The Glass Hotel

by Emily St. John Mandel

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The Glass Hotel Themes

The main themes in The Glass Hotel are human fallibility, guilt and complicity, and wealth, greed, and happiness.

  • Human fallibility: The novel considers the many ways in which people fail or falter, as well as the ripple effects thereof.
  • Guilt and complicity: The psychology of guilt is dramatized by the mysterious motif of ghosts, who haunt the guilty consciences of the novel’s characters.
  • Wealth, greed, and happiness: The 2008 financial crisis provides a fitting backdrop for an exploration of the extremes of wealth and poverty.


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Last Updated on February 10, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1166

Human Fallibility

The Glass Hotel examines the varieties of human fallibility, as well as the ways in which people’s failings can cause far-reaching consequences. Paul ruminates on the nature of fallibility early in the novel, asking, “does a person have to be either admirable or awful? Does life have to be so binary?” Indeed, no character emerges as straightforwardly good or bad. Alkaitis is perhaps the closest thing the novel has to a villain, but even he is humanized as he reflects on his losses and the circumstances that led him to make the choices that he did. On the spectrum of admirable to reprehensible, he undoubtedly lives closer to the latter end, but one of the central premises of the novel is that it is useless to evaluate human beings in simplistic terms.

Everyone is susceptible to different failings. Olivia admits to being a vain and dispassionate person in her youth; Paul succumbs to envy and resentment in his relationship with Vincent; and even Vincent gives into both wrath and apathy following her mother’s death. Everyone, knowingly or unknowingly, has wronged other people, but the consequences of those actions are rarely visible until it is too late. Paul attempts to befriend the members of Baltica by giving them leftover drugs, not realizing that his actions will lead directly to the death of Charlie Wu. That this outcome was an accident does not absolve Paul of guilt, but it does emphasize the unforeseen complexity of any given decision.

One of the most intriguing examples of human fallibility comes when Leon Prevant decides not to report on Geoffrey Bell’s history of violence. The decision haunts Prevant and renders him unable to seek out the rewards for his apparent moral lapse. However, the novel does not hold him accountable for this moral failing, as Bell truly did not have anything to do with Vincent’s death. Instead, Prevant must contend with his own sense of guilt, even while readers know that his decision not to file the report was, in an ultimate moral sense, correct. Human lives are unknowably complex and interconnected, and whether a decision is right or wrong is not always clear until it is too late.

Guilt and Complicity

The Glass Hotel explores the psychology of guilt, often by employing a supernatural motif. Ghosts are an intriguing and somewhat mysterious presence throughout the novel, typically coming to haunt those who have done something for which they feel guilty. Paul is haunted by the ghost of Charlie Wu, the Baltica band member whose death he was inadvertently responsible for. Jonathan Alkaitis develops an entire retinue of ghosts while in prison, all of them representing people who were ruined by his Ponzi scheme. Alkaitis in particular seems to struggle with the notion of guilt, at times attempting to place all of the blame for his actions onto himself and at other times feeling as though his punishment is unfair. He is particularly struck by news of Oskar’s testimony, in which Oskar talks about the state of both “knowing and not knowing” something, suggesting that one can be simultaneously guilty and guiltless.

The “office chorus,” Alkaitis’s main employees, all knew of the fraud they were involved in from a technical standpoint, but none of them were necessarily conscious of the human cost of their actions. It is only upon seeing the crowds of angry investors and being burdened with the knowledge of their imminent arrests that they are forced to reckon with the concept of true wrongdoing. Ill deeds have a cost for both the perpetrator and the victim; however, it is often...

(This entire section contains 1166 words.)

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difficult for the perpetrator to recognize that cost until they are directly confronted by it.

Even Enrico, who escaped successfully to Mexico, does not escape the psychological consequences of being involved in Alkaitis’s Ponzi scheme. He comes to believe that he has only delayed the inevitable, and he is unable to enjoy his escape because he knows that he is still a wanted criminal. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Harvey Alexander finds himself feeling unburdened after confessing, and he gleefully serves his time. Even Alkaitis mentions that there is a certain relief in knowing that “the worst has already happened.” The conclusion seems to be that there is both a physical and psychological cost to guilt and that the two do not necessarily go hand in hand.

Wealth, Greed, and Happiness

Jonathan Alkaitis is based loosely on a real figure named Bernard Madoff, who conducted a Ponzi scheme that was discovered around the same time as the 2008 financial crisis. Although many of the other aspects of the novel are fictional, its interrogation of topics surrounding wealth, greed, and economic inequality is grounded firmly in reality.

Leon Prevant’s story in particular illustrates the stark differences between the various socioeconomic levels of society. Alkaitis resides in the “kingdom of money,” in which financial insecurity does not exist and no one has to worry about where their next paycheck will come from. Leon and his wife initially reside in what seems to be the respectable upper-middle class. They have enough money to afford minor luxuries and to invest in funds run by people like Alkaitis but are not themselves denizens of the kingdom of money. However, after the fall of the Ponzi scheme, Leon becomes aware of the “shadow country” in which those with few or no resources come to reside.

When Leon and his wife make the decision to abandon their house, they render themselves effectively homeless. They admit that they are lucky to have their RV and each other, but their misfortunes plunge them into a world where a peaceful retirement does not exist. Similar circumstances befall Olivia and Vincent, both of whom live relatively transient existences in the aftermath of Alkaitis’s collapse. Essentially, the greed of the wealthy can be the ruin of those who dwell in the lesser realms. People like Alkaitis and Lenny Xavier claim that they are doing others favors by bringing them into contact with the kingdom of money, but in many cases, the opposite is true.

Mandel sends a subtle yet complex message about the role that money plays in people’s lives: Too little can make a person desperate and miserable, and too much inspires greed. Instead, happiness seems to be found when it is divorced from money and the accrual of wealth. Walter finds contentment in living alone in the wilderness with enough money to survive and no real need to earn more than that. Vincent claims that she is happiest working on the Neptune Cumberland because she does not have to worry about financial security and has the funds and freedom to travel while on land. Ultimately, the kingdom of money may provide the euphoria of not having to worry about money, but it also has the ability to bring ruin. True contentment seems to reside in the ability to free oneself of thoughts of money entirely.


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