The Accident, a novella of little more than one hundred pages, is a psychological, philosophical, and spiritual journey. The narrator of the story, Eliezer, is a young journalist who has been spiritually immobilized by the Holocaust, in which he lost his family and of which he is a survivor. The narrative opens as Eliezer and Kathleen, his sweetheart, who loves him profoundly but to whom he is unable to make a commitment, are going to see the film version of The Brothers Karamazov in New York City. Hot, tired, bored, and lifeless, Eliezer lags behind Kathleen in crossing a street and is struck and dragged several yards by a taxicab. Suffering severe injuries, he is taken to a hospital, where, after three days, he undergoes surgery. The young doctor who attends him, Paul Russel, takes a special interest in him, showing a curiosity that makes Eliezer suspect that the doctor knows something about him. The reader discovers that Eliezer was subconsciously a willing victim of his nearly fatal accident.
Dr. Russel’s mention of Kathleen causes Eliezer to recall meeting her for the first time in Paris, some five or six years earlier. At that time, as now, he had come to the end of his hope and strength because of the oppressive memories of his experiences during the Holocaust. For years he has suffered from what is called “survivor guilt,” just as, when a young boy, he felt guilty for being happier than a less fortunate orphan boy. Throughout the narrative, as it moves back and forth between present and past, Eliezer returns to thoughts of his grandmother and the rest of his family, all of whom were executed by the Nazis. He thinks of himself as being dead with them and the other six million people destroyed by the Holocaust. Kathleen attempts to alleviate his guilt and suffering by suffering herself; still, she is never able to penetrate the wall that Eliezer has put up around himself.
During his recovery from the accident, Eliezer wonders whether Kathleen knows the cause underlying it and that he allowed himself to be hurt because he did not care enough to get out of the way. Dr. Russel, who has just felt the joy of saving a young boy’s life, asks Eliezer one day why his patient does not care about living. Eliezer evades the doctor’s angry questioning, but the reader is apprised of the answer: Those who have survived the Holocaust are no longer normal human beings; a spring has snapped inside them from the shock, and the results must appear sooner or later. Eliezer does not want the doctor to understand and thus lose his equilibrium. By abstractions and grandiloquence and evasions akin to lying, Eliezer persuades the doctor to believe that he does love life, proving it by his love for Kathleen.
Eliezer’s relationship with Kathleen provides one of the main transitional devices in the narrative. For example, Kathleen asks him who Sarah is, since Eliezer, she says, had spoken her name during a coma. Sarah, he tells her, was his mother’s name. It was also, however, as a flashback reveals, the name of a prostitute whom Eliezer had met in Paris long before he came to know Kathleen. That Sarah was twelve years old when she was sent to a special barracks for the pleasure of the Nazi officers at a concentration camp. Eliezer considers Sarah to be a saint, like his mother. Kathleen’s slight resemblance to his mother turns Eliezer’s thoughts back to the time of Kathleen’s emotional struggle when they became lovers again after a separation of five years. The past—and all that it meant to Eliezer—stood between them; thus, Kathleen extracted a promise from him that he would allow her to help him in his fight against memories of the train station from which his mother and father and little sister were taken to their deaths.
The last chapter of the book introduces Gyula, a painter, originally from Hungary, who ignores Eliezer’s attempts to explain his suffering and the reason behind the accident. Gyula...