Literary Techniques

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 400

As with many of his novels, Wiesel draws upon autobiographical information in his characterization of the protagonist. Like Wiesel, the novel's protagonist is a Holocaust survivor named Eliezer who works as a reporter and who suffers a horrendous and nearly fatal accident when run over by a cab driver in New York. Dr. Paul Russel is clearly modeled after Dr. Paul Braunstein, the doctor who saved Wiesel's life after he was run over by a taxi cab and to whom the novelist dedicates this book. Furthermore, the protagonist, like the novelist, has a mother named Sarah.

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As with many of his books, Wiesel's narrative in The Accident continuously weaves back and forth between the past and the present, guided thematically in a loose order. Wiesel employs a stream of consciousness: Events in the narrator's present experience remind him of past events, causing his mind—and that of the reader—to return to similar events that have already taken place. For instance, during the first day in which the protagonist was in a coma, he called out the name Sarah, which was the name of his mother. When Kathleen asks him who Sarah is, he declares that it is his mother's name, and she is satisfied with this answer. However, the discussion about the name reminds him of the prostitute Sarah, a Holocaust survivor with whom he had sex.

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Wiesel also creates suspense in the novel by not mentioning initially the cause of the accident. The protagonist says on several occasions during the first several pages that he may have been awaiting an accident, yet he refuses to say whether he, himself, was involved. The protagonist declares that although he and Kathleen were walking to see a movie, "We still were in the same spot. Why hadn't we moved? Perhaps we were waiting for the accident." The suspense that Wiesel creates piques the readser's curiosity as to who is involved in the accident and if anyone is hurt. But the suspense and the mystery during the early pages serve another purpose as well: They allow the reader to consider the possibility that the protagonist—who is also the victim— has planned to hurt himself and die that day. The foreshadowing clues in this novel, provided by the narrator, suggest that he intentionally allowed himself to be in the way of the speeding taxi cab and that he has a death wish.

Ideas for Group Discussions

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 332

Group discussions might begin with the question of the narrator's decision to allow the car to run him over. Why can't he cope with what he endured and witnessed? The answers to these questions should provoke much valuable discussion. The importance of Gyula's entry late in the novel and his esoteric ramblings should help provide insight into the narrator's decision to end his life and his attempt to hinder Dr. Russel's treatment of him immediately after the accident.

The issues of death and nihilism as symbolized by the narrator lead to an examination of his personality. Do readers like the narrator; do they consider him too nihilistic; do they view him as a traumatized individual?

Group discussions should include some historical information regarding the Holocaust because people who are unfamiliar with it may have difficulty understanding the conflicts, fear, and shame that Eliezer experiences.

1. What role do the supporting characters such as Kathleen, Sarah, Dr. Russel, and Gyula play in the novel?

2. As the novel concludes, with Gyula leaving the protagonist, do you feel that there is hope for Eliezer's emotional wellbeing?

3. The novelist provides some autobiographical information in the book. Does that add to the novel or does it distract the reader because The Accident is a work of fiction?

4. What are the importance of flashbacks in Wiesel's novel? How do they illuminate the character and ethos of the protagonist?

5. What role does sexuality play in developing the themes and social issues?

6. How has Eliezer's faith been affected by the Holocaust? Does he still believe in God?

7. When Eliezer is run over by a taxi cab, he is on the way to see a movie version of Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov. Why does Wiesel pick this movie?

8. Why does the narrator lie to Dr. Russel about his desire to die? Why can't he tell the doctor the truth? Is he afraid of the doctor's views or does he believe that anyone who has not suffered during the Holocaust cannot comprehend his feelings?

Social Concerns

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As in all of Elie Wiesel's books, the primary social concern is the suffering of Holocaust victims, even decades after the conclusion of World War II. Wiesel demonstrates how the effects of the suffering are incessant, and that they do not cease or even diminish over time. The protagonist informs an Englishman whom he encounters that he is "now just a messenger of the dead among the living." Although the Holocaust survivor has endured, Wiesel implies, he only remains partly alive. Part of the survivor dies with the victims whose deaths he observes, and he only remains alive so that he may provide testimony of the atrocities that he has witnessed. The testimony of the Holocaust survivor is important, and that is one of the reasons why Kathleen is attracted to him.

Because the survivor is only partly alive, he might have a yearning for death. The narrator confesses that the accident in which he was struck by a car is, in part, a death wish. He saw the taxi cab coming toward him but chose not to evade it; he could have avoided the accident but made the conscious, albeit split-second, decision to stand his ground. Scholars have sometimes argued that Jewish survivors of the Holocaust experienced tremendous guilt because six million died while they survived; consequently, some feel the need to suffer the same anguish and death of the victims who were not so lucky. They wondered if it were fair that they should live while others did not. The narrator expresses this sentiment and perhaps wants to experience the same fate as the victims. Wiesel thus portrays the inevitable psychological damage suffered by some—but not all—Holocaust victims.

