Elie Wiesel Essay - Critical Essays

Elie Wiesel Long Fiction Analysis

Elie Wiesel has said that all his works are “commentary” on Night, his one work that deals directly with the Holocaust. His novels are odysseys of a soul fragmented by the Holocaust, in quest of tranquillity, an attempt to move away from the night, reaching the shores of day. The key to understanding Wiesel, then, is his memoir in the form of a novella, Night. It is a slim volume that records his childhood memories of his hometown and his experiences in the concentration camp. It also contains the themes, images, and devices that recur throughout his novels.


The opening chapter of Night begins with the social setting of Wiesel’s native village of Sighet in Transylvania—its inhabitants, their customs, their beliefs—and his first meeting with Moché, the beadle, a character who forms a link to all his other works. Events occur rapidly. The disruption of normalcy with the invasion of the Germans, the forcing of the Jews into ghettos, their deportation, and the obliteration of the Jewish community are recorded tersely but accurately.

From the moment the Jews of Sighet leave the tranquil setting of their native village until they are liberated, time is suspended. The concentration camp is a universe like no other. There, every day is a waking nightmare. Each day is a repetition of deprivation, starvation, cremation; death, either by torture, gunshot, or fire, is the only certainty. The boys look like old men; the men cry like children. Existence depends on endurance, regardless of age.

Not only is the town obliterated and time obliterated, but also the individual is transformed into an unrecognizable substance. The bestial inhumanity of the victimizers, the divorce from social, moral, and humanistic constraints, marks their apotheosis in the kingdom of Hell. The inmates of the concentration camp’s universe are metamorphosed also. The tattooing of numbers on their arms indelibly brands them as objects of inventory, to be used as long as they work well and to be disposed of when they malfunction. Night describes this transformation. Early in the work, Wiesel says of himself that he “had become a completely different person.”

The work ends after the war. He has survived and has been liberated; he looks into the mirror and sees a corpse staring back at him. The corpse becomes part of his life, and the tension of his works rests on his separating himself from the corpse, which means finding a place for himself among the living and giving the corpse a proper burial in the form of a literary monument. Separating himself from the corpse is not an easy task. It involves personal, social, and theological issues: assuaging his own guilt for having survived and coming to terms with an indifferent society and an indifferent God, who allowed the Holocaust to take place. His future works chart his attempt at reconciliation with life, reintegration into society, rediscovery of his religious heritage, and reaffirmation of his belief in God, in spite of everything. This is accomplished by the use of a dual character or alter ego. In each novel, the personality of the protagonist, a survivor of the Holocaust, is complemented by that of the antagonist, usually someone who was not directly involved in the war. They lead separate lives until their paths cross and their souls fuse. The antagonist then disappears; his existence is no longer necessary.

Within the biographical-historical-psychological framework of Wiesel’s works are recurring metaphors, characters, and themes. The Holocaust, the overriding presence in Wiesel’s oeuvre, is metaphorically night. The sealed, unlit boxcar bearing Wiesel and his townspeople arrived at Auschwitz at midnight. For the victims, night describes the abyss to which they were consigned; for the oppressors, it indicates the depravity of the soul; for the world, it represents the failure of enlightenment, the blackness in which the world was engulfed during the Holocaust period. For Wiesel, night is a physical and psychological condition. As a victim, he moved like a shadow through the kingdom of Death, communicating with corpses. As a survivor, the corpses still haunt him. In Auschwitz, time lost its significance, and night became the only frame of reference. Night continues to circumscribe the parameters of confinement for the protagonists in The Town Beyond the Wall, The Gates of the Forest, A Beggar in Jerusalem, The Oath, and The Testament.

The lasting effects of the devastation on the psyche are summed up by Wiesel in an incantatory paragraph that appears early in Night: Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.

Having pledged never to forget, Wiesel makes memory an important aspect of all his writings. His characters, especially his protagonists, are haunted by their memories. Memory controls their lives and motivates their actions. It is also a bridge to their future.

