Critical Overview

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The reception of Night has remained consistent. The book did not fetch a high price, and the criticism upon its publication was favorable but superficial. Reviewers were quick to empathize with the narrative but offered nothing in the way of critique or constructive engagement.

As time passed, however, critics like Simon P. Sibelman have approached the work as an ethical treatise demanding reflection. They have begun to ask Wiesel’s question, “What is the state of our morality at the dawn of the next century?” Critics have also grappled with how Wiesel accomplished what many said couldn’t be done—transcribe the horror of the Holocaust into literary form. Thus, while Wiesel’s book makes no distinguishing claim between art and life, a few critics have explored what has come to be known as the Holocaust aesthetic. Most reviews suggest the novel as compulsory for anyone concerned about civilization. Few want to accept it for what it is, a gentle voice of reason asking us to never allow the Holocaust to recur.

W. H. Hager’s review for the Christian Century is typical of early reviews. Hager says blandly, "it is a personal record of a child’s experience. As such it should be given a place beside Anne Frank's diary. . . . The worst tragedy is always the death of God in the human soul and when we see it happen to a child who has come face to face with man’s evil inhumanity to man we are made to know how dark the night of the soul can be. There are unforgettable moments—like that when the Polish Juliek plays Beethoven among the corpses.” Already, he was repeating what had been said in the August 1960, issue of Kirkus. There the review made an “inevitable comparison with Anne Frank.”

The New Yorker repeated the norm but offered a little more insight in its March 18, 1961, issue: “The author’s style is precise and brief; he catches a person or a scene in a sentence. He lacks self-pity but not self-awareness.” Nothing, however, was said about other semantic aspects like Wiesel’s use of silence and white space.

Not all early reviews were unimaginative. Robert Alter, in “Elie Wiesel: Between Hangman and Victim,” notes the role of mystical Hasidism in the story. He also declares that Night is only the beginning—the factual grounding—for a man whose “imaginative courage . . . endows [his] factually precise writing with a hallucinated more-than-realism: [Wiesel] is able to confront the horror with a nakedly self-exposed honesty rare even among writers who went through the same ordeal.”

Alter then goes on to compare Wiesel’s imaginative landscape with the lyric love poetry of John Donne. This is a refreshing occurrence where one would expect to see a reference to Anne Frank. Alter perceives lyric love poetry as a likely predecessor to Wiesel’s work. In his interpretation, lyric love poetry was the last time writers were so focused on the minutiae of, in their case, the lover and beloved. Alter contends that Wiesel is minutely focused on the relationship between executioners, victims, and spectators.

“Wiesel has been considered the chief novelist of the holocaust . . . [because he] succeeded in blending Jewish philosophy, mythology, and historical experience,” said Lothar Kahn in “Elie Wiesel: Neo-Hasidism” (1968). In the late 1970s, Wiesel’s work was assessed in the 1978 book by Rosenfeld and Greenberg entitled Confronting the Holocaust. Michael Berenbaum explored the trial of faith that Eliezer witnessed in his The Vision of the Void: Theological Reflections on the Works of Elie Wiesel.

In 1982, Ellen S. Fine published a study of the novella called Legacy of Night; The Literary Universe of Elie Wiesel. Keeping with Wiesel, Fine does not draw lines between life and literature. Her book is about the Holocaust, primarily Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust. “The thrust of Wiesel’s writing does not lie in his literary techniques and he has openly rejected the notion of art for art’s sake. He is basically a storyteller with something to say.” Being a storyteller has made him a good lecturer and spokesman. Fine argues that taken together, Wiesel’s fiction forms a whole work with repeated and varied motifs. His work tells a continuous story of a survivor with memories.

D. L. Vanderwerken’s essay explored the traditional genre of bildungsroman and its relationship to Wiesel’s work. In his “Wiesel’s Night as Antibildungsroman,” he makes comparisons with writers like Saul Bellow and Ralph Ellison to show how Eliezer is part of a new fictional hero development. This new hero is worldly to start with, discovers a more devastating wisdom, and is not even happy to be left alive at the end.

The most recent book-length analysis of Wiesel’s fiction is Simon P. Sibelman’s Silence in the Novels of Elie Wiesel. There he presents Wiesel as a navi, a prophet, who speaks in order to move others “to review the course of life [and, thereby,] redefine the human condition.” Sibleman spends a good deal of the book showing how Wiesel’s techniques work toward this end. He discusses how Wiesel uses the semantics of page layout to add to the sense-blank pages and paragraphs made up of one short sentence.

Night remains one of the most powerful literary expressions of the Holocaust. It has been responsible for sharing the Holocaust with millions of people who then register their reaction to the bleak, horrific events in the novel. The novel continues to question the role of literature in our society—a society still dealing with the memory of the Holocaust.

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Critical Evaluation


Essays and Criticism