Study Guide

Everything Is Illuminated Memory and the Past

By Jonathan Safran Foer

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.