73 pages 2 hours read

Caleb Carr

The Alienist

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1994

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Symbols & Motifs

Tenement

Content Warning: This section includes references to graphic descriptions of violence against children and the commercial sexual exploitation of children. Furthermore, because the novel is set in 1896, it includes dialogue that reflects the language of that era.

The children murdered and mutilated by John Beecham all came from immigrant families forced to endure life in New York City’s notorious tenements. In the late 19th century, these tenement buildings and neighborhoods presented appalling scenes of squalor and degradation. The tenement, therefore, symbolizes the Exploitation of Children. At the site of the Santorelli murder, for instance, Moore describes “the ghoulish remains” of a boy who “had once been, apparently, another of the many desperately troubled young people who every season were spat up by the dark, miserable, tenement ocean that stretched away from us to the west” (19).

The tenements symbolize life’s brutality even for children who have not yet become commercially sexually exploited or murder victims. When visiting the Santorellis’ tenement building, Moore and Sara stumble through a dark hallway and discover a crying baby lying on the floor, covered in its own feces, neglected by its alcohol- and drug-addicted parents. In Five Points, worst of all tenement neighborhoods on the city’s Lower East Side, Moore observes that the residents “simply sat with their heads in their hands, the youngest of them looking as worldly and tired as the oldest” (424).

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