The Themes in the Devil in the White City Novel


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One of the most important themes that tie H.H.Holmes’s storyline in The Devil in the White City to Daniel Burnham’s storyline is the role of women in the lives of men. It is certainly true that Burnham has more love and regard for women than Holmes, however, both men are products of this time period, in which society devalued women’s role and encouraged men to be aggressive and give women few opportunities to assert themselves.

During the time setting of this book, the women’s suffrage movement was very significant, thereafter there were a lot of progressive women in big cities such as Chicago. Larson narrates that “A thousand trains a day entered or left Chicago. Many of these trains brought single young women who had never seen a city but now hoped to make one of the biggest and toughest they’re home.”(11). Larson notes at various points in the novel that the head designers of the World’s Fair are all male. Even though there were female architects who designed buildings at the exhibition, they’re paid less and treated less seriously. Burnham’s treatment of women is not out of contempt but based on the atmosphere of the time period. He is true, like most men during this time, a male chauvinist, one who patronizes, or otherwise belittle females in the belief that they are inferior to males and thus deserving of less than equal treatment, so when one of them argues with another organizer of the World’s Fair, Burnham has her sent to an asylum, where she falls into depression.

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The success of the World fair is in part because of men’s willingness to pay money to belittle women, according to Chicago May ‘Rome at its worst had nothing on Chicago during those lurid days'(212). The World Fair encouraged new kinds of immoral behavior, much of it of a sexual nature, directed at women by men. In a sense, the real horror of Chicago is that the city allows Holmes’s brutal murders to occur without any immediate repercussions and the same city and culture that allow tourists to patronize brothels. Holmes crimes and the World Fair similarly objectify and sexualize women. The readers are forced to think about the close connection between voyeurism and crimes directed at women in society. Holmes’s actions are in this sense a product of the World Fair, or at least heavily encouraged by it. Holmes lives in a world where women, many of whom have just moved to Chicago, are naive and vulnerable. After Holmes impregnates Julia, “public pregnancy without marriage meant disgrace and destitution. Holmes possessed Julia now as fully as if she were an antebellum slave”(146), he exercised total control over her due to the overt sexism during this period and the negative stigma on pregnancy out of wedlock at the time.                

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