Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 594
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Eliezer, the narrator, a journalist of Eastern European birth. After losing his entire family in the Holocaust, Eliezer has immigrated to Paris, then to New York. He is haunted by his past, by the guilt of having survived, and by a deeply felt responsibility to bear witness on behalf of the dead. His mind is flooded with dreams, images, symbols, and memories, especially of his grandmother, whom he loved devotedly. He finds it impossible to live in the present: He is cynical, detached, and inexpressive. When he does speak, it is often in metaphors, philosophical assertions, and enigmas. He has been drawn to Kathleen since the moment they met, but ultimately he pities her faithfulness and her need to be deceived. Similarly, he feels disdain for Dr. Russel’s inability to comprehend despair. Eliezer is weary of the suffering of life and longs to encounter death; the accident he survives is an expression of that longing.
Kathleen, a charming young woman who is Eliezer’s lover. Kathleen believes strongly in the omnipotence of love. From an affluent background, she is confident and decisive and not accustomed to losing battles. She is blind with illusions about the goodness of the world and cannot fathom Eliezer’s obsession with the past. Through their tumultuous and often cruel affair, she learns about suffering. Later, after he has left her, she is spiritually deadened by marriage to a man for whom she feels no passion.
Eliezer’s grandmother, an Eastern European woman who was killed in the Holocaust. Eliezer’s grandmother lives vividly in his memories and in his basic philosophy of life. She was a simple and pious elderly Jewish woman with soft white skin and an enormous black shawl. She often protected the young Eliezer from his father’s temper and always treated him with compassion.
Dr. Paul Russel
Dr. Paul Russel, the young resident who cares for Eliezer in the hospital after the accident. Russel is wise and perceptive beyond his years, and he sees in Eliezer the depth of an intense spiritual struggle. He is affable and informal at the patient’s bedside but not afraid to be direct. Ultimately, his ideals and strong belief in the value of life render him unable to understand Eliezer’s anguish.
Nurse, the young woman who assists in Eliezer’s care. She is patient and attentive to Eliezer but commands authority when necessary. She is honest with him and responds openly to his moods and challenges. Her humor brings a much-needed lightness to his recuperation.
Sarah, a prostitute with whom Eliezer spent an evening in Paris shortly after his liberation. At the age of twelve, Sarah was forced into prostitution in a Nazi concentration camp. She became the favorite toy of the German officers. She feels shame about her manner of survival and guilt in the knowledge that sometimes she even felt pleasure in such reprehensible sexual encounters. With no pretensions about her moral stature, she is fearless, even proud. She is unpredictable, moody, and, to Eliezer, elusive.
Gyula, a Hungarian painter and friend to Eliezer. Gyula is tall and robust in his build, and rebellious and mocking in his spirit; in all ways, he is a powerful and intimidating figure. He alone understands Eliezer’s despair; he alone, arrogant and energetic, is able to inspire the wounded man. Gyula has no patience for sentimentality and suffering: He refuses to hear Eliezer’s confession but rather insists on painting a portrait that ultimately helps Eliezer see himself more clearly.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 860
The narrator (Eliezer) is a Holocaust survivor who empathizes with the suffering of others and who has suffered a great deal, himself. He has been traumatized severely by the Holocaust and wishes to die, so he neglects to evade a speeding vehicle that crosses his path. He is incapable of love, which will ultimately doom his relationship with Kathleen. He has witnessed and endured too much suffering to be happy and to fall in love with a woman like Kathleen—a woman who has never known his suffering and thus cannot ever hope to understand it, although she does try to do so. He is too embarrassed to admit his failure to love life and cannot confide in those people who care about him, Kathleen and Dr. Russel. He does attempt to tell Gyula, but the Hungarian refuses to listen and perhaps already knows the truth. The narrator seems to care a great deal about the suffering of other people, yet he cannot handle his own anguish. Perhaps his problem is that he empathetically takes on the suffering of others onto himself. He is an intelligent and caring person, but he refuses to be happy. If he were happy, he would most probably feel guilty because of all the Holocaust victims who never will have the chance again to be happy.
Kathleen is an attractive woman who desires the narrator partly because he has suffered. In fact, a common bond between them is that they both have a need to suffer because they realize that others have experienced significantly greater hardships than they have. She endures a very unhappy and loveless marriage because of her need to suffer. She wants to be with a man who will not make her happy because many Holocaust victims died early—before they were able to marry and find marital bliss. The narrator says that she listens very closely when he speaks "as if she wanted to punish herself for not having suffered before. From time to time she insisted in the same eager voice that sounded so much like the old prostitute's, 'More. . . . More. . . .'" She tries to find love with the narrator, yet she must know in her heart that his pain prevents him from feeling love for living beings (although he still loves people who are no longer living, such as his beloved grandmother) because he no longer feels that he is one of them. In fact, her relationship with the narrator is like her marriage in that neither relationship offers the possibility of great happiness and both could consequently end painfully. Yet her love for him, according to Dr. Russel, could rescue Eliezer.
Dr. Paul Russel is a very dedicated doctor who perceptively realizes the narrator's death wish. When the narrator denies Russel's accusation, the doctor apparently backs down and dismisses his charge, yet the possibility exists that he recognizes the narrator's falsehood but is powerless to change his patient's feelings. Russel has a close relationship with his patient and comes to visit him often. He takes a personal interest in the narrator and recognizes—but does not understand- the Holocaust survivor's pain. But his caring, like that of Kathleen, could help bring the narrator back to the road of recovery.
Sarah, an attractive Holocaust survivor, entices and seduces the narrator in a time before he knew Kathleen. This blue-eyed blonde lives in Paris, and she encounters the narrator in a cafe near Montparnasse. As she sips a glass of lemonade, she stares at him and expresses her interest in him. She almost immediately asks him to have sex with her. She is a prostitute, yet she has an elusive smile that the narrator concludes is the smile of a saint. Her horrific experience as a prostitute during the Holocaust has clearly shattered her emotionally. As she undresses, she acts as if she is mentally ill: The narrator discerns a terrified and unusual look upon her face—a look that is not sane. Sarah may remind readers of Miss Emily Atkins, as well as many other eighteenth-century British heroines, who is a virtuous woman forced into prostitution beginning with a rape (Atkins appears in Henry Mackenzie's novel The Man of Feeling 1771).
Gyula, a Hungarian friend of the narrator, is extremely abrasive and is, in fact, shocking. He insults and yells at the nurses who take care of the narrator as he recovers from his life-threatening illness. The narrator describes him in the following manner: "A painter, of Hungarian origin, Gyula was a living rock. A giant in every sense of the word. Tall, robust, gray and rebellious hair, mocking and burning eyes; he pushed aside everything around him: altars, ideas, mountains. Everything trembled, vibrated, at his touch, at the sight of him." Despite his poor manners and abrasive personality, Wiesel implies that there is something likeable about him—his concern for his good friend, the narrator. Gyula does care about the narrator even though he constantly yells at him, mistreats him, and refuses to allow the nurse to give the narrator an injection. Like a character in a medieval morality play, he comes to redeem the protagonist and offer hope.