Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The Oath examines conflicts between good and evil, man and God, destiny and human will. While depicting the ugliness and absurdity of death, it also shows how death creates a burden for the survivor: “Your contracts with the dead, the dead take with them, too late to cancel or modify their terms. They leave you no way out.” Moshe chooses death, the young man contemplates it, but Azriel has seen too much of it. To save the young man is to sustain hope.

Moshe justifies the oath of silence by saying, “Man has only one story to tell, though he tells it in a thousand different ways: tortures, persecutions, manhunts, ritual murders, mass terror.” Elie Wiesel clearly disagrees, for The Oath, despite its horrifying subject, is a celebration of the art and tradition of storytelling. Azriel even begins his story “Once upon a time,...” Both Azriel and Wiesel are concerned with turning history into legend. Wiesel is vague about the time and place because his story could be set anywhere at any time; the name Kolvillag comes from the Hebrew kol, meaning every, and the Hungarian villag, meaning village.

By juxtaposing stories from the Pinkas, Azriel’s accounts of his life, Moshe, and the pogrom, stories told by Moshe, and the young man’s commentary on all this, Wiesel emphasizes the need for memory, conscience, and imagination. The magical effect of storytelling is shown when the young man is transformed into a survivor. The narrative does not truly end, since it will change and grow as it becomes part of the young man’s life and will continue to be altered as he passes it on, becoming more mythical with the passage of time.