Considered by many reviewers to be the first major novel about the tragic events of September 11, 2001, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close tells the story of nine-year-old Oskar Schell in the months after the terrorist attacks. The book, published in 2005, is the second novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, who lives in Brooklyn, New York.
The main plot takes place in New York City and follows Oskar as he tries to understand and deal with the loss of his father, who died in the collapse of the World Trade Center. Discovering a mysterious key in his father’s closet inspires in Oskar a burning curiosity to find the lock it opens and sets him on a quest that sends him all over New York City searching for answers. The subplot of the book takes place in Dresden, Germany, and focuses on Oskar’s grandparents’ experience of the horrific bombings there at the end of World War II. Letters written by both his grandparents function as key elements in the story, revealing the mysteries and horrors of the past and the many ways the characters’ storylines are interconnected.
The novel addresses September 11 from an interesting perspective. By choosing a young, albeit gifted, child as his narrator, Foer is able to address the many emotionally charged aspects of the event while avoiding politics and hot-button issues, such as why the attacks happened. Instead, the focus remains on how Oskar navigates the chaos of the immediate event and its traumatic aftermath and moves through personal loss to eventual acceptance. The choice of narrator creates a framework for exploring the emotional significance of September 11, which is far more complex than the facts of the historical event.
The book is notable for the way it incorporates visual elements, including photographs, overwritten texts, blank pages, and a series of flip-book images at the end. Whether or not this “visual writing,” as it is sometimes called, is successful is part of what has made Foer a polarizing figure in modern literature; some reviewers find his approach powerful, and others find it distracting, gimmicky, or cloying. Despite the mixed reaction of critics, the book was a success. It was translated into several languages and ultimately turned into a film, released in 2011.
Foer, who was born in 1977 in Washington, DC, published his first novel, Everything Is Illuminated, in 2002 to great acclaim, garnering prizes including the Guardian First Book Prize, the National Jewish Book Award, and the New York Public Library Young Lions Prize. In a 2010 interview with the New Yorker, Foer was asked, “What makes a piece of fiction work?” He replied, “Fiction works when it makes a reader feel something strongly.” Readers of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close can decide whether or not his treatment of September 11 and Oskar’s experiences “work” according to the author’s definition and their own.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Discuss how this book addresses the tragedy of 9/11.
2. Describe Oskar’s quest and its goals.
3. Explain the ways in which the plot in New York City and the subplot in Dresden inform each other.
4. Discuss the relationship between writing and memory and what role writing plays in the characters’ lives.
5. Explore the different types of letters that appear in the book and their importance to the story.
6. Analyze the importance of the images in Oskar’s scrapbook, Stuff That Happened to Me, and explain what they tell us about his character.
7. Discuss the significance of the flip-book images of the falling man at the end of the novel.
This eNotes lesson plan is designed so that it may be used in numerous ways to accommodate ESL students and to differentiate instruction in the classroom.
Student Lesson Guide
The Lesson Guide is organized for study of the book in sections as indicated by chapters. Lesson Guide pages may be assigned individually and completed at a student’s own pace.
- Lesson Guide pages may be used as pre-reading activities to preview for students the vocabulary words they will encounter in reading each section of the book and to acquaint them generally with its content.
- Before Lesson Guide pages are assigned, questions may be selected from them to use as short quizzes to assess reading comprehension.
- Lesson Guide vocabulary lists include words from the book that vary in difficulty.
1. The vocabulary lists for each section are sufficiently comprehensive so that shorter lists of vocabulary words can be constructed from them.
2. Working from the Lesson Guide vocabulary lists, the teacher also may construct vocabulary studies for individual students, choosing specific words from each section that are most appropriate for them.
Essay and Discussion Questions
The essay and discussion questions vary in degree of difficulty.
1. Some questions require higher levels of critical thinking; others engage students with less challenging inquiry.
2. Individual discussion questions may be assigned to students working in pairs or in small study groups; their contributions may then be added to a whole-class discussion.
Test questions also vary in degree of difficulty.
1. Some multiple-choice questions address the factual content of the book; others require students to employ critical thinking skills, such as analyzing; comparing and contrasting; and drawing inferences.
2. The teacher may select specific multiple-choice questions and one or more essay questions to assess an individual student’s understanding of the book.
