Study Guide

Night Themes

By Elie Wiesel

  • Family

    At the beginning of the book, with nothing else to cling to, prisoners in the concentration camps hold on to their family members. The most important thing is to stay with your family members as long as possible. For some, all that keeps them alive is knowledge that their family is safe. However, as the book progresses and the suffering of the prisoners increases in intensity, a major conflict in the book arises: self-preservation vs. love and loyalty to family. This conflict is seen especially clearly in the relationship between fathers and sons. Rabbi Eliahu’s son abandons his slow, weak father during the mad run to Buchenwald in order to increase his own chance of survival. When a German throws a piece of bread in a transport car, a son kills his own father just to get the scrap of bread. But the most important conflict of this type is Eliezer’s own personal conflict. Like Rabbi Eliahu’s son, Eliezer, during his moments of weakness, feels his own father a burden and a threat to his own survival.

    Questions About Family

    1. Does family become more important than anything else in Night? Or is self-preservation more important? Do family values and self-preservation need to be in conflict?
    2. Why does family become a burden for some people?
    3. Is it normal and natural for Eliezer to feel like his father is a burden and to feel a sense of relief when he dies? Does this make Eliezer a bad person? Should he feel guilty about it or not?

    Chew on This

    Although Eliezer feels internal conflict about supporting his father and does occasionally feel that his father is a burden, Eliezer does not sink to become like Rabbi Eliahu’s son because Eliezer never acts on his negative thoughts and supports his father as best he can.

    Although Eliezer occasionally battles with the notion that he could survive better if freed from the burden of taking care of his father, Eliezer is in more danger of death once his father passes away because without his father, Eliezer loses the will to live.

  • Religion

    Eliezer presents the Jewish faith in a moment of extreme darkness. When Eliezer witnesses the horror of the Auschwitz concentration camps—especially the gruesome murder of babies and young children—he feels that his God has been murdered before his eyes. Eliezer cannot reconcile the atrocities that he sees with his notion of God. He does not stop believing in God, but loses his faith that God is absolutely just. Eliezer brings up questions like: Is God completely indifferent to man’s suffering? Is He a good God? Does He deserve the praise of the Jews who are suffering? Other Jews in the concentration camps experience a similar loss of faith: Akiba Drumer gives up and dies once he loses his faith in God, and a rabbi feels horrible guilt at doubting God’s mercy. In the concentration camps, many men continue to observe Rosh Hashanah and other religiously significant days, but it is unclear how many of them retain their faith.

    Questions About Religion

    1. In Night, is suffering more likely to destroy or strengthen faith?
    2. How does Eliezer’s characterization and understanding of God change over time in Night?
    3. How does Eliezer contrast God with man?
    4. What does Eliezer mean when he says that God was murdered? What does he mean when he says that God is hanging on the gallows?
    5. Night begins with an exploration of some of the mystical truths in the Kabbalah. Do those truths presented by Moishe the Beadle bear up under Eliezer’s experience?

    Chew on This

    Although Eliezer argues that man is stronger than God, it is God he prays to for strength in moments of extreme despair, proving that his faith in God remains.

    Though Eliezer believes God to be indifferent to the suffering of the Jews, Eliezer does not become indifferent to God; rather he seeks to be seen, whether through attempting to punish or pray to God.

  • Lies and Deceit

    Deception—especially self-deception—is a powerful force in Night. Self-deception has two primary results: boosting morale and hope, but also deluding the Jews and leaving them vulnerable. The Jews of Sighet experience some serious group-think when they deceive themselves many, many times into thinking that they’re not in real danger from the Germans. This illusion prevents them from escaping Sighet while they still have a chance. In other instances, self-deception is used to create hope in situations where there is none. For example, Eliezer and his father continue to convince themselves that Eliezer’s mother and little sister are still alive and strong. There are other instances, more rare, of people deceiving each other, mostly for the sake of boosting morale and spirits. For example, Eliezer tells his cousin, Stein, who lives only for his family, that Stein’s wife and kids are all okay—a lie to give Stein a reason to keep living.

