Midnight Express

RORY: How did you get them [bootleg albums] past customs?
LANE: Well, I strapped them to my body like in Midnight Express.

Midnight Express, previously discussed as a film that Lorelai and Rory had seen; apparently Lane watched it with them at least once. In the film, Billy Hayes is caught while trying to smuggle hashish out of Turkey, with the drugs strapped to his body.

That Billy’s plan didn’t work and he was sent to prison doesn’t seem to have deterred Lane. She’s almost certainly joking, as it doesn’t seem to be particularly difficult to get bootleg albums through US customs. It seems to be one of those things that are technically illegal, but rarely enforced.

Erika Hilson Palmer

On her way back from going to the toilet, Lorelai has a poignant moment looking at a display of past valedictorians, and makes a point of gazing longingly at Erika Hilson Palmer, the valedictorian for 1990. This is the year that Lorelai would have graduated from university if she’d gone straight from high school instead of having Rory, and it’s a reminder that Harvard was her dream first, and that she seems to have had high ambitions for herself.

In real life, Harvard University does not have class valedictorians.

The Library

RORY: The biggest library I’ve ever seen.
LORELAI: Uh oh. Brace yourself.
RORY: What?
LORELAI: This is just one of the libraries.
RORY: One of the libraries?
LORELAI: This building is one component of a thirteen million volume collection housed in more than ninety different libraries. It’s the oldest library in the United States and the largest academic library in the world. Breathe, breathe.

Rory and Lorelai are talking about the Widener Library, full name The Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library. Housing 3.5 million volumes, it is the centrepiece of the Harvard College Libraries in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and of the entire Harvard Library system. It honours 1907 Harvard graduate and book collector Harry Widener, who was drowned during the 1912 sinking of the RMS Titanic.

As Lorelai says, the Harvard Library system is the oldest library in the US, having grown from a bequest of 400 books by John Harvard in 1638. It is not only the largest university library in the world, but the largest private library.


[Lorelai is reading accomodation notices on a bulletin board]
STUDENT: You looking for a place to live?
LORELAI: Uhh, maybe.
STUDENT: Well there’s a lot of choices. Something for everybody.
LORELAI: Yeah, yeah. Unless you’re one of those existentialists who can’t really figure out what they want.

Existentialism is a philosophical tradition associated with 19th and 20th century European philosophers, valuing the individual, freedom, and personal authenticity. The existentialist attitude is often seen as one of confusion, disorientation and dread in the face of a meaningless or absurd world. Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, earlier discussed, spoke of the “agony of decision”, hence Lorelai’s comment. She later says she always wanted to use the word existentialist in a sentence.

In real life, students would not be at Harvard University during mid-August, and already in their regular routines of classes and parties. The semester began in late August in 2001, and the first week would have been orientation activities.

Past Graduates of Harvard

LORELAI: Past graduates. Henry James … isn’t that a beer?
RORY: And a novelist. Go on.
LORELAI: John Adams. That’s a beer!
RORY: Our second president. He’s very in right now.
LORELAI: W.E.B. Du Bois, Yo-Yo Ma. Oh cool! Fred Gwynne.
RORY: Who?
LORELAI: Herman Munster. Now I’m impressed.

Henry James (1943-1916), earlier mentioned, was an American-born British author, often considered one of the greatest novelists of all time. He is best known for his novels and stories depicting interactions between Americans, English people, and Continental Europeans, such The Portrait of a Lady, and The Ambassadors. Henry James’ style closely examines the psychology of his characters in an ambiguous or contradictory way. There is no beer named Henry James that I know of. Henry James attended Harvard Law School in 1862, but soon discovered he had no interest in law, and pursued a literary career instead, so he isn’t actually a graduate.