Moché, the beadle of Night, survives the massacre of the first roundup of Jews and returns to Sighet to tell the tale and warn the others concerning their impending doom. The townspeople, however, refuse to believe him and think he has gone mad. Moché appears in every book; his role is usually that of messenger in the tale he tells. Madness is an essential element in all Wiesel’s works. On the one hand, it is indicative of the malady that struck the world during the Holocaust years. Wiesel, however, treats his madmen sympathetically. Their madness is not clinical but mystical. They are visionaries, saints, or messengers, endowed with the task of saving the world. As such, they become one with humankind, God, and creation. Wiesel’s point is that madness can be a force of evil or good. Hitler and his Nazis were mad. Their madness was employed to destroy the world. Most of Wiesel’s madmen want to bring about the Messiah; they want to redeem the world.

Another theme that is paramount in Wiesel’s works is that of silence. Wiesel’s ten years of silence after his liberation afforded him the opportunity for reflection and meditation on past events and future actions. He followed a carefully conceived plan not to speak. It was not that he had nothing to say or that he was indifferent; his decision was prompted by the knowledge that no words could describe what had taken place. His silence was intended as an “eloquent silence, a screaming silence, a shouting silence.” Wiesel broke his silence when he decided to write, and in each of his novels, excepting The Town Beyond the Wall, the protagonist is confronted with a similar problem and makes a similar decision. Related to the theme of silence is the theme of responsibility, which is expressed in breaking the silence.

To evoke accurately the ravaged soul of the survivor in the post-Holocaust world, Wiesel creates a society of characters different from those one is used to meeting in novels. The characters are beggars, witnesses, messengers, storytellers, and chroniclers.

The Town Beyond the Wall

The Town Beyond the Wall, Wiesel’s first novel after his three novellas, depicts his attempt to go home again. After his liberation from Buchenwald, Wiesel refused to return to his native town. He became, like the beggars or messengers in his stories, a navenadnik, a wanderer, a lost soul traveling throughout the world to find an inner peace and a place that he could call home. He traveled for ten years and finally, albeit accidentally, settled in the United States. It became home for him, however, only when he could totally and irrevocably sever his ties with his hometown. No matter where he went, he was drawn to the memories of his childhood, the familiarity and tranquillity of those days. He had to return at least once in order to realize that the Sighet of his youth no longer existed. It was a journey, as Wiesel says, to “nothingness.”

The Town Beyond the Wall is divided into four parts and is presented in a series of reveries that help the protagonist cope with the torture imposed on him by his captors during his confinement in prison. Michael, a survivor of the Holocaust, has returned to his hometown of Szerencseváros with the aid of his friend, Pedro. The town is now under Communist rule, and he has entered it illegally. He is betrayed, imprisoned, and—because he remains silent and will not inform on his friend—is given the standard treatment, a torture called “The Prayer,” which consists of keeping a prisoner on his feet facing a wall until he speaks or loses consciousness. To surmount the pain, Michael devises a method of transcending time by moving back and forth in his consciousness so that the present recedes to his subconscious level and the past moves forward into his consciousness. The reflections relating to his hometown are twice filtered, first as they are told to Pedro and then as he recalls them during his “prayers.”

The pendular movement between different levels of consciousness, so that time is obliterated, is suggestive of Wiesel’s imprisonment in the concentration camp. It is as if Wiesel is saying that time exists only in society. Once removed from society, people are also removed from time. In fact, they have no need for it. Time stops for them, but because time continues to move on for the world beyond their confinement, they will never be able to retrieve it.