As the novel begins, the narrator talks mysteriously about "the accident." As he walks with his girlfriend Kathleen through New York City in order to see the movie The Brothers Karamazov, a taxi cab hits him, and he is almost killed. He spends several weeks in the hospital, under the medical care of Dr. Paul Russel. The narrator barely survives the accident, and the rest of the novel, like many of Wiesel's novels, shifts back and forth between the present and the past, between the tragedy of the accident and the tragedy of the Holocaust. Wiesel effectively links the two, implying that the suffering during the Holocaust has led to the desire to suffer again. In fact, Dr. Russel angrily—and rightfully—accuses the narrator of refusing to help him while the victim lay on the operating table. Russel asks the narrator, '"Why don't you care about living? . . . I guessed. During the operation. You never helped me. Not once. You abandoned me. I had to wage the fight alone, all alone. Worse. You were on the other side, against me, on the side of the enemy.'" The narrator denies Russel's charge to his face, yet he confesses to the reader that the doctor's accusation is unequivocally accurate.

Thus, Wiesel's novel focuses on a very crucial and topical social concern—the welfare of the Holocaust survivors after the war. The Accident is a book that sheds light on the fates of hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors whose lives were ruined because of the war. Scores of Jews, such as prominent writers Primo Levi and Jerzy Kosinsky, did, in fact, commit suicide years after they survived the Holocaust. The Accident manifests that although some Jews managed to survive the concentration camps, they could not escape the suffering, shock, and the inevitable psychological trauma that would haunt them throughout their remaining years.

During his flashback, the narrator reminisces about Holocaust victims whom he has encountered, as if he feels doomed to suffer and to testify regarding the anguish of others. He seems almost to enjoy the pain that he experiences, perhaps because he realizes that others have suffered more than he. Consequently, their suffering, such as that of the prostitute Sarah, becomes a part of his pain; thus, they become a part of him. Perhaps that is why Wiesel mentions the narrator's name only once: The narrator has lost his identity and becomes almost the personification of suffering and death.

Literary Precedents

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Several memoirs of Holocaust survivors serve as literary precedents, for they demonstrate, as Wiesel does, the impossibility of returning to normal life after the Holocaust. Two influential memoirs with which Wiesel would no doubt be familiar are Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz (1958) and Tadeusz Borowski's This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen (1948). These two works manifest how a Holocaust survivor, such as Eliezer (the narrator), can be affected forever by the atrocities. Levi, an Italian chemist, and Borowski, a Polish underground writer, describe how life in Auschwitz ruined their lives forever, how they could never recover. In fact, Levi committed suicide in 1987 and Borowski took his own life by opening a gas valve in 1951. Their autobiographies are similar to Wiesel's characterization of Eliezer, and they took their own lives, as Eliezer attempts to do in The Accident.

Another literary precedent is William Shakespeare's Hamlet (1600-1601). Eliezer and Hamlet have seen death (although in Shakespeare's drama, the anguish and suffering are on a much smaller scale) and feel the need to end their lives because they cannot live with the feelings of guilt. The protagonists experience feelings of helplessness and contemplate suicide.

Sarah's horrific experiences have precedents in the eighteenth-century British novel. Novels by Henry Mackenzie (The Man of Feeling), Samuel Richardson (Pamela, 1740, and Clarissa, 1747-1748), and John Cleland (Fanny Hill, 1748-1749) describe situations in which a woman living in an oppressed society is raped and consequently forced into prostitution. The sin is not her fault because she has no control over her situation. For social and psychological reasons, the woman must remain a prostitute. A similar misfortune happens to Bianca in Thomas Middleton's seventeenth-century play, Women Beware Women (1621).

Eliezer's inability to return emotionally to society after the horrors that he has witnessed may remind the reader of the protagonist in Nathaniel Hawthorne's Young Goodman Brown (1835).

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 128

Sources for Further Study

Brown, Robert McAfee. Elie Wiesel: Messenger to All Humanity. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983.

Fine, Ellen S. Legacy of “Night”: The Literary Universe of Elie Wiesel. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982.

Freedman, Samuel G. “Bearing Witness.” The New York Times, October 23, 1983, p. A32.

Kolbert, Jack. The Worlds of Elie Wiesel: An Overview of His Career and His Major Themes. Selinsgrove, Pa.: Susquehanna University Press, 2001.

Rosen, Alan, ed. Celebrating Elie Wiesel: Stories, Essays, Reflections. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998.

Rosenfeld, Alvin H., and Irving Greenberg, eds. Confronting the Holocaust: The Impact of Elie Wiesel. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978.

Wiesel, Elie, and Richard D. Heffner. Conversations with Elie Wiesel. Edited by Thomas J. Vinciguerra. New York: Schocken Books, 2001.

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Characters