Study Guide

Everything Is Illuminated

By Jonathan Safran Foer

Everything Is Illuminated Introduction

You can always find a reason for a road trip. Whether you've got your dead aunt strapped to the roof of the car, or you're pushing a VW bus across the country to get to a beauty pageant, or you're stuck in the backseat with a frisky, farting dog trying to find your grandfather's village which was wiped off the map during World War II, well, you're bound to get some good pictures for your Facebook wall out of it.

Everything is Illuminated tells the story of a Jewish vegetarian writer named Jonathan Safran Foer (how did the author of this book, the Jewish vegetarian writer Jonathan Safran Foer, cook up that character?), who is on a journey to find his grandfather's hometown and the woman who saved him during World War II. He's assisted by Alex, a Ukrainian translator with a loose grasp on the English language; Alex's grandfather; and their frisky, farting dog, Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior.

As Alex might say, this is a very premium tale.

Jonathan Safran Foer was only twenty-five when Everything is Illuminated was published. (What are you waiting for?) It was a New York Times Bestseller, an Amazon.com Best Book pick; it won the National Jewish Book Award for fiction in 2001 and The Guardian awarded it their First Book Award in 2002. And then the book was made into a film directed by Liev Schreiber a.k.a. Mr. Naomi Watts and starred Elijah Wood and that guy from the Gypsy punk rock band Gogol Bordello.

But Foer didn't rest on his laurels. He then wrote Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which was also made into a movie; Eating Animals, the book that prompted Natalie Portman to become vegan; and edited an English translation of the Haggadah, a Jewish tale as old as time. So, yeah, this guy knows his stuff when it comes to Jewish folklore, vegetarianism, and storytelling.

Still, not everyone is a Foer #1 fan. His second book didn't get nearly the same favorable reviews, and one scholar accused Foer of distorting the facts, especially when it came to Ukrainian treatment of Jews. He was also named one of Anis Shivani's "15 Most Overrated Contemporary Authors." (You know you've made it when people start calling you overrated.)

So is Illuminated illuminating or infuriating? You'll have to grab a copy for yourself and find out.

What is Everything Is Illuminated About and Why Should I Care?

World War II. The Holocaust. If you've read or watched one story about 'em, you've seen 'em all, right? From Schindler's List and The Reader to Night, Slaughterhouse-Five, Unbroken, and The Book Thief, these are all basically the same story over and over again.

Well, maybe not so much. We're not talking vampires or werewolves, here. We're talking a huge and violent event that changed the world forever. There might not even be a finite number of stories to tell from this global catastrophe.

Everything is Illuminated belongs on the shelf next to the classics. It tells a story (just one story of many) about the atrocities of World War II from the perspective of someone who didn't live through it and is searching for meaning in the stories of his family who did. Everything Is Illuminated asks a lot of hard questions: Who gets to tell the story of what happened? How do we bear witness to tragedy? How do individual stories fit into the larger narrative?

And, most importantly, how do we separate truth from legend—and when does the difference stop mattering?

Everything Is Illuminated Resources

Websites

Who Are You? (We Really Want to Know)
This website is kind of for the book and the movie. Explore the best of both worlds in this Flash site that looks like it was designed in the mid-90s.

Jonathan Safran Facebook
A fan seems to have set up a comprehensive Facebook page so you can stalk… er… follow the author online.

Movie or TV Productions

Elijah Wood Do That
Elijah Wood plays Jonathan Safran Foer in the movie, alongside the frontman for Gogol Bordello, who plays Alex.

Half is Illuminated
Even though the movie only takes on about half the book (sorry all you funny-named villages of the shtetl) Roger Ebert still gave it a full review.

Articles and Interviews

Everything You Wanted to Know about Jonathan Safran Foer… And Didn't Know to Ask
Good thing Jonathan Safran Foer is a relatively young author, or this in-depth profile might be twice as long.

Summarizing Illumination
The publisher shines a light (okay, no more puns) on Foer's debut novel in this Q&A

Master of Fine Fiction
In this interview, Foer talks about how his MFA background informed his writing and how phrases like "stop spleening me!" have become part of fans' vocabulary.

Video

Connie Martinson Explains Brilliance
Chill out with Connie Martinson as she chats with (and kind of flirts with) Jonathan Safran Foer about his book.

Potato Dinner
The vegetarian scene in the movie is taken almost directly out of the book. They should have gotten Natalie Portman to cameo as the waitress…

Audio

All Things Illuminated
Jonathan Safran Foer spoke about his book on All Things Considered in 2002—specifically about how he didn't consider just how foolish his personal journey to Ukraine was.

Worlds Away
David Edelstein critiques the film adaptation of Everything is Illuminated and, unlike us, manages to avoid all "illumination" puns in the process.

Earworm
Who knows if JSF was called a bookworm as a kid, but he talked to the radio program Bookworm about Everything is Illuminated in 2002.

Hear the Illumination
This is a great sample of Alex and his wacky way with the English language.

Images

Where We At?
We found Carmen Sandiego, but where in the world is Jonathan Safran Foer?

Pushing Sunflowers
The movie poster looks like Jonathan Safran Foer guest stars on Pushing Daisies.

Coverage
Everything is Illuminated, like Skittles, comes in a variety of different colors. This fan-made cover is one of our favorites.