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  • Subject area(s): Engineering
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  • Published on: 7th September 2019
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Throughout history, people see many different examples of sin, malice and evil within humans. From wars to martyrs to rebels, humans are seen to be inherently evil. There are clear examples in literature, film, history and much more. People are reprimanded and rebuked by others for their religion, financial status, ethnicity, race, etc. Erik Larson accentuates the inherent nature of evil, malice and immorality that humans have the propensity to have. By recounting the life of America’s first serial killer, Dr. H. H. Holmes, Larson illustrates the immanent evil within human nature. In Erik Larson’s nonfiction book The Devil in the White City, he stresses the manipulation, narcissism, and immoral nature that lies within mankind.

Section II: The Author’s Background

Erik Larson is a very experienced non fiction author from New York. He is best known for his works Hotel Angeline, Thunderstruck, Dead Wake, In the Garden of Beasts and Isaac’s Storm. He is no stranger to writing books based on history and true events. While writing The Devil in the White City, Larson did much research, stating he does all his own research because “why should [he] let anyone else have that fun?” (Larson) He thoroughly enjoys his work and a did lot of research and interviews to prepare for the content and accuracy of this book. The Devil in the White City as well as his other works all include factual information, as well as stating that \"anything that appears in quote is something that came from a historical document” (Larson). This gives him the authority to discuss the World Fair, as well as Dr. H. H. Holmes and the mass murders that took place. He was captivated by the “glories” of the World’s Columbian Exposition as well as how he found it enthralling that “during this period of nearly miraculous creativity there should also exist a serial killer of such appetite and industry” (Larson). He said to have loved researching about the content of this book, and that “doing [his] research was like crashing a very classy Gilded Age party,” as the World’s Columbian Exposition attracted many famous, historical figures from this time period such as Buffalo Bill and Susan B. Anthony (Larson). His bias would come from the fact that he used a serial killer to get his point across. This was a way for him to firmly demonstrate the theme and topic of his book-inherent evil. People don’t feel empathy for a serial killer, and his use of Dr. H. H. Holmes justifies that. His ulterior motive was definitely to show the “unfathomable evil” that Holmes held and how that there is an immoral, malice, inherent nature that lies within every man (Larson). He uses Holmes’ “powerful legacy” built on sorrow and darkness to illustrate this (Larson).

Section III: The Book’s Argument

The Devil in the White City is a historically accurate book that argues there is an immanent evil within everyone. Written in third person, Larson uses syntax and diction, with negative connotation when talking about Holmes and positive connotation when talking about the fair. This book takes place during the Gilded Age, a time period in American history that on the outside to everyone is thriving and flourishing. During this time period, we have big businesses coming into play such as Standard Oil, the Transcontinental Railroad as well as many millionaires making their way in this country like John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, JP Morgan and Henry Ford. But on the inside during the Gilded Age there’s poor working conditions, crime, bad housing environments, no women’s rights, disease, alcohol, corrupt government and many, many more horrible things going on in the inside of this country. People figured it out and exposed the unethical and fraudulent ways in different forms, i.e. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. The fact that this book takes place during this time period is a way for Larson to demonstrate the theme of this book-the inherent human nature on the inside. Because on the outside, Dr. H. H. Holmes was a charming, suave, unsuspecting, respected man. But on the inside he was evil. He used the good on the outside to lure vulnerable women and eventually unleash the evil on the inside. The Gilded Age epitomizes Dr. H. H. Holmes.

In the beginning, we’re introduced to Holmes as this aspiring young doctor with many suitors. But as the book progresses, we see the impact he has on the fair and on the people during this time. Not only does the fair leave the legacy it does with its “murder, magic, and madness,” it leaves behind its legacy as the “Fair That Changed America” (Erik 1, 42). Larson uses this fair as a distraction from the real problem-psychopathic serial killer Dr. H. H. Holmes. Larson’s subtle and clever way of putting these two things that contrast so much-an extravagant, lavish fair that “consumed three times as much electricity as the entire city of Chicago” with visitors who adored the fair that achieved many engineering, art, and construction milestones with the dark and twisted serial killer with with an “unfathomable evil” (Erik 254, 255). By Larson’s irreconcilable use of contrast between these two things, Larson is able to properly highlight the fine line between good and evil. Because the good the fair displays on the outside covers up the evil, sin and malice the fair hides inside-serial killer Dr. H. H. Holmes.

This rhetoric used throughout the book all ties back to the big picture, the overall theme of inherent evil. These subtle ways of rhetoric are able to eloquently demonstrate Larson’s purpose.

Section IV: Opposing Points of View

Throughout history, there are clear examples of good in people. When we think of World War II we think of evil, sin, and the immorality of the time period and what innocent people had to endure. The Nazi’s, Adolf Hitler and Josef Mengele are all some of the first thoughts that come to mind. But the most significant thing is the Jews in concentration camps. World War II was definitely a prime example of the immanent evil within the human race, but out of it there came goodness and bleeding hearts-a notable example being Oskar Schindler. Oskar Schindler was a “righteous gentile” (Oskar). Born into a Catholic family in the Czech Republic, he grew up to run a manufacturing business in Germany during World War II and used the cheapest labor he could find: Jews (Oskar). Most people believed him to start off as “any other usurping German industrialist, driven by profit and unmoved by the means of his profiteering” (Oskar). Eventually, something changed. While many Jews were dragged away to concentration camps where they were beaten, starved, and tortured, Schindler ran his factory on the labor of Jews. Here he tried get as many Jews as he could to work for him. He was good to them. “Everyone in his factory was fed, no-one was beaten, no-one was killed. It became an oasis of humanity in a desert of moral torpor” (Oskar). Schindler’s actions saved over thousands of Jews from death during World War II (Schindler). In 1974, Schindler died penniless and unknown. In 1993, the United States Holocaust museum awarded him the Museum’s Medal of Remembrance, which his wife accepted on his behalf (Schindler). Schindler’s acts illustrate the good on the inside and distracting from the evil and sin on the outside. He juxtaposes  the argument of The Devil in the White City. Oskar Schindler alone is a significant example of the good in this world. That mankind isn’t evil. That there is inherent good in every man.

Mother Teresa was a Catholic nun who spread nothing but love and kindness throughout her life. She helped the poor, the sick, the disabled, instead of reprimanding them as our society does. Mother Teresa “devoted herself to working among the poorest of the poor in the slums of Calcutta” (Mother). In 1950, “Mother Teresa received permission from the Holy See to start her own order, ‘The Missionaries of Charity,’” whose primary goal was to “love and care for those persons nobody was prepared to look after” (Mother). She “aided” and “assisted” instead of hating and chastising the people below us (Mother). These acts themselves are pure and contradict Larson’s main goal and purpose writing The Devil in the White City. Our world is filled with many sinners, evil, and immorality. But Mother Teresa rose above that, and used the inherent good in her to spread love and kindness to others.

Section V: Conclusion

Immanent evil is something that has always been present in the world. Even in the beginning when Eve ate the apple, there are prime examples of inherent evil within. Although there are clear examples of people such as Mother Teresa, who reject the inherent evil present in the nature of humans, without a will strong enough to fight that inherent evil, humans will simply succumb to it. Throughout the novel, The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson, there is a recurring theme of the inherent evil present in humans, demonstrated by the narcissistic, manipulative, and immoral nature that is present in mankind. Reinforced by several occurrences throughout history such as the killings of serial killer Dr. H. H. Holmes and the attempted genocide of the Jews during World War II, the concept of inherent evil existing in human nature has been prevalent for the whole of human history.

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