Study Guide

Everything Is Illuminated Analysis

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Something (At Least One Thing) Is Illuminated

    The title of this book is almost a promise: Look, we know this book is a challenge, but just keep reading: everything will be illuminated.

    Alex goes through this exact thought process while he's reading the uber-confusing parts of the novel written by Jonathan Safran Foer (the character). He writes, "You will be happy to know that I proceeded, suspending my temptation to cast off your writing into the garbage, and it all became illuminated" (17.3).

    Okay, Jonathan, we get it: we won't throw this book away.

    Depending on how much you committed to the book, you might find that nothing was illuminated. Or maybe just one or two things were illuminated. But since the book ends in the middle of a sentence, we have to think that not everything was illuminated.

    Things That Were Illuminated

    Just for fun (and because we're pretty sure it's meaningful), let's take a look at two other instances of the word "illuminated." One occurs when a wink of lightning illuminates the Kolker peeping in at Brod at the window (13.82); the other occurs when the Germans burn down the synagogue with the Jews inside, and the fire "illuminated those who were not in the synagogue those who were not going to die" (29.86).

    In this case, the people being illuminated are those who pointed to the Jews when interrogated by the Nazis. These people would feel guilt for what they had done for the rest of their lives. The weird thing about both of these scenes is that the light is illuminating things that the people on the outside really shouldn't be seeing: a naked girl, and people being burned alive. In both cases, illuminated is unethical.

    If you ask us, this is pretty weird—and pretty interesting. Is Foer suggesting that there's something unethical about his journey to illuminate his own ancestor's story? Or about our desire to read stories about the Holocaust and other instances of horror?

    The Illumination

    One more scene bears mentioning here, mainly because we're not sure where else to talk about it. Although the word "illuminate" doesn't show up, there's a scene when Trachimbrod pretty much turns into an orgy and everyone glows. We're told, "From space, astronauts can see people making love as a tiny speck of light. Not light, exactly, but a glow that could be mistaken for light—a coital radiance that takes generations to pour like honey through the darkness to the astronaut's eyes" (13.66).

    Besides being another instance of a time when things that should be private are lit up, this scenes makes us think that maybe Foer is saying that love illuminates the world. (Or orgies. Either way.)

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    Where Do We Go From Here?

    This journey does not end up where we expect it to.

    At first, it feels like Jonathan Safran Foer is the main character. His name is on the cover, after all. Alex and his Grandfather are just Jonathan's tour guides, right? We expect Jonathan to find Augustine, learn all about his grandfather, and have a fun-slash-wacky time along the way.

    That … doesn't happen.

    First, the woman they find isn't Augustine. In fact, Augustine is probably dead. Instead, the woman who is Not-Augustine, Lista, gives them a photo that reveals all about Alex's Grandfather'spast, not Jonathan's.

    Then, Grandfather confesses to killing his best friend, Herschel. He didn't do it with his bare hands, but he told the Nazis Herschel was a Jew in order to save himself and his family, and Herschel was burned alive. Grandfather lets all this spill in a whopping paragraph that goes over five pages and has words that blendtogetherlikethis. He says "we all pointedateachother so what is it he should have done hewouldhavebeenafooltodoanythingelse" (29.86) and "he is stillguilty I am I am I am IamI?" (29.86).

    The revelation is so shocking, it's no wonder Grandfather goes a little incoherent. This Faulknerian paragraph is the literary equivalent of someone staring you in the eye and revealing their biggest secret—which you'd maybe rather not hear. It's not easy to tell, and it's not easy to hear (or read) either.

    After that, Grandfather cries a lot and kills himself. Jonathan and Alex stop writing to each other (and we're not 100% sure why), and Alex gets up the guts to kick his own abusive father out of the house in order to create a better life for his younger brother. That is not at all where we figured we'd end up, and we have to wonder, just what exactly was illuminated during this trip?

  • Setting

    Ukraine, Late 1990s and Trachimbrod, 1791—1942

    The vision we get of the Ukraine in this book is best summed up this way:

    "There are many dangerous people who want to take things without asking from Americans, but also kidnap them. Good night." [Jonathan] laughed again, but he laughed because he did not know that I was not making a funny. (10.28)

    Um, lol? We also hear Alex talk about how people love to steal things, hurt people, and that Ukraine is generally dangerous. Despite all this, Alex often defends his country (and reminds us how hot its women are… hey, Mila Kunis!), and doesn't want to see it disparaged. (We guess he can critique it since he's a native.)

    The modern-day part of the story takes place in Ukraine, but half of the book also takes place in the past, set in the lost shtetl of Trachimbrod. We're told it's also called "Sofiowka" but only on "maps and Mormon census records" (2.7). It's full of wacky characters, who interact with each other primarily through gossip and legend: "The less a citizen knew, the more adamantly he or she argued" (2.42).

