Study Guide

The Gates of the Forest

by Elie Wiesel

The Gates of the Forest Summary

Overview (Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Beginning with spring and ending with winter, The Gates of the Forest is divided into four parts, each standing for a season in its natural order. The first and last parts concentrate on the inner self and the middle two on action. The novel first introduces Gregor, a Hungarian Jew in his late teens who, without his family, has escaped the Holocaust. While Gregor hides from the Nazis in a village forest, another Jew, a mysterious man of about thirty, happens onto his hiding place. As this stranger has no name, Gregor gives him his own name, Gavriel, which Gregor had abandoned because it was too conspicuously Jewish. The two Jews hide in a cave whose entrance is concealed by a large boulder. There, they pass many days together, sharing their beliefs and stories with each other. From Gavriel, Gregor learns of the hideous facts of the war, especially information about the cruelties of the Nazis against the Jews. Gavriel comes to be seen as a lunatic philosopher-saint who sometimes reacts to the Holocaust with insane laughter.

The search by the Nazis intensifies outside the hideout; getting away from them seems impossible to the two men. Just as the Nazis are upon the site, Gavriel gives himself up. The Nazis have no reason to believe that there is more than one Jew in the forest area, and so they are satisfied. The sacrifice of Gavriel leaves Gregor with a moral obligation to which he totally commits himself.

In a nearby village, he finds refuge in the home of Maria, a Christian and an old servant of his family. She has him pretend to be a deaf-mute and the son of her sister Ileana, who has departed the village, leaving behind a reputation for looseness. Unaware of Gregor’s pretense, the village folk take him into their confidences, many of the men confessing to illicit relations with Ileana. The parish priest, “against sin, but not against crime,” confesses to having betrayed a Jew because the Jew refused to accept Christianity as a condition of refuge. What is for Elie Wiesel a thematic analogy between the Crucifixion of Jesus and the annihilation of the Jews is brought out dramatically. Against Maria’s protests, Gregor is cast as Judas in a school play about the Passion of Christ. Becoming caught up in the drama as it is performed, members of the cast and the audience, also, verbally and then physically attack Gregor. He stuns them to temporary inaction by declaring, first, that he is not Judas and second, that he is not the son of Ileana. When at last he tells them that he is not Gregor, that he is a Jew whose name is Gavriel, the villagers are prepared to cut out his tongue. They despise him because he is a Jew and fear him because he knows their secrets. The mayor of the town, Petruskanu, who suspects that he may have fathered Gregor, rescues him and helps him make contact with Jewish partisans in the forest.

As Gavriel had informed Gregor about the concentration camps and the crematoria, Gregor now tells the partisans. They are led by Leib the Lion, who was a boyhood friend of Gregor; at ten years of age, the two stood up against Christian bullies. Hearing from Gregor of Gavriel’s imprisonment, Leib says that the prisoner must be set free in order for him to communicate what he has seen as a victim of the Holocaust. The plan to get Gavriel out of prison backfires, however, and Leib is captured by the Nazis. Once more, Gregor, who was the central figure in the escape plan, believes that he has betrayed another. The partisans, suspicious of him, put him through an intense grilling that ends only when Clara, Leib’s lover, intervenes.

Yehuda, a young partisan, now befriends Gregor. Putting aside his feeling that his own death is imminent, Yehuda tells Gregor that he should make known to Clara the obvious truth that he loves her. In an inhumane world, Yehuda declares, love is a protection against solitude. It is the great reward, the greatest victory. Gregor admits to Yehuda that indeed he does love Clara. A few days later, Yehuda is stabbed to death, the partisans shoot his killer, and Gregor tells Clara that he loves her.

After a chance meeting in Paris following the war, Gregor and Clara are married. The...

(The entire section is 1711 words.)