The vivid characterization Erik Larson uses within The Devil in the White City grabs the reader and immerses them into a positive life story and then into what is completely the opposite. In doing so, he shows the reader how easy it is to look at one page of the book as long as it is appealing, and never turn the page to see what is on the other side.
“It was so easy to disappear, so easy to deny knowledge, so very easy in the smoke and din to mask that something dark had taken root. This was Chicago, on the eve of the greatest fair in history” (Larson 12). This quote from the very beginning of the book introduces the theme of good and evil growing as one and foreshadows the two plots all in a single image. It develops the very first impressions of what each character is like. Burnham and Holmes physical appearances and ambition are the most obvious of similarities used to connect the two. In particular, Larson uses Burnham’s and Holmes’s eye color to symbolize greatness and ambition. “He Burnham was sixty-five years old and had become a large man.
His hair had turned gray, his mustache nearly white, but his eyes were as blue as ever, bluer at this instant by proximity to the sea” (Larson 3). “He Holmes walked with confidence and dressed well, conjuring an impression of wealth and achievement … He had dark hair and striking blue eyes, once likened to the eyes of a Mesmerist … ‘They are blue. Great murderers, like great men in other walks of activity, have blue eyes.'” (Larson 35).
Both men described as having blue eyes expands on the theme of how evil interlaces with good and that neither can be easily detected. Another example is seen as the author informs the reader of each characters childhood. “He Holmes drifted through childhood as a small, odd, and exceptionally bright boy …” (Larson 38).
“Born….into a family devoted to Swedenborgian principles of obedience … He Burnham excelled, however, at drawing and sketched constantly.
He was eighteen when his father sent him east to study with private tutors to prepare him for the entrance exams for Harvard and Yale” (Larson 19). Holmes and Burnham are described as exceptional characters throughout their childhood. One being very bright, and the other excelling in his studies, each one was on the path of achieving great things. Although there are many aspects that keep the plots connected, differences in the characters actions lead to totally different life styles.Larson’s use of third person to narrate this book is what made it most effective and unique to the reader.
Laying the facts out for two great historical events in such a manner allows for one to remember it clearly and to continuously be engaged in both the good and evil side. As said by Janet Maslin, in a New York Times article, “Mr. Larson likes to embroider the past that way. So he relentlessly fuses history and entertainment to give this nonfiction book the dramatic effect of a novel ….
Ordinarily these might be alarming tactics, but in the case of this material they do the trick” (Maslin). However, some may think otherwise. In his review of the book, Collin Morris argues that, “…despite a great deal of scholarly resistance, the line of demarcation between academic and popular history (and, indeed, fiction) has become more permeable, allowing for the emergence of a newly reputable, if imprecisely defined, interdisciplinary ground.
Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, a fact-based page-turner with aspirations to significant historical insight, belongs somewhere in this unsettled (and, for many, unsettling) zone” (Morris). David Traxel also touches upon this in his article, in The New York Times, when he explains what he thought of the H.H. Holmes side of the story. “There is much less material available on H. H.
Holmes, and Larson tells that part of the story economically. But he has added his own imaginative touches and sometimes goes farther than the sources warrant, …” (Traxel). The accuracy of the history behind the stories of these two men may be debatable, but that does not make the idea as a whole any less effective.Good and evil exist in everyone’s life, and it is just a matter of choice that determines which way one will go.
We all start out on the same path and our actions are what cause this path to diverge. This book highlights a great event in history while giving one the suspense and thrill that a novel provides. Furthermore, it is one of the few non-fiction books that use the third-person in a comprehensive way. I highly recommend this book because everyone can connect to it as we all have to decide whether to use our ambition and power for good or for evil.