    Gee, sounds like cable news. Zing!

    In any case, Trachimbrod's defining feature is Trachimday, a festival originally intended to find Trachim's body, but now featuring a parade and a contest. Death by drowning! Hooray!

    But don't put on your party hat just yet. Not-Augustine tells us that Trachimbrod "ended fifty years ago" (18.18). The Trachimbrod we see is created by Jonathan Safran Foer (the character) based on stories he hears and things he finds in the box Augustine gives him. We never really know whether his Trachimbrod is based in fact or entirely a work of magical fiction.

    But this is really a book about writing stories. So if it feels real, does it matter if it ever existed at all?

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (5) Tree Line

    At first, Everything is Illuminated seems a lot more like Everything is Intimidating. The first chapter (and about half the book's total chapters) is narrated by Alex, who has a, shall we say, tenuous grasp of the English language. He uses "oppress" when he means "impress" (5.11), "oblongated" (9.1) instead of "obligated," and the funny idiom "manufacture any Z's" (5.13) when he means "sleeping." Depending on your patience level, this can be annoying or hilarious.

    The rest of the chapters take place in a Jewish shtetl (basically a village) and span from 1791 to 1942. It has more time shifts than True Detective, and the character names are strange even to Alex. But lucky you! We have a handy summary to help you out.

    And if you're wondering if this whole journey is going to pay off, don't worry: everything will be illuminated.

  • Writing Style

    Experimental/Literary

    Here's a quote from Everything is Illuminated:

    We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing… We are writing…" (24.115)

    Yes, that's the phrase "we are writing" repeated 193 times. But who's counting?

    This is a book about writing, and boy, does Jonathan Safran Foer (the writer, not the character) play with writing. In addition to the above quote, sections of the book are written like a play, like an almanac or encyclopedia, paragraphs that span multiple pages, and sometimesevenwordsandsentenceswritten likethis.

    This is a book about the journey, not the destination. And Jonathan Safran Foer (the writer, not the character, because the character is a square) makes sure that you're paying attention.

  • The IN CASE Box

    Justin Case

    Not-Augustine gives Jonathan a box marked IN CASE, filled with memories of Trachimbrod. Inside, they find things like a necklace, an old map, the last vestiges of Cameron Diaz's career, and the fateful photograph that jogs Grandfather's memory of his friend Herschel and sets the end of the novel into motion.

    So, why "in case"? The box is marked IN CASE just in case someone comes along who knows what to make of its contents. When Not-Augustine pulls a ring out, she says, "The ring does not exist for you. You exist for the ring. The ring is not in case of you. You are in case of the ring" (23.16). In other words, she's counting on Jonathan to give the objects meaning. If Grandfather weren't around, it would just be another photo. But since he is there, he can pass the story along to Alex, who can then pass it along to others. Without the memory, the photo is basically meaningless. (This was before Instagram filters gave Insta-cred to snapshots of your breakfast bagel.)

    Here's the thing: supposedly, Jonathan is crafting the story of his ancestors from the objects in the box, so we're assuming that many of the objects that are significant in the novel—Yankel's abacus bead, Brod's mermaid costume, Safran's constantly busy manhood—were inside the box. But we learn early on that the box was stolen on the train when he returned to America—which means he can't have spent much time with them. 

    How many of these objects actually existed, and how many are only in the just-in-case box of his mind?

  • The Dial

    Son Dial

    The Dial is a large statue in Trachimbrod, but it's not just a statue: it's the bronzed body of the Kolker. Seriously. After he dies, they bronze his body (at least it's not carbonite, y'all), and then people flock from all over to rub various parts of his body. The gross thing is, as they wear it away down to the flesh (ew) they have to rebronze it. This bronzing treatment changes the way he looks, which Jonathan describes in this way, using up his allotted quota of "greats" in the process:

    So when my grandfather thought he saw that he was growing to look like his great-great-great-grandfather, what he really saw was that his great-great-great-grandfather was growing to look like him. (16.275)

    Jonathan calls this "reverse heredity" (16.275)—don't tell Darwin—and it's a literal representation of how, the more we learn about our ancestors, the more we can identify with them them. But it's more complicated than just sitting around and listening to your PopPop's story about how he used to have to walk uphill both ways barefoot in the snow to get to school. Foer suggests that we shape them to relate to us, that in some way we change the stories we tell to explain how we came to be—the way Jonathan is shaping a story about himself by inventing a story about his grandfather.

  • The Holes

    Glory Glory!

    There are two significant holes-in-the-wall (or is it hole-in-the-walls?) in this story.

