In “The Search for Marvin Gardens,” John McPhee weaves together accounts of what Atlantic City is like through a running competition of Monopoly the narrator is playing with an unnamed competitor. Throughout the story, McPhee provides highly detailed images of what the streets of Atlantic City contain as well as the history of why the streets were designed the way they were. In the chapter “Visibility: The Creation of Place,” there are a number of statements Tuan makes about places that pertain to McPhee’s descriptions of Atlantic City.
On the very first page of the chapter, Tuan says that “it is not possible to look at a scene in general,” but rather “our eyes keep searching for points of rest” (161). If we think about our experiences looking over scenes or landscapes, this statement makes a lot of sense. Whether it’s the small fisherman on a boat in the middle of a huge body of water, or a massive canyon among a stretch of mountains, we tend to search for things to look at. This reminded me of the beginning of McPhee’s story in which he describes the lighthouse. He informs us that “George Meade… built the lighthouse… to reach up high enough to throw a beam twenty miles over the sea” (McPhee 9). Tuan also explains that “place is whatever stable object catches our attention” (161). By introducing us to the lighthouse, a fixture that serves as a symbol of hope and guidance for many a sailor, McPhee tells us that Atlantic City is more than just a town, it is a “place” despite the “crumbling walls of the buildings” and the “shattered glass,” and that the lighthouse serves as what Tuan described as the resting place for our eyes (McPhee 9).
Another very important point that Tuan makes is that “many places, profoundly significant to particular individuals and groups, have little visual prominence” (162). This is extremely relevant in “The Search for Marvin Gardens” because nearly the entirety of the story is spent describing how drab, run-down, and trashy Atlantic City had become, and yet clearly it was significant to our narrator, perhaps because of his attachment to Monopoly, for he spends his time roaming the broken city in search of the one spot on the Monopoly board that remains hidden from the rest of Atlantic City. We get pages of proof that the city is no longer beautiful, no longer filled with the glory it once held, and yet it remains close to our narrator’s heart, just as Tuan explained often happens.
What’s also significant about Tuan’s chapter that relates well to McPhee’s story is his description of sculptures. Tuan says that “sculptures have the power to create a sense of place by their own physical presence” (162). He continues, saying that “a single inanimate object, useless in itself, can be the focus of a world” (ibid). At the very end of McPhee’s story, the narrator turns to the statue of Charles B. Darrow, creator of the game Monopoly, and asks him the question he’s been trying to answer throughout his entire journey in Atlantic City. For the narrator, a huge weight was represented in this statue. Darrow knew that Marvin Gardens was not located in Atlantic City, and after asking various locals about this secluded area, it seemed as though this statue, this “bronze, impassive” depiction of the man who created the classic game of Monopoly was the only one who could tell him where to look (McPhee 19). The reason was that the game of Monopoly was a whole world for the narrator, and the statue represented this world and hence the hidden location of the only property in the board game that the narrator couldn’t get a hold of.
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