Study Guide

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close Themes

  • Mortality

    Almost 3,000 people died during the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Upwards of 20,000 people died during the firebombing of Dresden, Germany in 1945. And as many as 166,000 people lost their lives when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, also in 1945. 

    1945 was a very bad year.

    For the people who died in these attacks… well, they're dead. But the family members they left behind have to deal with the consequences. In Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Oskar, whose dad died on September 11, is trying to make some sort of sense out of tragedy and death. As a precocious and intelligent kid, but a kid nonetheless, his father's death leaves a devastating emptiness that he can't really understand. He's preoccupied with morbid ideas and images, which leave him in a constant state of anxiety and fear.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. Do you think Oskar is obsessed with death? Does he think about death more than kids his age normally do? Is it healthy for him to be thinking about death so much?
    2. Why does Oskar's mom want to bury an empty coffin?
    3. Will Oskar ever be able to come to terms with his Dad's death? Would he really have been happier if his Mom died instead?

    Chew on This

    Death terrifies Oskar because it seems so random and senseless.

    Oskar's Mom is dealing with the death of her husband privately—going to a bereavement group, hanging out with Ron from the group—but it doesn't mean she mourns her husband less than Oskar mourns his Dad.

  • Life, Consciousness, and Existence

    For a kid, Oskar spends a lot of time thinking about the nature of existence and the meaning of life. Because his nonstop brain is always thinking, he's got way too much existential anxiety for someone his age. That just explodes even more when his father dies. In Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, his questions take on a new urgency, and he's just lost the person who helps him work through those Big Questions. He can't get past the random and illogical ways the world seems to work.

    Questions About Life, Consciousness, and Existence

    1. What views on life does Oskar simply mimic from his father? What theories does he get from his idol, Stephen Hawking? What ideas are his own?
    2. How does Oskar's life philosophy differ from his Mom's? What kind of conflict does this cause between the two of them?
    3. What does Grandpa mean when he says "I can't live, I've tried and I can't"? (6.1)

    Chew on This

    By continuing to live, Oskar makes meaning from his father's death that he wouldn't have if he had let his life stop.

    If Oskar truly believed in everything his father told him, he wouldn't be trying to create meaning from his death; he'd simply accept the chaos.

  • Cunning and Cleverness

    Kids love solving puzzles. There are a bunch of classic kids' puzzles: Put the circle-shaped peg in the circular hole. Assemble a map of the United States. Find the lock that fits the key your dead father left you.

    Some kids never outgrow solving puzzles. Those kids often become readers. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a puzzle in book form, a literary Rubik's Cube, or a textual Cut the Rope. The quest Oskar's on doesn't have any rules, so it puts his cleverness to the test in a bunch of real-world situations. The Amazing Race, eat your heart out.

    Questions About Cunning and Cleverness

    1. Why does Oskar's Dad send him on so many Expeditions?
    2. Does Oskar always think things through logically?
    3. Do you think Oskar is more clever than an average nine-year-old? Is Oskar too clever for his own good?
    4. How would the story be different if Oskar weren't as resourceful as he is?

    Chew on This

    Oskar's Dad teaches him to be a critical thinker so that his son won't have to work in a retail job like his.

    Because Oskar's so intelligent and resourceful, it might be easy to assume he's coping better than he really is.

  • Language and Communication

    When they're not watching Digimon, nine-year-olds "are able to write and read skillfully, and […] able to read different types of fictional and non-fictional works, including biographies, poems, historical fiction, suspenseful series, and more" (source).

    In Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Oskar Schell isn't your typical nine-year-old. To that list of genres, add "a letter from Grandma," "letters from Grandpa to Dad," "numeric codes," and "astrophysics." This book isn't just about talking to people in New York to find a lock, it's about all the different ways people in the city communicate, both written and orally.

    In some ways, it's more about the failure to communicate, and how that makes it hard to deal with trauma. There are so many missed opportunities for communication in the novel: between Oskar and his mother; Thomas, Sr. and Thomas, Jr.; Abby Black and Oskar; William Black and his father.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. Why does Grandpa stop talking? Does his method of communication lead to any misunderstandings?
    2. What do you think Grandpa says when he tries to communicate with Grandma simply by pushing buttons on the telephone?
    3. Why does Grandpa write so many letters but never send them to his son?
    4. Why does Mr. Black choose to live with his hearing aid turned off? How does his life change when Oskar turns it on?

    Chew on This

    Oskar's grandparents use writing to communicate their deepest feelings because it's just too painful to do it in person.

    Everyone in the book is struggling to communicate their life stories.

