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‘The Devil in the White City’ by Erik Larson

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  • Pages: 4
  • Word count: 795
  • Category: Chicago

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The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson depicts that wherever there is good, there is evil as well. The note included by Larson, ¨Evils Imminent¨ depicts this: ¨Beneath the gore and smoke and loam, this book is about the evanescence of life, and why some men choose to fill their brief allotment of time engaging the impossible, others in the manufacture of sorrow¨ (pg. xi). Larso shows this conflict of good and evil by comparing the two main characters, Daniel Burnham and Henry H. Holmes.

Burnham is the head architect for the World Fair Exposition in Chicago circa 1893, taking on a daunting challenge. In contrast, Holmes is a sly psychopathic physician, who opens a hobbled together building to serve as a hotel for the fair that is equipped with gas chambers and kilns which are responsible for the deaths of many young women. Erik Larson’s main purpose in The Devil in the White City is to reveal the conflict between good and evil through the comparison of Daniel Burnham, a lofty successful architect, and Henry H. Holmes, a greedy scheming murderer.

Besides the use of Burnham and Holmes, Larson used many plot elements to show the conflict between good and evil. He calls the fair the ¨Ẅhite City¨ Burnham built this image and describes it, ¨The exposition was Chicagos conscience, he declares, the city (Chicago) it wanted to become¨ (Pg. 225). The ¨Black City¨ includes all of Chicago out of Burnhams world fair, including Holmes’ building. This name represents the crime, dirt, and truth of Chicago. Larson explains this, ¨The White City was the perfect city of Daniel Burnham’s dreams, a vision shared by all progress-minded Chicagoans of everything their Black City should and could be¨ (Pg. 210). The image of daylight and darkness helped define the White and Black cities, it was safe to go to the fair at night, but unheard of to roam the streets of Chicago in the dark.

Burnham being tagged by the White City and Holmes marks the Black City, they had many differences. The essential difference between Daniel Burnham and Henry H. Holmes is their drive for success. Burnham wants success at the fair for the greater good of Chicago, to prove they have the ability to host a fair better than Paris. Whereas Holmes’s success is for himself, he never pays for a thing he buys and charms the creditors away. He lures young women into his building so he can have the thrill of killing them later.

Burnhams passion is for the greater good, while Holmes’ is all for himself. Another large difference in the two men is their reaction to death. Burnham mourns the death of his friends heavily, especially his partner John Root. Holmes enjoys the sport of killing and does not mourn any death sincerely. A large difference is shown through their marriages. Burnham stays loyal to his wife Margaret all through the story, while Homes had multiple wives and flirted constantly with other women. Overall, their difference reveals the cold loneliness in Holmes’s heart and the warm compassion in Burnhams.

Despite their moral differences, the men surprisingly have a lot of similarities. They are both ambitious, intelligent, resourceful, and energetic men. They both carry a determination to fulfill their goals. Burnham pushed his workers to meet the deadline of Dedication Day for the fair, and they did. Holmes was determined to build a complex with hidden chambers to aid his killing at a cheap price, and through bad checks of credit and his charm, he did. They both brought light to technological innovation to cheapen life. Burnham displayed the first electric chair at the fair, and Holmes did his killing scientifically in the vault and kiln with many drugs. They were both successful in creating a name for themselves; Burnham for his architecture success and Holmes as a psychopathic murderer, being tried and executed for nine to twenty four murders. Through Burnham and Holmes, Larson shows the ¨ineluctable conflict¨ between good and evil is neverending.

The constant comparison between good and evil in The Devil in the White City shows the reader that the affiliation of evil with good is inevitable. In ¨Evils Imminent¨ Larson divulges that evil is everywhere. Although Holmes a murderer, and Burnham a world renowned architect, both share many qualities and passion in their profession. Their main difference is their reason for their drive, Burnham works for the greater good and Holmes working to fulfill his need to kill. Erik Larsen’s main purpose in The Devil in the White City is to reveal the conflict between good and evil is inevitable through the comparison of Daniel Burnham, a lofty successful architect, and Henry H. Holmes, a greedy scheming murder.

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