Study Guide

Everything Is Illuminated Fate and Free Will

By Jonathan Safran Foer

Fate and Free Will

Grandfather returned to his chair and said, "This is the final one. I will never do it again." (1.13)

Grandfather comes out of retirement for one last case (how many movies have you seen like that?) and it ends up leading him, not Jonathan, toward unlocking a secret of his past. It's almost like he was fated to take this one last trip.

The soul was not ready to transcend, but was sent back, given a chance to right a previous generation's wrong. This, of course, doesn't make any sense. But what does? (3.9)

Stories (fiction or biography or anything in between) try to make sense out of chaos by giving chaos a beginning, a middle, and an end. Or, in the case of baby Brod, they make sense out of a miracle baby who doesn't seem to have a mother or an umbilical cord by suggesting that she was delivered by fate itself. Seems legit.

The Well-Regarded Rabbi placed the crib on the floor, removed a single sopping slip of paper, and hollered, IT APPEARS THAT THE BABY HAS CHOSEN YANKEL AS HER FATHER! (3.29)

If you've got fate in your corner, you can justify anything: it's fate that the baby doesn't move to pick a piece of paper, forcing the Rabbi to do it himself—meaning, of course, that the baby actually did choose her dad. Obviously.


Once again, a lottery (at least not one Shirley Jackson-style) decides the fate of the Shtetl. How would Brod's life have been different if the town had not been kind of named after her (or at least named after the river she was named after)? Would she have had a different role in the town?

Then why do you continue to do it? [Brod] asked. And why, she wondered, remembering the description of her rape, do we pursue it? (13.47)

Even though Brod has seen the future and it's grim, she goes forward with being the Float Queen. Perhaps she knows that if she tried to change the future, the results would be worse—or nonexistent. At least, that's how it always seems to go in time travel stories.

The Kolker was eating a cheese sandwich on a makeshift stool of stacked flour sacks, lost in thought about something Brod had said about something, oblivious to the chaos around him, when the blade hopped off an iron rod (left carelessly on the ground by a mill worker who was later struck by lightning) and embedded itself, perfectly vertical, in the middle of his skull. (16.65)

Talk about fate: the Kolker took the flour mill job in spite of "the curse," but the curse doesn't actually wipe him out. The person whose fault this whole thing was later dies, a secondhand victim of the curse. And this event will later shape many more, like the creation of the Dial. Honestly, if we lived in Trachimbrod, we might just sit around eating cheese sandwiches and waiting for things to happen to us, too.

A fissure of thunder resounded in the distance, and before there was time to close any of the new windows, or even their new curtains, a wind of haunting speed and strength breathed through the house, blowing over the floral centerpieces and tossing the place settings into the air. (19.6)

Safran and Zosha's wedding is both an ill omen (well, that wind seems to signify that it is) and a blessing, because the guest list of the wedding serves as one of the final records of the village's population. Yikes. How's that for a honeymoon memory?

Wasn't everything that had happened, from his first kiss to this, his first marital infidelity, the inevitable result of circumstances over which he had no control? How guilty could he be, really, when he never had any real choice? (20.1)

Deep thoughts, Shmoopers. Is Safran a philanderer because of fate or is he just a man of loose morals (and looser trousers)? And would it change your answer if we told you about the possible genetic basis of infidelity?

"His arm […] caused Augustine to fall in love with him and save him, and it saved him once again, years later, when it prevented him from boarding the New Ancestry to Ellis Island, which would be turned back […] and whose passengers would all eventually perish in the Treblinka death camp." (20.5)

Safran's arm seems to save him from a couple of terrible fates. Honestly, his life would have been very different if he wasn't malnourished—not that we're approving of malnourishment as a general child-rearing strategy, of course.

9:613—The dream of the end of the world (33.22)

Brod's dream of the end of the world is a prediction about what would happen after the Nazis attacked Trachimbrod—maybe not the end of the world, but definitely the end of Trachimbrod. But does that make it fate? Could fate have been stopped?