Critical Context

In Against Silence: The Voice and Vision of Elie Wiesel (1984), Irving Abrahamson asserts that Night is not merely the first work by Wiesel. Indeed, it is the center of all that follows: Night contains all the haunting issues permeating Wiesel’s later works. Wiesel has spoken of Night as surrounded concentrically by his later books. Although Night is his only effort exclusively concerned with the Holocaust, the universe of the concentration camp is central to all of his work.

Lawrence Langer, in Versions of Survival: The Holocaust and the Human Spirit (1982), has argued that language to describe annihilation has yet to be devised. Literary categories that sufficed as intellectual frameworks prior to Auschwitz no longer apply. Most historians, theologians, and critics believe that Auschwitz has generated a unique class of writers. If so, the attendant literature of atrocity is operating in uncharted intellectual and moral terrain. Nevertheless, Night’s extraordinary power cannot be denied. All the forces that operated within the Holocaust— perpetrators, victims, bystanders—are represented in this slim volume under the scrutiny of a keenly perceptive narrator who sees these forces within the framework of a kind of receding universe. He gives no assurances about what will replace this world.

Wiesel’s Night records this destruction of the old order—the inherited past, faith in humanity, belief in the God of the covenant with Abraham and the God of Sinai—and questions the implied nature of the emerging new order based on totalitarian misrule, the industrialized debasement of humanity, and the worthlessness of women, the elderly, and innocent children. A few critics found parts of Night steeped in bathos or mawkishness, but such negative views were extremely rare. Wiesel was not writing from the narrative perspective of a Henry James or a James Joyce: Having stood within feet of a burning pit filled with infants and small children, Wiesel did not find it useful to write with Olympian detachment. The influence of Franz Kafka and Albert Camus (whom Wiesel knew during his days in Paris as a journalist) is reflected in Wiesel’s portrayal of the madness and absurdity of Auschwitz and in his commitment to producing literature that might help improve the human condition through appealing to conscience.

In the final analysis, Night is significant as a clear record of mankind’s confrontation with the darkness of an overwhelming evil that operated on a vast scale in the twentieth century and which cut viciously to the core of known historical, social, humanitarian, and religious dynamics. The absolute darkness of the night that descended for all time on the six million Jewish victims will not, Wiesel argues, leave untouched anyone born after the Holocaust.