3. The essay portion of the test appears on a separate page so that it may be omitted altogether in testing.
Before students read the novel, explain that themes are universal ideas developed in literature. Point out that these themes will be developed in the work; discuss them with students as they read and/or after they finish reading:
- Response to trauma
- Mortality and death
Talk with your students about how a motif is a recurring pattern or repeated action, element, or idea in literature. As they read, have them pay attention to the following motifs:
- Personal Letters
- The name Black
- The falling man
A symbol is a concrete object or place that has significance in a literary work because it communicates an idea. Have students discuss how the author develops the following symbols and what ideas the symbols could suggest. Have them look for other symbols on their own.
- Ruby bracelet
- Oskar’s scrapbook Stuff that Happened to Me
1. Why does the author choose Oskar as the central figure for his novel about September 11? Is Oskar a sympathetic character? Why or why not?
2. Why might the author want to combine the story of the September 11 tragedy with the story of the bombing of Dresden, Germany? What complexity or insight do the chapters on Oskar’s grandparents’ survival add to the novel?
3. On page 10, Oskar says, “The more I found, the less I understood.” In this case he is talking about a game of Reconnaissance Expedition he is playing with his father, but how could this relate to the larger story in the book?
4. Isolation is a motif in the book: Consider Oskar’s grandfather running away or Mr. Black’s decision to never leave his apartment. Given the outcome for these characters, what do you think the author is saying about the result of isolating oneself?
5. The text includes blank or nearly blank pages and letters that often lack clear attributions. As a reader, did you always understand what you were seeing on the page? Which parts of the book were difficult to understand or put into context? Why?
6. Why do you think Oskar’s grandfather left his wife and unborn child? If he had stayed, how might sharing the experience of creating a family have affected his feelings about the past?
7. Oskar is an eccentric character whose quirks include self-destructive behavior, like bruising himself, and an almost compulsive habit of inventing. Do you understand why he does the things he does? Do they seem like annoying tics, or do they enrich your understanding of him? If so, how?
8. Consider the people named Black whom Oskar meets. Which of them serve as the most important catalysts for change?
9. At the beginning of the book, how does Oskar feel about confronting mortality? How does he feel about it at the end when he digs up his father’s grave?
10. Do you think the flip-book images of the falling man are a successful way to end the book? Why or why not?
September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks timeline in Eastern Daylight Time
8:46 a.m. American Airlines Flight 11 hits north tower of World Trade Center in New York City.
9:03 a.m. United Airlines Flight 175 hits south tower of World Trade Center.
9:37 a.m. American Airlines Flight 77 hits Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia.
9:59 a.m. South tower of World Trade Center collapses.
10:03 a.m. United Airlines Flight 93 crashes in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, after passengers resist the hijacking. It is believed that the hijackers’ intended target was the US Capitol or the White House in Washington, DC.
10:28 a.m. North tower of World Trade Center collapses.
Bombing of Dresden, Germany
Dresden was bombed by the British Royal Air Force (RAF) and the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) as part of the Allied forces’ assault on Nazi Germany in World War II. In four raids between 13 February and 15 February 1945, thirteen hundred heavy bombers dropped more than thirty-nine hundred tons of high-explosive bombs and incendiary devices on the city, the capital of the German state of Saxony. The resulting firestorm destroyed fifteen square miles (thirty-nine square kilometers) of the city’s center. At least twenty-two thousand people were killed. Postwar discussion of whether or not the attacks were justified has led to the bombing of Dresden becoming one of the moral questions of the Second World War.
amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS): a rare, fatal, and progressive degenerative disease that affects pyramidal motor neurons and usually begins in middle age, characterized especially by increasing and spreading muscular weakness; also called Lou Gehrig’s Disease
CPU: central processing unit (of a computer)
cyborg: a human whose body contains mechanical or electronic devices and whose abilities are greater than the abilities of normal humans
entomology: the study of insects
Stephen Hawking (1942- ): British theoretical physicist, cosmologist, and author known for his work in black hole radiation, quantum mechanics and relativity, and cosmology; Hawking has a motor neuron...
(The entire section is 1310 words.)
ampersand: a single character (normally typed &) that stands for the word “and”
frank: blunt; truthful; speaking the truth without hesitation
record needle: a part of a record player that is put directly onto the record in order to convert the grooves on a record into sound
trivet: a small metal plate with short legs, especially one put under a hot platter or dish to protect a table
1. This chapter takes the form of a letter from Oskar’s grandfather, Thomas Schell, to his “unborn child.” What do we learn about his plight?
