Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1090
The Diverse Manifestations of Societal Inequity
Hotel World's title contextualizes the hotel environment as a vehicle to describe the wider world. The hotel is a microcosm, a representation of society as a whole. Smith uses characters from multiple social classes within the hotel—employees, paying guests, and nonpaying guests—to explore the diverse manifestations of societal inequity.
Sara Wilby is a chambermaid: she represents the lowest social class in the "world" of the titular hotel. She falls to her death when the cables of the hotel's dumbwaiter break, betrayed by something she is supposed to be able to use for her job. Once she is dead, she feels "more here than [she] ever was." Her experience suggests that Sara was a ghost to the hotel even when she was alive, as she performed tasks that its guests took for granted. Through Sara, the novel invites readers to consider how many people exist invisibly within the world of the wealthy.
Lise, who works as a receptionist at the Global Hotel, is very conscious of her distance from the social and economic world of its guests:
. . . when you work in a hotel, whatever it is you do—whether it’s smiling at guests on the front desk or spitting in food in the kitchen, stripping beds of the smells of people or smoking against the rules out on the fire escapes, whatever—presses you hard, with your nose squashed and your face distorted and ugly, right up against the window of other people’s wealth, for which employment you are, usually quite badly, paid.
Lise's bank card and checkbook have been confiscated by her bank, which is treating her like a child in the wake of a single overdraft. Her lack of agency and the attendant financial concerns make Lise painfully aware of her place in the hotel's hierarchy. She fantasizes about entering a rich guest's room to watch the woman sleep and other acts of rebellion against the hotel's corporate policies. However, Lise calls Else's room just to startle her “in a calculated shift of social power," leveraging the hotel's power so she can feel empowered herself.
The higher classes of the hotel are represented by Penny, a journalist and paying guest, whose review will perpetuate the hotel's myth of accessible luxury. Penny is solipsistic and incurious about others, making assumptions rather than asking questions. Penny mistakes the homeless Else for “a minor ex-rock star” and assumes there is a story to be found by following her. When she realizes that Else is homeless, she justifies her unwillingness to help: "If you were poor, you were poor. You couldn't handle money." The speed with which Penny loses interest in Else's story, and her callous attitude toward Else's circumstances, speak to the perpetuation of the societal inequity the novel describes.
The Singularity of Individual Experience
The particular Global Hotel in which the novel is set belongs to a large corporate chain of similar hotels. Coming there to sleep or work, guests expect to find a room like any other, devoid of personality or interest. In that, the hotel is an impersonal place. It speaks to the slow creep towards globalism, the loss of the personal, and the way in which corporations change society for the worse.
Despite its homogenous appeal, Smith's characters have very different experiences of the hotel. Else is "made miserable" by the individual acts of labor that went into making her room pristine. Clare experiences the hotel through its employees, who are universally kind to her. Lise seeks ways to defy hotel policy, but unconsciously straightens her uniform even when the...
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security cameras are off. Penny is bored by the hotel, but then applauds its "unique, individual design" in her review. As she is leaving the world, the ghost of Sara describes the hotel as if it were alive, "breathing the people out and in." This is another way in which the Global Hotel serves as a microcosm: like the world, the objective offerings of the hotel can be interpreted in radically different ways.
The singularity of individual experience is also shown through language. Sara confuses homonyms: her ghost asks her body to describe their fall—presumably the literal fall that killed them—and her body describes falling for a young woman twenty days before their death. Shifting the word's meaning shows readers that there was much in Sara's life that was important to her but may not have been to others—like her potential romance with the girl in the watch shop. Other characters also use idiosyncratic language: Else drops vowels from her speech and Clare's thoughts are linked by ampersands and lack terminal punctuation. These unique methods of expression emphasize the uniqueness of the characters' experiences.
The Transitory Nature of Life
Hotel World explores the speeds at which lives can be changed. Its characters experience these changes in different ways and over different periods of time; some are strongly affected, and others barely notice.
The first and most obvious example of a life changing is Sara Wilby's death. The brevity of the moment between life and death is represented by the break in the middle of the novel's opening "Woohoo":
Woooooooo-hooooooo what a fall . . .
Sara is killed in an instant, so suddenly that her spirit remains to clear up her unfinished business. Clare thinks that the saddest thing about her sister's death is how Sara's intent was irrelevant: “one minute she’d been there right there on the exact same spot where I was and the next she wasn’t.” Her own life has been upended by Sara's death, but even within the depths of her depression Clare finds it “funny not ha ha but peculiar" that "[she] could be there & feel how sad it was then the next minute [she] could be eating this great breakfast & wearing these great Nikes & feeling really the best in ages.” Like her sister's, Clare's life can change its trajectory in a moment.
Other changes are less immediate. It takes an hour and forty-five minutes for Lise's saliva to evaporate from the end of her pen; she becomes ill over a period of six months. This temporal specificity is important: noting how long it takes a pen to dry draws attention to the suddenness of other, more impactful changes. Outside the hotel, reference is made to the changing seasons, but the hotel itself is isolated from that natural progression. Against the neutral backdrop of the Global Hotel, all circumstances appear more transitory, and changes to life appear inevitable.