    First, when Brod is born, she is stored in the Upright Synagogue. (Definitely pediatrician-approved.) Women aren't allowed to enter this synagogue, obviously, so they have to look at her through a hole in the wall. Since the hole is so tiny, they can't get a good view. Instead, all they see is pieces of her. Spooky! The hole adds to Brod's mystique and builds up an atmosphere of fear.

    Brod must have been shaped by her childhood events, since she later cuts a hole in the wall to view her husband in the year before he dies. (He's secluded himself in a room after an accident which changes his mood and makes him beat her.) Weirdly, seeing each other in pieces—sometimes nekkid pieces—ends up bringing them together more intimately than before. Unlike when she was a child, this hole alleviates the fear Brod feels toward her husband. In fact, it brings them so close together that Brod conceives her third child through the hole.

    These holes raise an important question: can you ever look at all of a person? Don't we see everyone through a theoretical hole, piecing together the—ahem—whole from a series of glimpses?

  • White String

    Cat's Cradle

    There's so much white string in this book, you could crochet enough doilies for the next royal wedding. We first see white string as one of the bits of flotsam in the river Brod after Trachim B's wagon accident. White string also holds the mysterious abacus bead around Yankel's neck (we never learn exactly why he wears it). Finally, every Trachimday day "canopies of thin white string spanned the narrow dirt arteries of Trachimbrod" (13.51). They make connections between candlesticks, clotheslines, doorknobs, fountains, and more.

    What's the fascination with white string? Do they not want to forget the oatmeal when they grocery shopping

    We think the string symbolizes the connections between people, and the trails they leave through the lives, as they go from one place to another. (Kind of like the liquid spears in Donnie Darko which show where people are going, not where they've been.) The outlier is the white string around Yankel's neck. It's not connected to anything… but that makes sense too. After all, he's isolated from the community.

    Jonathan makes the connection between string and memory when he says, "Children had it the worst of all […] Their strings were not even their own, but tied around them by parents and grandparents—strings not fastened to anything, but hanging loosely from the darkness" (32.7). In other words, children inherit the string of their parents, and it's up to children (like Jonathan and Alex) to follow, untangle, and make stories of the string.

    Or, if they're really bored, Jacob's Ladder

  • Books

    Book 'Em

    Everything is Illuminated is a book about writing, so it's fitting that it's a book filled with fictional books.

    One of these is The Book of Antecedents, which is a really just a book of events that the villagers keep to say, essentially, "we exist"! The people are writing for the sake of writing: "When there was nothing to report, the full-time committee would report its reporting, just to keep the book moving, expanding, becoming more like life: We are writing… We are writing… We are writing…" (24.11). In other words, it's basically the 19th-century equivalent of wearing a webcam everywhere you go. (Yes, even back then, people were obsessed with tracking every single mundane detail of life.)

    Another book within a book (within a book, since part of Everything is Illuminated is the book that Jonathan Safran Foer the character is writing…) is The Book of Recurrent Dreams. Like the Book of Antecedents, this book is a way for villagers to record everything that didn't happen… but could.

    In fact, one of the dreams seems to come true: Brod's dream of the raid on Trachimbrod, which she calls "The dream of the end of the world" (33.22). Given that we have no idea where Brod came from, or, if she was even human in the first place, we have to wonder if she was just a dreamer or actually a prophet.

  • Narrator Point of View

    Everything is Obfuscated

    The narration of Everything is Illuminated is all over the place. 

    • We have chapters written in first-person from the point of view of Alex, the Ukrainian translator. 
    • We have letters from Alex to Jonathan. 
    • And we have a story that takes place about two hundred years ago told in an omniscient POV, but really written by Jonathan Safran Foer (the character, not the author, although since the author is writing the character… man, anyone got some Advil?).

    Everything is Illuminated is as much about how the story is told as it is about the story. To be frank (Anne Frank, if you will) there are a ton of World War II and Holocaust stories out there. They're all tragic and terrible in their own way. If this book were written as a straight-forward piece of fiction, would it have been as popular? Or would it have gotten lost in the amount of both fiction and non-fiction out there, overshadowed by things like Schindler's List and The Book Thief?

    Everything is Unreliable

    And then there's the question of the narrator—and we're not talking about Alex. We trust that guy. But we don't trust this Jonathan Safran Foer fellow. Anyone who would put himself into a fictional novel is not to be trusted. (We're looking at you, Tim O'Brien.)

    So, just how true is Jonathan's story about Trachimbrod and his ancestors? Remember: it's pieced together from the pieces of Not-Augustine's box… a box which was stolen on the train. How much of it is historical fact, and how much is all made up? (Yes, we know we're talking about fiction, but within the world of the book it's supposed to be real.)

    And if it's all made up, which it probably is, why does he make it so tragic, instead of making it a love story the way Alex suggests? Is it simply a different kind of love story?