Thomas has lost his ability to speak, so he must write things...
(The entire section is 565 words.)
accusatory: expressing a blaming or accusing attitude toward something or someone
conjugated: gave the various forms of a word in a specific order (often used for the different tenses of a given verb)
contaminate: to make something dirty or corrupted
cufflinks: ornamental devices used to fasten shirt cuffs with button holes; often worn by men on formal occasions
domesticated: reduced from a wilder to a more tame state of behaving
googolplex: a large numeral that is written as a “1” followed by one hundred zeros
lockbox: a storage box that is accessible by means of a key
meteorological: relating to meteorology, the science that deals with weather and...
(The entire section is 1634 words.)
compromise: a settlement of a disagreement or dispute reached by each side yielding or admitting something
Dresden: a city in Germany that was the subject of intense bombings by English and American forces in World War II
flue: an enclosed passageway made for something to pass through; a channel in a chimney for conveying flame and smoke to the outside
idioms: specific expressions that are only used in a certain language and culturally may mean some-thing different than their literal meanings
inmate: a person confined in a hospital or prison
migrate: to move from one country or place to another
penitentiary: a public institution in which people who have broken the...
(The entire section is 740 words.)
ageist: someone who demonstrates prejudice or discrimination against a particular age group, especially toward the elderly
epidermal: of, relating to, or rising from the epidermis (a layer of skin on animals)
E.S.P.: (extrasensory perception): the faculty of perceiving knowledge other than through the five senses (for example, knowing the future or someone else’s thoughts)
inanimate: not endowed with life or spirit; lacking consciousness or power of motion
Manhattan schist: a formation of mica schist rock that lies under much of the island of Manhattan in New York City; a common type of rock found there
phonetically: done in a manner that reproduces the sounds of speech...
(The entire section is 1312 words.)
accumulate: to pile up, to gather
admissions: revealing statements (as of acknowledgements or facts)
anew: in a new form; as if a new start were being made without reference to the past
asides: departures from the subject or main theme
assumptions: things that are accepted without proof as being true or certain to happen
cease: to stop
coiled: wound into rings laid within or on top of one another or wound spirally around an object
commotion: a condition of civil unrest, public disorder, agitation, or rebellion
context: the part or parts of a written or spoken passage preceding or following a particular word or group of words and so intimately...
(The entire section is 1488 words.)
abbreviated: reduced the length, often of a book or play, by omitting certain parts
absorbing: taking in or soaking up a substance, often gradually
apartheid: a government policy of racial segregation; specifically a former policy of segregation and political and economic discrimination against non-European groups in the Republic of South Africa
bidet: a basin or tub about the height of the seat of a chair used for bathing the genital and perineal areas of the body
centrifugal force: the apparent outward force that draws a rotating body away from the center of rotation
condensation: the transition of a substance from the vapor to the...
(The entire section is 2073 words.)
grandfather clock: a tall pendulum clock that stands on the floor
rouge: any of various cosmetics that give a red coloring to the cheeks or lips
1. Oskar’s grandmother says, “Our marriage was not unhappy, Oskar,” and goes on to describe the good and bad parts of their union in the pages that follow. What about their marriage might be considered “not unhappy” and what about it might be considered very unhappy indeed?
“He knew how to make me laugh,” says Oskar’s grandmother of her husband. She says, “We had to make rules, but who doesn’t. There is nothing wrong with compromising.” To her, being able to laugh...
(The entire section is 613 words.)
air-raid: an attack from the air (often in reference to war-time airplanes)
charring: burning partly, usually on the outside, with a blackened carbonized effect
die-cutting: a process of cutting shapes from stock, such as metal, glass, or paper, with shears or industrial machinery
enunciate: to pronounce words with extreme clarity
exerting: putting forth or putting out strength, power, or effort
evacuation: an organized withdrawal or removal (as of persons or things) from a place or area, especially as a protective measure
Formica: a hard durable plastic laminate used for countertops, cupboard doors, and other surfaces
geodesic dome: a dome or vault made of...
(The entire section is 950 words.)
anthropologists: specialists who practice anthropology, the study of man’s physical character, historical and present geographical location, racial classification, group relation-ships, and cultural history
asphalt: a mixture of dark bituminous pitch with sand or gravel, used for surfacing roads, flooring, roofing, etc.
bourgeois: of, relating to, or characteristic of the social middle class
carnage: the flesh of slain animals or men; a heap of dead bodies
carnivores: flesh-eating animals
moltin (molten): changed from a solid to a liquid state usually by the action of heat
perched: landed or rested on something
protruded: stuck out beyond the surrounding...
