Study Guide

Everything Is Illuminated Themes

  • Literature and Writing

    You'd think every book would be about literature and writing, but there are some literary characters whom we don't think have ever cracked a book. (Anastasia Steele says she loves British literature, but honestly, where does she find the time?)

    One of the main characters in Everything is Illuminated, however, is a writer. A writer named Jonathan Safran Foer. That's right: there's a character in this book named after the author of the book. That's a big flag that this is going to be a literary journey. In this book, we not only read about Jonathan's journey, we read what he's writing about the journey. Get ready for some hardcore bookception, Shmoopers.

    Questions About Literature and Writing

    1. Does the (sometimes unintentional) humor from Alex add to the story, or take away from the seriousness of its subject matter?
    2. Which writing style did you like more? Alex's or Jonathan's? Which is more "literary"? What does it even mean to be "literary"?
    3. Why does Jonathan write the story about Trachimbrod?
    4. Why do you think Alex suggests that he was born to be a writer and Jonathan wasn't? Does Alex find himself a better writer?
    5. Why does Yankel write fake letters from the wife who left him? Do you think he starts to believe them?

    Chew on This

    Everything is Illuminated isn't really about the story; it's about how the story is told.

    Even though the story Jonathan creates about Trachimbrod is fictional, that doesn't mean it's not true.

  • Memory and the Past

    If a tree falls in the woods, and no one is around to hear it, did it fall at all? (Any squirrels crushed beneath it would say "YES." Or they would, if they weren't squished flat.) And if something happens, and the memory isn't recorded, does it happen at all? We humans record memories in our brains, but those memories disappear once we die. The only way to preserve the memories is through photos, videos, writing, or other records. In Everything is Illuminated, Jonathan tries to shine a light on his grandfather's past. By writing about it, he makes it real—even when it takes the form of legend.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. Why is preserving the memory of his grandfather so important to Jonathan?
    2. Why does Grandfather decide to tell a story he's kept to himself for most of his life?
    3. Once Alex and Jonathan know about their grandparents' pasts, what do they decide to do with their new knowledge? How do they each handle these revelations?
    4. Why do the people of the shtetl record everything in books like The Book of Antecedents and The Book of Recurrent Dreams?
    5. How does Yankel create a new past for himself and for Brod?

    Chew on This

    Alex's grandfather has hope that, if he doesn't speak of his past, he can convince himself it didn't happen. By putting words to the horrors, he makes them real.

    Lista P (a.k.a. Not-Augustine) knows that a memory without a person is meaningless. People must give meaning to memories to make them worth something.

  • Truth

    When the author of the book is actually in the book, does that make it true? Or does the obvious fabrication of magical-type events make a book untrue? And is Everything is Illuminated a creative work of semi-fiction like The Things they Carried or two covers full of lies like A Million Little Pieces?

    We're pretty sure it's the former. (At least we'd like to think so. Oprah didn't yell at Jonathan Safran Foer—we know that much.) The Holocaust definitely happened, with horrific events just like the ones Grandfather and Not-Augustine describe. Foer may have embellished his story to be an entertaining and thought-provoking piece of fiction, but does fiction, by definition, mean that something isn't true?

    Questions About Truth

    1. Alex and Jonathan disagree over truth's place in writing. Should a writer maintain a certain level of factuality, even in fiction?
    2. How much of Jonathan's story about Trachimbrod do you think is true? (Think about this in terms of the novel, not in terms of whether or not the book itself is non-fiction. Is character-Jonathan telling us the truth?)
    3. Why does Jonathan encourage Alex to lie about certain things? Why does Alex encourage Jonathan to change his story?
    4. Why does Jonathan keep his story from his own grandmother?

    Chew on This

    Jonathan, as a writer, has no problem bending the truth to create a story that pleases him. That's why he tries to get Alex to take out characters (like Sammy Davis Junior, Junior) but refuses to take Alex's suggestions to change his story from what feels "true."

    Alex believes in telling the truth, which is why he writes out his Grandfather's story word-for-word, despite how horrific it is. However, he bends the truth to protect his little brother after Grandfather's suicide. Perhaps the truth is best left to fiction.

  • Family

    Grandparents are great sources of information: the cheap price of gas, sepia-toned family photos, stories about how they were responsible for the death of their best friend during World War II ….

