Study Guide

Everything Is Illuminated Family

By Jonathan Safran Foer


"One day you will do things for me that you hate. That is what it means to be a family." (1.4)

She used to wipe your bum; one day you'll wipe her bum. (Or something like that.) This is coming from Alex's mother, who toils away for her family because she wants a better life for them. Of course, Alex's father is cruel and abusive, so simply being "family" isn't the end-all be-all reason to treat someone with care and respect.

Grandfather's name is also Alexander. Supplementally is Father's. We are all the primogenitory children in our families, which brings us tremendous honor. (1.11)

We see this repetition of family names often throughout the book. While Alex's family is a little less creative than Jonathan's (as you'll see later), there's a certain feeling of respect for elders that comes with inheriting a family name—but we bet, from a different angle, it could also make you feel trapped. If you're the sixth Alexander in a line of Alexanders, your path in life has been pretty well mapped out.

What was the image that pulled me in? […] So simple. In the water, I saw my father's face, and that face saw the face of its father, and so on, and so on, reflecting backward to the beginning of time, to the face of God, in whose image we were created. (6.16)

How far back can you trace your ancestry? Is it possible to trace it back to your father's father's father, and then back even further, all the way to the beginning of humanity? Biblical literalists would say yes—we all go back to Adam. But scientists also say yes: every human living on earth shares the common ancestor of Mitochondrial Eve.

Yankel had lost two babies. […] He had also lost a wife, not to death but to another man. (7.3)

As anyone who watches daytime television can confirm, families can be the source of tragedy. Yankel's children both died, one of illness and the other of the flour mill curse (see The Dial in our Symbols section), and then his wife left. But Yankel is lucky: when he finds Brod, he gets to build a new family all over again, even if it is just a father/daughter duo.

When I look in the reflection, what I view is not Father, but the negative of Father. (9.10)

Are you going to grow up to be just like your parents, or are you going to be as different from them as possible? (Those are definitely your only two choices.) Alex belongs to the latter group, and, since being the opposite of Father means not wanting to be an abusive jerk, we think that's a good decision.

"Tell my more about your grandmother. […] Who you spoke of in the car. Your grandmother from Kolki." (18.26)

This is a classic getting-to-know-you conversation starter: Who's your favorite band? Where did you grow up? What's your grandmother like? You know, the classics. This is one of the first personal questions Alex asks Jonathan when they are at Not-Augustine's house. Maybe he's thinking about his own grandmother—or maybe he comes from a culture that focuses more on family than ours does.

"I would watch the world through her dresses. I could see everything, but no one could see me. Like a fort, a hiding place under the covers." (18.27)

Jonathan's story about his grandmother is pretty touching. No wonder he wants to protect her by being careful of what details he mentions in his stories; when he was a child, his grandmother protected him.

I would remove [Father] from my life if I was not such a coward. (22.3)

Families can be kind of like prisons. They're hard to get out of, and you can't just kick someone out easily. Alex is stuck with his father; at least, that's what it feels like until he gets up the guts to kick him out of the house.

"I am his grandson," I said from the back, which made me feel like such a proud person, because I think it was the first occasion I had ever said it in the loud, and I could perceive that it also made Grandfather a proud person. (23.3)

Alex feels good getting to identify with a member of his family, since he sure doesn't want to identify with his jerk of a father. But Grandfather feels good too: he may have raised that jerk of a father, but he did something right with his own grandson.

(You do not have to be shamed in my closeness. Family are the people who must never make you feel ashamed.) (You are wrong. Family are the people who must make you feel ashamed when you are deserving of shame.) (29.29-29.30)

It's difficult to tell who is talking in this section, but the first seems to be Alex and the second seems to be Grandfather. Grandfather wants to feel shame as a result of what he did, and he's counting on Alex, a person he loves wholeheartedly, to be honest with him. Is Alex the right person to do this? Maybe families have do a little bit of both: support and shame.