  • Love

    Grief and death seem to overwhelm love in much of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. The most strongly expressed feelings for love are sometimes saved for people who are dead: in Oskar's case, his father; for Grandpa, his first love, Anna. It's as if love with the people who are in our lives is much more complicated than the idealized love we can have for someone who's gone. Because here's the problem with love, as Oskar knows so well. If you love someone and lose them, it's devastating.

    Because everyone in the novel is struggling with grief, it can be hard to tease out the love in their relationships. Oskar, in particular, keeps his mother at a distance despite her protective love for him. She's different from his Dad and Grandma, whose love for him is expressed more directly. Once Oskar realizes this, he can reconnect with her and see that she's been watching him and loving him all along.

    Questions About Love

    1. Did Oskar love his father more, or did he just love him differently?
    2. How does Oskar help other people find love during his quest?
    3. What's the meaning of Dad's fantastical story about the Sixth Borough, when a boy keeps love in a can?

    Chew on This

    Love may be fragile and fleeting, but Grandma encourages Oskar to express it whenever he can… maybe because love is fragile and fleeting. You never know when you'll lose a person you love.

    Do you think Tennyson was right? Is it "better to have loved and lost than never loved at all"? Would Oskar agree?

  • Fear

    New York City can be a scary place: taxis honking at you to hurry up and cross the street. Hundreds of people crammed onto the subway at rush hour. The long, long line for cronuts. 

    It was an even scarier place after the September 11 attacks; people were on edge for months, fearing that something else would happen. It was especially terrible for people who lost loved ones in the attack.

    In Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, this tragedy creates a lot of anxiety in Oskar: fear of enclosed spaces, fear of heights, fear of the Staten Island Ferry. Considering how fearful he is, it's pretty amazing that he embarks on this adventure to five boroughs to meet strangers. In order to get close to his Dad's memory, Oskar has to fight his fears. The book seems to suggest that to get past traumatic fears, you have to connect with other people.

    Questions About Fear

    1. Does Oskar have any irrational fears? Are all of Oskar's fears irrational?
    2. Who helps Oskar battle his anxiety, and how do they help?
    3. What is Oskar still afraid of at the end of the book?
    4. Are any other characters battling anxiety or fear?

    Chew on This

    Almost all of Oskar's fears come from his over-active imagination, and his fear that he, too, will fall victim to a tragedy the way his father did.

    Oskar fancies himself a man (well, a boy) of logic, so the best way for him to overcome his fears is to realize that they are illogical. Maybe Dr. Fein should try Cognitive Behavior Therapy.

  • Identity

    It's hard to stand out in a city with over 8 million people, but millions of New Yorkers (the people, not the magazine) find a way to do it every day. Even if hundreds of them are named "Black." In Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close Oskar is trying to figure out who he is at a time when everyone says to him, "You remind us of your dad." But he's not the only one with an identity crisis. Grandpa is trying to come to terms with the great loss he experienced 60 years ago, all while trying to mime everything out like Marcel Marceau, and even Grandma is trying to figure out who she is, which is difficult when her husband really wishes he had married her sister instead.

    Questions About Identity

    1. Why does it bother Oskar so much that he reminds people of others?
    2. Why does Oskar remind his Mom of his father?
    3. Is Grandma fine with the fact that she's basically a substitute for her dead sister?

    Chew on This

    One of the author's goals in writing this book was to make the reader recognize each victim of the 9/11 attacks as individuals.

    It's easy to imagine all the citizens of a city as being unknowable and basically the same, but Oskar learns about the unique personality of each Black he meets, making them more than just a means to an end.

  • Lies and Deceit

    Great heroes often find themselves in a position where they have to lie. "These are not the droids you are looking for." "I don't know what happened… I was watering my plant…" "I'm diabetic and I need some sugar asap" (5.16).

    In Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Oskar finds himself lying about everything from his age to his health in order to find the lock that fits the mysterious key. There are different size lies for different situations, of course. Oskar withholds his father's last answering machine messages; he lies to his mother about where he's going; his mother doesn't let on that she knows about his journey; his grandfather doesn't let on that he's his grandfather; Abby Black doesn't tell him that she knows about the key.

    These lies aren't malicious. Most of them are done for emotional protection, but they have the effect of creating emotional distance between the characters. Oskar feels very guilty about all these lies. He keeps track of them and numbers them.

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. Why does Oskar feel so guilty about lying?
    2. Why does Grandma reveal her history to Oskar in a letter? Why doesn't she tell him in person? Why has she kept it from him for so long?
    3. Why doesn't Mom tell Oskar that she's been watching him? Or that she's attending a grief-counseling group?

    Chew on This

    Most of the people who are lied to in the novel can see right through the lies.

    Mom thinks that she's protecting Oskar by not telling him everything, but she might be causing more harm to their relationship than she thinks.