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. Eliezer lies to his cousin Stein about Stein’s family, giving him false hope. Was this an act of mercy or an act of cruelty?
    2. Why do the Jews of Sighet continue to talk themselves out of facing the dangerous reality of their situation, even when they are confronted with facts from people like Moishe the Beadle?
    3. Does self-deception preserve life or endanger life? Is self-deception more dangerous to the Jews or beneficial in the long run?

    Chew on This

    In Night, self-deception does more harm to the Jews than good.

    In Night, self-deception is necessary for survival in the concentration camps because it gives the prisoners a reason to hope and to live.

  • Identity

    In the beginning of Night, Eliezer’s identity is that of an innocent child, a student of Talmud, and a devout Jew. But the concentration camps experience strips him (and his fellow Jewish prisoners) of his identity. Eliezer’s hair is shaved, he’s dressed like all of the other prisoners, and in facing the atrocities of the camp, he loses his innocence (he’s no longer a child) and his faith in God (he’s no longer a devout Jew or student of Talmud). Eliezer and all of the other prisoners are given numbers instead of names. They are no longer individuals, but prisoners, "creatures," and eventually simply bodies. The longer they remain in camps, the more they are reduced to a mere physical presence, losing themselves to their self-preservation instinct, and eventually becoming simply hungry, nearly dead bodies. They are denied a spirit, a soul, human dignity, and even their bodies are denied the sustenance needed to survive—food, water, adequate shelter, and sleep.

    Questions About Identity

    1. Do the prisoners accept the idea that they are just a body with no spiritual or emotional needs? How do the prisoners try to keep their spirits and emotions alive despite the harsh cruelties of the concentration camps?
    2. Which is worse, according to Eliezer, to kill the body or the soul? Does Eliezer think you can kill somebody’s soul? If yes, how?
    3. In what ways do the SS officers and others in the concentration camps attempt to strip the prisoners of their humanity? How do they manage to make them become simply "bodies" as opposed to human beings?
    4. What is the effect of the entrance process to Birkenau—the stripping of possessions, shaving of hair, separating males and females, dressing all prisoners alike?
    5. Eliezer’s identity upon entering the concentration camp is that of a child, a student of Talmud. What is his identity when he leaves?

    Chew on This

    Even though Eliezer is not immune to the degradation of his spirit, he manages to cling to his personhood through his connection with his father.

  • Mortality

    The question of who lives and who dies in Night stems from a system of unnatural rules. SS officers, such as Dr. Mengele, play God and decide who will live or who will go to the crematorium. "Selection" is based on perceived ability to work, so the young, old, and sickly are quickly killed, as are those who fail to work hard enough. Because the system determining life or death is subjective, some prisoners are able to play the system and can avoid death (to some extent) based on cunning. For example, Eliezer lies and says that he’s 18 years old and a farmer, which probably saves him from the crematorium when he first arrives at Birkenau. But despite this system of selection in Night, death and survival are often also based on chance. Using the same example from earlier, if another prisoner had not randomly advised Eliezer to pretend to be 18 years old, he may have been sent to the crematorium immediately upon arrival in Birkenau.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. When is Eliezer first confronted with death? Does it mean anything to him? When does death become a living reality for him?
    2. Why does Eliezer think death through electrocution is better than burning alive? Why does the prisoner he encounters on his first day think that hanging yourself is better than dying in the crematorium? Are there different kinds of deaths? Is there more dignity in some deaths as compared to others?
    3. Since death is everywhere, in fact omnipresent, does that make people immune to fear of it?
    4. Does Eliezer cease to fear death since it seems unavoidable?
    5. Does Eliezer survive because he is stronger, or smarter, or in some other way more fit to survive in a prison camp? Is his survival pure luck?