Night hovers over The Town Beyond the Wall, as it hovered over Wiesel’s first work. The protagonist is enveloped in a physical and psychological darkness. With his eyes closed, shutting out all light and consciousness, he evokes the nightmare world of his past, the fears of his childhood, his reflections on the Holocaust, the death of those who influenced him—Moché, the madman; Varady, his neighbor; Kalman, his teacher; his father; Yankel, his friend from the concentration camp—and the bleakness of life in France. An aspect of this nightmare world is his divided consciousness. This is suggested by the time and place in which he meets Pedro: in Tangiers, an hour before midnight in a dimly lit café, which is under a sign of a black cat. Pedro is his antagonist. He is what Saul Bellow would call “the Spirit of Alternatives.” They walk the city together late at night. Pedro listens to Michael, providing him with alternatives to his dilemmas, answers to his questions, and a modus vivendi. He is a good friend. Their identities, at the conclusion, fuse, and when Michael is imprisoned, Pedro disappears, living only in Michael’s memory in the form of an attitude toward life.

Through his relationship with Pedro, Michael comes to realize that silence in the form of indifference is destructive. People affirm their humanity when they involve themselves with or share in the anguish of humankind. To be a spectator of life is to deny life. That was the reason for Michael’s return to Szerencseváros. He wanted to confront the spectator, the man who watched his Jewish neighbors being humiliated, looked on as the children cried of thirst, and then turned his back without any expression of emotion. That is why, at the end of the novel, he decides that he must reach out to his cell mate, who has rejected the world and now exists as a mute on the periphery of life. Michael knows that by restoring an interest in existence to his silent companion, he is also asserting his own essence, giving meaning to his own life. Wiesel later expands on this theme in The Oath.

In The Town Beyond the Wall, silence is viewed as detrimental. In the opening section, when Michael reflects on his childhood friendship with the renegade Varady, he notes that the community expresses its hatred for him through silence. In the next chapter, Michael’s failure to respond to his friend’s need results in Yankel’s committing suicide. In the third section, Michael tells the tale of a mother and child who attempt to flee the Germans by hiding in the wagon of hay owned by a friendly neighbor who offers to take them to safety. He tells them that their lives depend on their being silent. Silence, however, did not help them; they were killed when the Hungarian officers repeatedly stuck their bayonets through the hay. In the conclusion, Michael’s silence, while it may have saved the life of Pedro, may also have cost him his own life.

Wiesel expresses his own equivocation regarding silence in this novel. Words may betray, words may deceive, but speech remains the only expression of civilized people. Language, when properly used and properly understood, is instructive and a means of creating a bond between people. It may not save the world, but it may save one human being. This is the lesson Wiesel learned from Mauriac, which caused him to break his vow.

Madness is presented as the opposite of silence. One takes refuge in being mute, the other in being vocal. The silent one sees without responding; the madman sees and reacts, usually through the use of words that other characters cannot comprehend or that they refuse to comprehend. Wiesel elaborates on this theme in the scene at the insane asylum in A Beggar in Jerusalem. In The Town Beyond the Wall, Pedro prevents Michael from joining the cadre of madmen. He tells him, “To see liberty only in madness is wrong.” Madness is seen as a force of evil in this work. Michael’s cell mate is mad; he sees things that are not there and says things that do not make sense, and he finally attempts to kill a third cell mate, Menachem.

It is significant that The Town Beyond the Wall ends in the cell. Michael is still a prisoner of his past. He is reaching out toward others, attempting to find his own identity, but he has not yet been able to do so. Wiesel’s next novel deals with this problem; each of his novels, excluding The Testament, charts his journey away from Night.

The Gates of the Forest

While The Town Beyond the Wall examines the possibility of going home and acknowledges the impossibility of doing so, The Gates of the Forest concentrates on retrieving a lost name and the identity that goes with it. This novel also begins with night and imprisonment. The opening setting is not a cell but a cave in the forest. It is springtime, with its intimations of rebirth and regeneration, but the war once again casts its shadowy reflection over the entire work. Gavriel, a seventeen-year-old Jewish youth, has escaped deportation and is hiding from the German and...

(The entire section is 6079 words.)