    Okay, not all family memories are good ones. As we discover in Everything is Illuminated, Alex's Grandfather has a tragic past. But he reveals it because he doesn't want his grandson to live in the same, violent world. Alex's family is dysfunctional enough as it is, with Alex's abusive father and pretending-to-be-blind Grandfather, so Grandfather does what he can to make amends and fix things.

    Meanwhile, Jonathan isn't lucky enough to have a living Grandfather to tell him stories, so he has to create a dysfunctional family tale of his own.

    Questions About Family

    1. Why does Alex's father act the way he does? Is Alex's Grandfather responsible for that man's abusive behavior?
    2. Is Alex more like his father or his grandfather?
    3. Why does Jonathan create a story about his grandfather? Why doesn't he ask his grandmother about her past?
    4. Who do you think Brod's real parents are? Where did she come from? Was Trachim really her father? Does any of that even matter?

    Chew on This

    Alex is motivated by being a father figure to his younger brother Little Igor because their father is abusive and irresponsible.

    Yankel and Brod create a "perfect" family of their own. Even though it's just foster father and daughter, they live in a world of love and affection for one another, a world that is totally different from the real world.

  • Fate and Free Will

    Your parents didn't just have to meet (and do a little more, but we'll talk about that in this section) in order to have you. Their parents had to meet, and theirs, and theirs, and so on. Every little bit of history, even the horrific parts, conspired to bring them all together. At least, if you think that your existence is the result of fate.

    Jonathan Safran Foer (the character) seems to think that his grandfather's existence is the culmination of over a century of fateful occurrences. But where does fate end and free will begin? Is fate really making Safran sleep with every woman in sight, or is it something else?

    Questions About Fate and Free Will

    1. What choices bring characters together? Which characters are brought together by fate?
    2. Was Brod fated to live a sad, tragic existence from the very beginning? Why doesn't she try and change her fate, even after she has the vision of her own rape?
    3. Was the shtetl's fate sealed from the beginning, as the result of Trachim's mysterious wagon accident? Could they have done anything to avoid destruction of their village?
    4. Why does The Kolker go to work at the flour mill? How would his and Brod's life have been different had the accident not happened? Or if the accident had killed him?

    Chew on This

    Jonathan believes more in fate, and Alex believes more in free will. Jonathan is just looking to see what he will find, while Alex consciously makes choices (saving money, kicking his father out of the house) to make a better life for himself.

    Safran uses "fate" as an excuse for his infidelities, when in fact, he makes the choice to cheat on his wife and to have over 100 mistresses.

  • Sex

    Sexual prowess and masculinity are often closely intertwined. We see it in literature (like Love in the Time of Cholera) and in films (umm, Deuce Bigelow: Male Gigolo?)—and we see it in Everything is Illuminated. Alex, who is Ukrainian, also believes that it's important to be sexually promiscuous in order to be seen as masculine. This must run deep in the culture, because in the story Jonathan crafts about his Grandfather, Safran sleeps with pretty much everyone who moves. It must skip a generation (or two), though: the sexiest thing we see Jonathan do is peer down a waitress's blouse.

    Questions About Sex

    1. Why does Alex brag about his sexual activity? What prompts him to tell the truth?
    2. Why does Safran sleep with so many women? Does he enjoy it?
    3. Why do Brod and the Kolker have sex through a hole in the wall? Why doesn't she just go into the bedroom with him?
    4. Are Ukrainian attitudes toward sex different than American attitudes, at least the way Jonathan presents them? How do the sexual attitudes of the shtetl compare with modern-day sexual attitudes?

    Chew on This

    Alex thinks that being sexually promiscuous makes him a more "premium" person; however, he ironically thinks that Safran should settle down and love just one woman. At heart, he believes in love more than sex.

    In Everything is Illuminated, love matters more than sex. That's why Safran can't orgasm during sex—he doesn't love anyone he has sex with.

  • Love

    If love makes the world go round, did the world stop during World War II? That just might be the fundamental question of Everything is Illuminated, which is all about trying to find love during difficult times. Brod has to find love, despite the death of her adopted father. Safran has to find love amidst all the hundreds of women he sleeps with. And Grandfather mourns the loss of a friend he loved (and whose death he caused) during the war. Love might be hard to find in Everything is Illuminated, but when you do find it, it lights up the world.