(The entire section is 781 words.)
assess: to make an evaluation of something
baguettes: long, narrow loaves of French bread
capable: having sufficient power, intelligence, resources, strength, or other needed abilities to perform or accomplish a certain task
concession: an act of yielding or surrendering, especially to an implied or expressed pressure, claim, demand, or request
concrete pilings: reinforced columns made of concrete which are driven into the ground to support a vertical structure
detain: to hold or keep in or as if in custody; to restrain from proceeding
gavels: small mallets (similar to hammers) hit on a surface to call for attention or order
incongruous: out of place;...
(The entire section is 922 words.)
activist: someone who uses vigorous action as the means to achieve political ends
ballast: a relatively heavy substance used to maintain a ship (or in this case, a zeppelin) at its proper draft or trim to improve stability
deflated: reduced in size, importance, or quantity
detector: something that discovers that which is hidden or disguised
dignitaries: people who possess high rank or hold a position of honor in society
dirigible: a blimp or zeppelin (in context)
embodied: expressed in physical form an idea, quality, or feeling
evaluation: an examination and judgment concerning worth, quality, significance, amount, degree, or condition
(The entire section is 882 words.)
aficionado: a devoted follower, supporter, or fan of something
analyst: a columnist or commentator who specializes in interpreting social and political developments
army reservist: someone who is part of the armed forces who is not on active duty but can be called into service in an emergency
avid: eager; characterized by enthusiasm, ardor, and vigorous pursuit
bond trader: someone who buys and sells bonds (debt investments often made by the government and larger companies)
carousel: a conveyor on which objects are placed and carried around a complete circular track
entrepreneur: the organizer of an economic venture; especially one who...
(The entire section is 1130 words.)
alternate: substitute; something that is put in place of something else or is available for use instead of something else
dark matter: nonluminous matter not yet directly detected by astronomers; scientists believe dark matter exists because the amount of visible matter in the universe is insufficient to account for various observed gravitational effects
daunting: intimidating; overwhelming
dictate: to speak, recite, or read aloud so that a person can write down what is heard
estate sale: a sale of household items sometimes held after a homeowner dies
facilitate: to make easier or less difficult
moped: gave oneself over to brooding and low spirits
(The entire section is 1447 words.)
1. What does Oskar’s grandma say about her own father’s last words? Name at least one other example of “last words” featured in a previous chapter. Describe what you think the author might be saying about the importance of “last words.”
Oskar’s grandma says she can’t remember her father’s last words. Oskar’s father’s last words, recorded on the answering machine, were garbled. William Black’s father’s last words to him, in the letter, were “businesslike.” It seems the author is saying that “last words” before death do not necessarily have more meaning or significance than other words.
2. In Oskar’s grandma’s dream,...
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altimeter: an instrument (especially in an aircraft) for measuring altitude attained above sea level or ground level
biodegradable: capable of being decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms
decapitated: having had one’s head cut off
inertia: a property of matter by which an object remains at rest or in uniform motion in the same straight line unless acted upon by some external force
microscopic: so small as to be invisible or not clearly distinguished without the use of a microscope
1. In the exchange between Ron and Oskar at the beginning of the chapter, what do we learn about Ron’s personal history?...
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1. Where is Oskar going in a limousine as the book begins?
A. to the opening night of his play, Hamlet
B. to a cemetery
C. to a jujitsu class
D. to the family’s jewelry store
E. to the zoo
2. After Oskar is sent home early from school on September 11, he listens to several messages that have been left on the machine. Who are they from?
A. his mother
B. his grandmother
D. the mailwoman
E. his father
3. What two people meet at a bakery on Broadway in New York City?
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1. Personal letters are an important motif in the novel. Describe how letters play a role in the narrative and how telling the story through the characters’ letters reveals the truth. Support your discussion with examples from the text.
Writing letters becomes an essential outlet for Oskar after his father dies in the terrorist attack on September 11. For Oskar and for other characters, letters serve as a means to express what is unspeakable or to deal with deep, conflicted feelings. Consequently, their letters reveal the truth, directly or indirectly.
In a letter to Stephen Hawking, Oskar indirectly expresses his worst fear by asking the astrophysicist a question: “What if I never stop inventing?”...
(The entire section is 3501 words.)