John Adams (1735-1826) was an American statesman and Founding Father of the United States who served as the Vice-President of the US, and as the second President of the US from 1797 to 1801. Adams tended to be a rather obscure president for many years, with many Americans knowing nothing about him, until the publication of his biography John Adams by popular American historian David McCullough in May 2001. It was very favourably received, and brought about a resurgence in Adams’ reputation. Rory seems to be referring to this book by saying Adams “is very in right now”, and has almost certainly read it. There is actually a beer named John Adams. John Adams entered Harvard in 1751, graduating in 1755 with a Bachelor of Arts degree.

William Edward Burghardt “W.E.B.” Du Bois (1868-1963) was an American sociologist, historian, civil rights activist, and writer. He was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909, and was the leader of the Niagara Movement who worked for equal rights for blacks. A prolific author, Du Bois’ 1903 essay collection The Souls of Black Folk was a seminal work in African-American literature, and his 1935 Black Reconstruction in America was his greatest work. The Civil Rights Act, embodying many of the reforms for which Du Bois had campaigned, was enacted the year after his death. W.E.B. Du Bois attended Harvard from 1888 to 1890, where he received his second bachelor’s degree, graduating cum laude.

Yo-Yo Ma (born 1955) is a French-born American cellist. A child prodigy, he has performed as a soloist with orchestras around the world, recorded more than 90 albums, and received 18 Grammy Awards. He has received several prestigious awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. Yo-Yo Ma received his bachelor’s degree from Harvard in 1976, and in 1991 Harvard awarded him an honorary doctorate.

Frederick “Fred” Gwynne (1926-1993) was an American actor, singer, artist, and author, best-known for his roles in 1960s sitcoms such as The Munsters, where he played Herman Munster, who resembled Frankenstein’s monster. He also sang professionally, painted, and was a successful children’s author. Fred Gwynne graduated from Harvard in 1951, and was highly involved in Harvard life, including as a member of the Hasty Pudding Theatricals.


Rory and Lorelai Visit Harvard University

After examining the map, Lorelai surprises Rory by driving her to Harvard University, which is in the city of Cambridge in Massachusetts, part of the Boston metropolitan area. Why Rory didn’t think of it herself is really the big surprise in this scene – surely she knows where Harvard is, and wouldn’t she have been begging her mother to take her there? Apparently not, as they get all the way to the front gates before Rory seems to realise where they are.

Rory wants to get a guide to the university – Harvard offers free one-hour guided group tours of its campus, given by students. Lorelai opts for the self-guided tour: you can navigate yourself around the university with the help of a brochure. Rory already knows the foundation date of Harvard (1636) by heart.

Lorelai reads about important scientific discoveries made at Harvard. The idea for the pacemaker was first originated by John Alexander McWilliam from Aberdeen University in 1889, while the first pacemaker was devised by Mark C. Lidwill from the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and Edgar H. Booth from the University of Sydney in 1926. The brochure is probably talking about Paul Zoll (1911-1999) from Harvard Medical School, one of many who helped develop and refine the pacemaker during the 1940s and ’50s.

The other scientific advances mentioned seem to be referring to Sheldon Glashow (born 1932), a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who is a Professor of Physics at Harvard University. In 1964, in colloboration with James Bjorken, he was the first to propose the existence of the charm quark, which helped to solve a number of problems in quantum field theory. In 1973, in colloboration with Howard Georgi, he proposed the first grand unifed theory, a model in which the interactions of electromagnetism, radioactivity, and nuclear forces are merged into one single force.

Lorelai is disturbed to see that out of 18 000 applicants to Harvard in the previous year, only 2000 were accepted. It’s a piece of news she should already know by now, and comes as a stiff reality check. Possibly for the first time, Lorelai gets an inkling that Rory’s dream of going to Harvard may be out of reach. The odds are even worse now – although Harvard still accept around 2000 students per year, nearly 40 000 applied to graduate in the year of 2022.

The scenes of Harvard were filmed at the University of California, Los Angeles campus in Westwood, which doesn’t resemble Harvard University. The front gates that Rory and Lorelai enter were made for the show.