    Questions About Love

    1. When does Safran realize that he loves the Gypsy girl? Why doesn't he tell her?
    2. Safran believes that it's impossible to love more than one person. Do you agree? Does he end up loving more than one person?
    3. Does Alex love Jonathan?
    4. Yankel and Brod create their own environment of love. Does this set unrealistic expectations for Brod regarding love in the real world?

    Chew on This

    People don't fall in love in this book; they have to work at it. For example, Yankel creates love for his ex-wife, and Safran has to work to realize that he loves the Gypsy girl.

    Jonathan Safran Foer (the character) writes about love in the way he does because he himself has never been in love. That is why he sees love as a process, and not something natural.

  • Religion

    All though Everything is Illuminated, religion drives people apart almost as much as it brings them together. Trachimbrod is formed by Jews who are fleeing anti-Jewish laws, but the Jews themselves divide into those who worship at the Upright Synagogue and those of the Slouching Synagogue. The Nazis try to wipe out the Jews, and they rely on the Ukrainians who lives among them to turn them in, which Grandpa does to Herschel. And in the modern day story, Alex, a Ukrainian himself, doesn't understand Jonathan and his Judaism at all.

    But there's one major difference: In this case, Alex and his Grandfather make efforts to understand it. Too bad the Nazis didn't take the same approach.

    Questions About Religion

    1. Does Everything is Illuminated help you understand Jewish folklore, or does it confuse you further?
    2. Why does Alex think that Jonathan, as a Jew, will look different than a regular person? Where does Alex get his assumptions of what Jewish people are like?
    3. Why is Trachimbrod split between the Upright Synagogue and the Slouching Synagogue? What do the two groups have in common?
    4. What is the significance of Sammy Davis Junior, Junior being named after a famous person who is also Jewish?

    Chew on This

    It's hard to believe in God when you've seen the end of the world, and many characters in this book see what they think is the end of the world, especially when the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust commence.

    Alex and Jonathan are repeating some of the same mistakes made by Alex's Grandfather and Herschel, who were also of different religions. But because they live in a different time, no one dies because of these differences.

  • Tradition and Customs

    Traveling to a different country also brings about some form of culture shock, whether it be from misunderstood hand gestures or a dog who won't stop humping you in the backseat of your translator's car. All right, a randy dog is more of an Alex thing than a Ukrainian thing, but that doesn't mean that Jonathan Safran Foer (the character) doesn't encounter more cultural differences during his time in the Ukraine, like a lack of vegetarianism, people being really proud about their coffee, and the fact that no one there seems to have seen a Jew before. Culture shock runs both ways.

    Questions About Tradition and Customs

    1. What surprises Jonathan most about the Ukraine? Or does anything seem to surprise him?
    2. What cultural differences does Alex have trouble understanding about Jonathan? Do they eventually bridge the cultural divide?
    3. How the shtetl's culture in Jonathan's half of the story similar to modern-day Ukrainian culture? How is it different?

    Chew on This

    Alex bridges the gap with Jonathan by focusing on the fact that he is American, not that he is Jewish, because Alex is fascinated with American culture but knows nothing about Jewish culture.

    Part of the reason Alex writes the story about Trachimbrod is to record and share their traditions and customs, when otherwise they would have been lost to time and war.

  • Exploration

    Because Everything is Illuminated begins with the promise of a quest—Jonathan Safran Foer (the character) is headed to the Ukraine to find information about his grandfather—you'd think Exploration would be higher up on our list of themes. And the journey is important, maybe even more important than the destination, because we totally end up in a different place we'd expect. It's just that so much more happens along the way. Plus, the characters are often focused on other things, so it feels like the Ukrainian countryside just flies by. Maybe the real exploration here is the internal kind.

    Questions About Exploration

    1. Why is Jonathan looking for Augustine? Why does Alex's Grandfather want to fine Augustine so badly?
    2. What do you think is the most difficult part of the journey?
    3. What comic events happen to Jonathan over the course of the journey? How do the comic mishaps actually affect the journey?
    4. Does Jonathan find what he's looking for? Something else? Anything?

    Chew on This

    Everything is Illuminated is just as much about the journey itself—and the people (and dogs) met along the way—as it is about the destination. Maybe even more so.

    Jonathan vicariously explores Trachimbrod through the items in the box given to him by Not-Augustine—but only until they're lost on the train. Perhaps Trachimbrod wasn't meant to be explored.