After perfectly matching and lining up the time range of two events occurring at the time of the Chicago’s World Fair, Erik Larson wrote the book The Devil in the White City. The non-fiction book consists of one event “that something magical had occurred in that summer of the World’s Fair” and another which also focused that “darkness too had touched the fair” (5). The events jumped from one event to the other in between the chapters, which allows the readers to travel through time, and eventually, allows the readers to come to a conclusion about the book’s message. A conclusion in which the message says, there is always darkness lurking beneath the light.
Larson conveys this message in such a detailed, yet sly way, that if the reader skipped over a chapter or did not read a certain chapter, the next chapter of the event will confuse the reader, and the reader will be lost in missing some important information that has led to the event.
With that said, the book first starts off with the chapter titled “The Black City” and gives a summary of life in Chicago. “A thousand trains a day entered or left Chicago. Many of these trains brought single young women who had never even seen a city but now hoped to make one of the biggest and toughest their home” (11). Thousands of trains entered and left Chicago, and also brought thousands of people as well. However, what they do not know about the Black City is that “outside their windows, the devil was still capering in a flare of brimstone… anonymous death came early and often… and there was murder” (11-2). The Black City is a dangerous and dark place, but with the construction of the World’s Fair, the White City now makes its entrance, and all the darkness will fade away.
The White City has public bathrooms, pure water, an ambulance service, electric street lights, sewage-processing systems, and even a daycare for children. “[F]irst time Chicagoans could stroll at night in perfect safety… [and] … nightly illuminations… was like getting a sudden vision of Heaven” (254). The White City is Heaven perfect and protects the people from dangers. “As the light was fading away in the sky, millions of lights were suddenly flashed on, all at one time”, and the darkness suddenly fades away again (254).
However, the protection is only temporary, for it only lasted six months. “The White City had drawn men and protected them; the Black City now welcomed them back…” (323). With the fair (White City) now closing, the lurking darkness of the Black City now welcomes Chicago back “on the eve of winter with filth, starvation, and violence” (323). The darkness of the Black City is on the rise again with the White City coming to an end.
Yet, not only does the Black City and White City shows that there is darkness underneath the light, there is also a person from the book who emits light on the outside but inside, “born with the devil in [him]” (109).
Holmes, a “young handsome doctor” (12), who is “twenty-six years old… five feet, eight inches… 155 pounds… and had dark hair and striking blue eyes”, have every glance of young women falling on him as he walks with confidence wherever he goes (35). He breaks prevailing rules of casual intimacy, and women adores him for it. He exudes warmth through his smiles, and shows obvious affections for anyone he loves or cares about. He is just the perfect man any woman could possibly wish for.
However, “wherever he went, troubling things seemed to occur” (42). Police are getting a handful of reports of mysterious disappearance, and “women and men vanished in equal proportion” (102). There are mysterious disappearances, but who would think that an affectionate and caring doctor such as Holmes, could hurt anyone, much less kill someone. However, to kill or not to kill, “the choice was his, a measure of his power” (257). After all, “[he] could not help the fact that [he] was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing” (109). Therefore, underneath that charming and mesmerizing gaze of Holmes, is a darkness of evil which only craves for blood and murder, “growing to resemble the devil” (385). Eventually, at one point, “he described himself as the Devil and contended that his physical shape had begun to alter” (6).
So The Devil in the White City is a non-fiction book which enables the readers to move through time and envision the “single, magical event” that linked two events together, and letting the readers know that there is always some kind of darkness hiding underneath the light (xi). Even Erik Larson said, “In the end it is a story of the ineluctable conflict between good and evil, daylight and darkness, the White City and the Black City” (xi). Therefore the message that Larson is trying to convey is that light cannot escape darkness, and darkness cannot escape light. If there is light, then there is darkness, and vice-versa. Thus the readers can see the dark and light side of the Black City and White City, and the glamorous and devilish side of H. H. Holmes.
Larson, Erik. The Devil in the White City.Vintage, 2004