    Chew on This

    Although death is omnipresent, it does not become real to Eliezer until his father dies.

    Eliezer is confronted with his mortality and realizes the likelihood of his own death on his first day at Birkenau when he sees children burned alive.

  • Freedom and Confinement

    Throughout the book, the confinement of the Jewish people increases in a step-by-step process, which strips away their identity, humanity, and dignity. First, the Jews of Sighet are confined to their homes, then to ghettos, to cattle cars for transport, and eventually imprisoned behind the barbed wire and iron gates of concentration camps. With the increasing confinement, the Jews lose their possessions, their family members, their individuality, and many lose their lives. The hope of liberation from the concentration camps, either by the Allies or by God, is what keeps many of the imprisoned Jews going. Although there are only a few references to it, the resistance movement is alive within the camps. In the last chapter, the resistance movement rises up in protest and battles the Germans until American tanks arrive to liberate the concentration camp.

    Questions About Freedom and Confinement

    1. What are the different definitions of liberation offered by people in the group? How is liberation imagined? What does it look like?
    2. Is it possible to be liberated through death? Why or why not?
    3. Upon being liberated, why don’t the freed prisoners think of revenge?
    4. Eliezer’s final vision is of himself, looking like a corpse, a vision that has remained with him all his life. Although he is physically liberated, does that image suggest that mentally, he is still imprisoned?

    Chew on This

    Eliezer feels complete freedom after being liberated from the concentration camp.

    Although Eliezer is liberated from the concentration camps, he remains mentally imprisoned by continually associating his youth with death.

  • Violence

    Violence permeates all of Night in many forms. Violence is used to dominate others, as with the Germans using violence to force the Jews into concentration camps. Similarly, public displays of violence are used to intimidate and threaten people, to maintain control. For example, members of the resistance in the concentration camps are publicly and gruesomely hanged as a warning to would-be insurgents. There is violence of those in power against the weak—the obvious example being the German SS guards abusing the prisoners—but also the downtrodden using violence against each other as the Jewish prisoners use violence against each other as they struggle to survive. The examples of violence in the novel are so varied there are instances when violence is passionate and when it is dispassionate, spontaneous and planned, senseless and to meet a specific end. Overall, violence is so extreme and so excessive that many characters have a hard time believing it could possibly be real.

    Questions About Violence

    1. Which kind of violence is more traumatic to Eliezer, impassioned violence or cold, dispassionate violence? Or is there no difference?
    2. Is there a difference between the SS officers’ violence against the Jews and the prisoners’ violence against each other?
    3. According to Wiesel, who is more cruel—man or God? Why?
    4. Why does extreme violence not seem real to individuals in the book until they are confronted directly with it?

    Chew on This

    For Eliezer, the dispassionate violence of the SS officers against the Jewish prisoners is most disturbing; he is more easily able to cope with passionate violence, such as when Idek lashes out at Eliezer from crazed anger.

  • Race

    Jews are the primary Nazi target for hate crimes and extermination, simply because of their race. As a reader, you can’t help but get a sense for the arbitrariness of race; the distinctions between the Aryans and the Jews blur, for example, when we learn that Eliezer’s little sister has blond hair, the Aryan ideal. Throughout their time in the concentration camps, the Jews try to keep their religious and cultural traditions alive, but it becomes increasingly difficult in the face of death and suffering.

    Questions About Race

    1. Being Jewish is the natural status and identity of most of the characters in the book. Given that, Eliezer makes few references to it specifically. What role does "Jewishness" actually play in this book?
    2. Are there any contrasts in the book between "Jewish" and "non-Jewish"? If so, what are they? Why are they made?

    Chew on This

    Even though Judaism and Jewish identity are important factors in Eliezer’s life and in his deportation to concentration camps, he makes very few references to his Jewish cultural heritage outside of religion, suggesting that Eliezer does not distinguish between religious and cultural Jewish heritage.