Study Guide

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close Life, Consciousness, and Existence

By Jonathan Safran Foer

Life, Consciousness, and Existence

Chapter 1
Dad (Thomas Schell)

"But if there isn't a reason, then why does the universe exist at all?" […] "Well, what I don't get is why do we exist? I don't mean how, but why." […] He said, "We exist because we exist." "What the?" "We could imagine all sorts of universes unlike this one, but this is the one that happened."

I understood what he meant, and I didn't disagree with him, but I didn't agree with him either. Just because you're an atheist, that doesn't mean you wouldn't love for things to have reasons for why they are. (1.37-38)

Just your typical bedtime conversation about the reasons for existence. Oskar wants reasons; his father's point is that you have to embrace the uncertainty. He's not a religious man, so he can't give Oskar the kind of answer that a person of faith might give. Oskar's not old enough to have his father's nuanced perspective on life. After he loses his father, these "whys" take on even more importance for him.

Oskar Schell

The more I found, the less I understood. (1.28)

Although Oskar's talking about his Dad's vague scavenger hunt here, the author seems to be using this as a metaphor. Especially at Oskar's age, it seems like the more you learn, the more questions you end up having.

Chapter 3
Oskar Schell

It would have been a logical explanation, which is always the best kind, although fortunately it isn't the only kind. (3.23)

You can think of Oskar's search for the meaning of "Black" as metaphor for a search for the meaning of life. And for this question, there is no logical explanation. Being the intellectual and obsessive kid that he is, Oskar always starts with logic when he's trying to find answers, but he's glad that there are other ways to explain things. That sounds like something his Dad would have taught him.

Chapter 4
Grandma

I wish I could be a girl again, with the chance to live my life again. I have suffered so much more than I needed to. And the joys I have felt have not always been joyous. I could have lived differently. (4.28)

This is Oskar's grandmother thinking about her many regrets and wishing for a do-over. Most of what she writes, she writes as lessons for Oskar, and this one seems to be: there are no second chances, so it's important to act and make smart decisions the firstand onlytime around.

Chapter 5
Oskar Schell

I read the first chapter of A Brief History of Time when Dad was still alive, and I got incredibly heavy boots about how relatively insignificant life is, and how, compared to the universe and compared to time, it didn't even matter if I existed at all. (5.1)

Stephen Hawking is probably the world's most famous cosmologist. It's exciting to learn about these things, but the larger the universe seems, the smaller we humans seem by comparison. If you're prone to anxiety and obsessing, like Oskar, you can get depressed contemplating your role in the universe.

Dad (Thomas Schell)

"What would happen if a plane dropped you in the middle of the Sahara Desert and you picked up a single grain of sand with tweezers and moved it one millimeter?" […] "I guess I would have moved a grain of sand." […] "Which would mean you changed the Sahara." (5.1)

Dad tries to offset the existential despair Oskar is feeling after reading Stephen Hawking by telling him that every little action changes the universe in some way. The only way the universe stays the same is if you don't do anything.

Chapter 6
Grandma

"Aren't my life and my feelings the same thing?" (6.1)

Grandma asks a good question here. Aren't our lives simply what we make of them? How much of what you consider your life is made up of things that happen to you, and how much is made up of how you react to these things?

Chapter 7

I felt that night, on that stage, under that skull, incredibly close to everything in the universe, but also extremely alone. I wondered, for the first time in my life, if life was worth all the work it took to live. What exactly made it worth it? What's so horrible about being dead forever, and not feeling anything, and not even dreaming? What's so great about feeling and dreaming? (7.19)

First of all, who thought that it was a good idea to give a kid who lost his Dad the part of Yorick (dead, just a dug-up skull) in a school play? Anyway, leave it to Shakespeare to trigger the big questions in life. Oskar finds it hard to go on having to manage his grief every day. We hope Dr. Fein can shape up and help him.

Chapter 12
Grandma

When I looked at you, my life made sense. Even the bad things made sense. They were necessary to make you possible. (12.216)

Grandma sees life's meaning in future generations, and she accepts everything that has happened—the good and the bad—as essential to creating Oskar. There are a lot of random things in the universe that have to align to make life happen.

Chapter 15

The vast majority of the universe is composed of dark matter. The fragile balance depends on things we'll never be able to see, hear, smell, taste, or touch. Life itself depends on them. What's real? What isn't real? Maybe those aren't the right questions to be asking. What does life depend on? (15.140)

This question is posed by a fictional version of Stephen Hawking, but it sounds like something he'd ruminate on, doesn't it? Does life have any meaning at all? Isn't all meaning just something we humans cook up to explain why things are the way they are?