoints to “provide a stark contrast between
the glimmering ideal of The White City and the filthy reality of 1890’s
Chicago”. Throughout the novel, Larson switches back and forth from the
architect’s viewpoint to the murderer’s viewpoint. At times, this can cause
some confusion, but ultimately shows the contrasting perspectives and motives
of each. For how long the fair took to construct, the actual event took place
in a piteously small amount of the book. The rapid passage of time is reflected
in the characters themselves who “began mourning its inevitable passage”
(Larson 289) before the fair had even ended, contributing to the sense that it
had barely happened.
One of the main complaints that is brought up by Clare is
that the two viewpoints of the story never really connect. They state that the
reader could “read each story independent of each other and get the same thing
out of it”. This is true to a certain extent; however, these stories rely on
background information that is more conveniently accessed in the format that
Larson employed. Along with this, it is much easier to understand the purpose
of the book by understanding these characters individually as well as together.
One of the most inconvenient parts in this was the skipping back and forth
between time periods. The progression is not chronological which makes reading
the different viewpoints awkward due to the reader having to keep track of who
is saying what at what time and how that affects the next event.
The Devil in the White City gives unique insight into
what the world looked like in Chicago during the late 1800’s. The two main
characters, although differing in lifestyle and mindset are both connected by
the world’s biggest fair at the time. The novel has faults, just like any
other, but it gives a true telling of these eccentric and macabre events.