Wiesel’s tone, as you might expect in a book about Nazi concentration camps, is serious and somber. He makes no attempt to lighten the mood with jokes—there wasn’t really much happiness in the concentration camps and he doesn’t make any up for the sake of the reader. The tone is mournful. Wiesel mourns the fact that the Jews didn’t pay attention to warnings about the Germans’ intentions. He mourns the loss of his family, the loss of his childhood, and the loss of his faith in God’s justice. He also grieves that, because of the horrific situation, he was not as good a son as he wishes he could have been.
The tone is also incredibly honest. Wiesel doesn’t shy away from describing moments that he regrets and feels guilty about. He doesn’t hide the fact that he didn’t defend his father from the SS officer that smashed his father’s head, that he went to bed while his father died alone, and that he sometimes felt his father was a burden. This honesty doesn’t come from feelings of indifference—he’s reflective about these experiences and expresses feelings of genuine guilt and shame. Through Wiesel’s stories, we learn that the situation brought out the dark sides in him, just as it brought out the worst in other prisoners.
It’s also important to point out what the tone is not. The narration overall isn’t angry or hateful. Occasionally Eliezer at 15 years of age is angry or hateful—at the Hungarian police, at SS officers, at God—but overall the narrative tone is not. Wiesel is also not accusatory in his writing; he stays away from blaming and judging people that treated him and his father terribly. Without using angry or accusatory language, Wiesel emphasizes the point that this situation was horrifying and brutal in the extreme, and never should be allowed to happen again.
This is not your typical coming-of-age story, which generally deals with a young person’s introduction to independence, love, sex, and possibly death (but usually not their own) and often ends on a positive, forward-looking note. Here, the story is about death and survival. The scene is one of death—concentration camps. Daily life is a struggle to survive—to find basic necessities like food and water, to avoid selection for death in the smokestacks, to avoid getting beaten. Eliezer’s coming-of-age experience is so intense and horrific that he loses his faith in God and is exposed to the worst aspects of humanity. Although the book does end on a positive note because Eliezer is liberated, we are presented with an image of Eliezer as a corpse—an image that never leaves him the rest of his life. Thus, our final image is not positive; our final image is of death. So although this is a coming-of-age story, it is not the kind of story that a person who had the more common transition to adulthood can relate to easily. Eliezer doesn’t gain his adulthood; he loses his childhood.
Unlike fictional literature where authors can create or select a perfect setting for their story to unfold, Elie Wiesel recounts the setting of a portion of his lifetime. During the course of his story (and the book), we move from the Transylvanian town of Sighet to a Jewish ghetto (still in Sighet), to a cattle car, then a series of concentration camps—first, Birkenau, then Auschwitz, then Buna, and last Buchenwald. With each transition of the setting, for example from the ghetto to the cattle cars, Eliezer Wiesel and his fellow Jews experience a reduction of their personal freedom and are treated more like animals and less like humans. Generally with the movement to new settings, Eliezer is treated with increasing violence, his body’s health deteriorates, and his hope for liberation and a happy future is further diminished.
The phrase "it's beyond words" gets thrown around a lot to describe, in only a general sense, something that is just really… really hard to describe. You may have heard this said before. (Sadly, we heard this when people saw our outfit for prom, but that's another story.) What this means, though, is that there are some things in this world that are so uniquely awful that they resist our attempts to put them into language.
With Night, Elie Wiesel is doing one of the hardest things any writer can ever do: put the worst human experiences into words. It's a terrifically difficult job that he's got on his hands. In part, that difficulty helps to explain one of the calling cards of the book's writing style: sparseness. The sentences here are short, choppy, and relatively straightforward. You won't be getting lost in elaborate constructions or fancy metaphors. The horrors that Eliezer witnesses are instead told at an angle.
What do we mean? Check it out: "Behind me, an old man fell to the ground. Near him was an SS man, putting his revolver back in its holster" (3.6). Here we get just one instance of violence that our narrator witnesses. It doesn't take much to realize what's happened: the old man has been shot and killed. So, why doesn't Wiesel just write that?
The horror of the experience is such that the lack of detail is a way for the narrator (and Wiesel, too) to remove himself from the experience. Think about it. Have you ever had something really bad happen to you? Hopefully, it's nothing like what Wiesel's writing about, but even still it's no fun to go back and revel in the details. Instead, we try to shut out that kind of stuff in order to minimize its impact on our mindset.
So, the sparseness of Wiesel's writing can be attributed to that same instinct. At the same time, though, this remains a deeply personal story. Take a look at this passage:
The old man again whispered something, let out a rattle, and died amid the general indifference. His son searched him, took the bread, and began to devour it. He was not able to get very far. Two men had seen and hurled themselves upon him. Others joined in. When they withdrew, next to me were two corpses, side by side, the father and the son.
I was fifteen years old. (7.33-34)
Here we have the unthinkable murder of a father by his son. Immediately after, though, Wiesel reminds us of another tragedy: this was witnessed by a fifteen-year-old boy. While we are spared the details of exactly how the father and son die, we are nevertheless reminded of the personal impact that such a terrible event had on the narrator. So it's not like the lack of detail means that the horrors didn't impact Eliezer. In a telling way, the true damage of these experiences can be measured by what he doesn't say about them.
Night is used throughout the book to symbolize death, darkness of the soul, and loss of faith. As an image, it comes up repeatedly. Even when the scene is literally set during the day, night may be invoked. Consider all the terrible things that happen at night: Mrs. Schächter has her visions of fire, hell, and death; Eliezer and his father arrive at Auschwitz and see the smokestacks and wait in line all night long with the smell of death in their noses; there is the night the soup tastes like corpses; they march through long nights and, stacked on top of each other, smother each other to death in the night; Eliezer’s father dies during the night. As Eliezer says himself, "The days were like nights, and the nights left the dregs of their darkness in our souls" (7.22). Night is thus a metaphor for the way the soul was submerged in suffering and hopelessness.
Fire and flames are used to symbolize death. In Chapter Two, as the train full of Jews from Sighet approaches Auschwitz, Mrs. Schächter has a vision of fire and flames. She screeches about the fire through the long night and then again the following night. When they at last arrive at Auschwitz, the inhabitants of the car understand what she was talking about: the crematoria, where bodies of prisoners are burned. Fire is an ever-present threat of death; the view and the smell of the crematoria permeate all aspects of life in the concentration camps, reminding the prisoners of their closeness to death.
The image of corpses is used not only to describe literal death, but also to symbolize spiritual death. After liberation, when Eliezer looks at himself for the first time in many months, he sees a corpse in the mirror. The look in his eyes as he stares at himself never leaves him. It speaks of the horror he has experienced and seen, which stole his childhood innocence and his faith in God’s mercy and justice.
The story is told from the first-person view of Elie Wiesel who writes and reflects on his experiences as a 15- and 16-year-old during World War II. Though written around ten years after his liberation from a concentration camp, Elie Wiesel’s narrative generally sticks to the time period he is describing. When relevant, occasionally he provides an anecdote from many years after the action of the book. For example, when we hear about the French girl that Eliezer worked beside at the Buna factory, he tells us that many years later he met her again on a train.
Since Wiesel wrote the book so many years after he was freed from the concentration camp, you can’t help but wonder how the book might be different if written immediately after his liberation, or if written more than 10 years after. For example, would there be more or less anger against his oppressors? Would his faith in God be stronger or weaker than presented in the book? Would the facts be slightly different depending on the amount of time since liberation? The fact that this entire book is told through memory brings up some interesting questions about truth and memory, and how maturity and personal growth over time influences the tone of one’s memories of personal experiences.