The Fifth Son (Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction) - Essay

Elie Wiesel

The Fifth Son (Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The symbolically nameless narrator, a student of philosophy in New York City, embarks on a psychological journey into the past in an attempt to understand his father’s silences and his mother’s mental illness. Eventually he learns that his father, Reuven Tamiroff, participated in the grenade murder of a Nazi military governor who was responsible for innumerable atrocities, including the death of the narrator’s brother. When it is established that the governor did not die in the explosion as previously thought, Reuven Tamiroff’s son feels driven to travel to Germany to confront the man, perhaps to extract the ultimate revenge in his father’s place.

On the simplest level, the book could be read as a suspenseful mystery, but this would be to do it a grave injustice. Wiesel, who is chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, skillfully succeeds in lifting his work above a specific time and place into the realm of the universal, and in so doing, he provides the reader with insights into many of the major issues of human existence. While the story is deeply rooted in Jewish theology and history, it also deals with relationships: the relationship between God and man; between life and death; between past, present, and future; between tormentors and their victims.

The title of the book, for which the author received Le Grand Prix De La Litterature De La Ville De Paris, is a reference to a story in the Haggadic section of the Talmud. Marion Wiesel, the author’s wife, has rendered an exquisite translation of the novel from the French original.


Abrahamson, Irving, ed. Against Silence: The Voice and Vision of Elie Wiesel, 1985 (three volumes).

Brown, Robert McAfee. Elie Wiesel: Messenger to All Humanity, 1983.

Fine, Ellen S. Legacy of Night: The Literary Universe of Elie Wiesel, 1982.

Mano, D. Keith. “An Omen or Three,” in The National Review. XXXVII (July 12, 1985), pp. 57-59.

Morton, Frederic. “Execution as an Act of Intimacy,” in The New York Times Book Review. XC (March 24, 1985), p. 8.