Study Guide

Everything Is Illuminated Literature and Writing

By Jonathan Safran Foer

Literature and Writing

I am so happy because you were appeased by the first division that I posted to you. You must know that I have performed the corrections you demanded. (4.6)

Alex's letters to Jonathan show us that Jonathan has been helping Alex edit his writing, which are the present-day chapters we're reading about their quest to find Augustine. It's all very meta, reading a book that's about writing a book. (Now, where'd we put that totem?)

Many of the names you exploit are not truthful names for Ukraine. […] Did you invent them? There were many mishaps like this, I will inform you. Are you being a humorous writer here, or an uniformed one?

Score one for Alex. What's the line between writing a humorous book and inventing—or, ahem, exploiting—a culture? Is Jonathan really uninformed, or is he just unethical?

We must review last month's entries. We must go backward in order to go forward. (6.13)

Here, we're learning about the Book of Recurrent Dreams, a place where everyone in the shtetl writes down their dreams. Their dreams say something about themselves and about the village. The idea is that, if they write them down and read them, they'll stop having the same dream over and over again. (We're not sure we'd want to write down all our dreams—especially where anyone else might read them. Just sayin'.)

At night, [Yankel] would reread the letters that [his wife] had never written him. (7.34)

Yankel has his own version of How I Met Your Mother, and it involves forging letters from his dead wife to create a happy marriage so that Brod thinks she had a loving mother. Surprise twist ending (for Brod, at least): the wife actually divorced him. The act of writing and reading the letters makes this fake life feel real to Yankel. Just like Trachimbrod, she comes alive through the act of writing.

I know that you asked me not to alter the mistakes because they sound humorous, and humorous is the only truthful way to tell a sad story, but I think I will alter them. (9.6)

Does Alex's language make you giggle? And do you feel a little guilty about giggling through a book about genocide? This quote lets us know that it's okay: humor is the only way to tell a sad story.

The deceased philosopher Pinchas T, who, in his only notable paper, "To the Dust: From Man You Came and to Man You Shall Return," argued it would be possible, in theory, for life and art to be reversed. (13.1)

We'd love to read this paper. Well, on second thought, it would probably be a lot like this book, which seems to be questioning whether art imitates life or the other way around. (Or does life just imitate TV?)

Perhaps I can continue to aid you as you write more. But not be distressed. I will not require that my name is on the cover. You may pretend that it is only yours. (14.15)

This is a super meta quote because guess what? Alex's name is not on the cover of this novel. (Also, for someone who claims to know little about writing, Alex is really good at knowing how this business works.)

With writing, we have second chances. […] It is true, I am certain, that you will write very many more books than I will, but it is me, not you, who was born to be the writer. (17.8)

Writing is a way for both Alex and Jonathan to create a past, present, and future that they prefer to reality. The difference is that Alex has to make a living somehow, while Jonathan is a middle-class American who has the luxury of creative work.

I do not think that there are any limits to how excellent we could make life seem. (22.7)

Alex wants to write life bigger and better; Jonathan wants to write realistically. Perhaps Jonathan believes that life is awesome enough and doesn't need embellishment. Or maybe he's just deluded; after all, he's the one writing about a village named after a baby who was born from the river. Pretty realistic there, dude.

"What good is all of that love doing on paper?" (29.3)

Grandfather says this to Herschel, who is a poet. You could raise the same question with Jonathan. His story-within-a-story is a love story of a different kind. Does fiction actually accomplish anything, or should we all be reading textbooks to learn about the Holocaust? (Was that a leading question?)