Literature Study GuidesThe Devil In The White CityPrologue Aboard The Olympic 1912 Summary

The Devil in the White City | Study Guide

Erik Larson

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The Devil in the White City | Prologue: Aboard the Olympic (1912) | Summary



When Daniel Burnham is introduced, he is near the end of his life. He is sailing to Europe with his wife, Margaret, on the R.M.S. Olympic while his friend, Frank Millet, sails in the opposite direction. When Burnham tries to send a message to his friend, he learns Millet's ship has been in an accident. Millet is one of the few people left from the original group who, under Burnham's direction, built the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. The World's Fair, which became known as the White City, is never far from Burnham's mind in the years that follow. The fair's builders ran into every conceivable obstacle during its construction, and numerous workers were injured, some gravely. Overshadowing all else, a serial killer used the fair to hunt prey. As time passed, the killer became the devil he claimed to be.


The narrator introduces his first protagonist, Daniel Burnham, in the last months of Burnham's life to emphasize the importance of his crowning achievement, the Chicago World's Fair. Burnham gained fame for many projects, but the Chicago World's Fair was his greatest challenge. Larson is speculating about what Burnham is thinking almost 20 years after the fair, and this is one of many instances in which he takes some liberties with the facts; he is not writing a piece of conventional journalism. The narrator also obliquely mentions the other main protagonist, the devil of the book title, who passed into legend along with the fair. Thus Larson links the two plot threads in Burnham's mind to set up his dual story. He uses the literary technique of flashback to bookend his story with a prologue and epilogue.

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