Love, you say? Well, duh—it's right there in the title. Even though every relationship in The History of Love ends poorly—separation, betrayal, misunderstandings, and death abound—we still come away feeling pretty darn good about love and love stories. How is it that even the people who have suffered the most from having fallen in love still remember it as the most precious thing in the universe? How do the folks who have not yet experienced it know it when they see it? And what in the world would be in the pages of a history of love? (It's certainly hard to keep to just one volume.) The book, alas, doesn't give simple answers—but, of course, love is nothing if not complicated.
The Litvinoffs' relationship is the truest love story in the book, because Rosa chooses to stand by her husband's side even after he betrays her.
Not so fast there—Zvi Litvinoff cannot truly love his wife, since he thinks he has to deceive her to get her affection.
A teenaged sleuth, an octogenarian locksmith, a widowed book translator—what do these three have in common? They're all lonely and alone, for starters. And it's not only them—almost every character in The History of Love feels isolated from those around them and is trying to find a way to cope with that sense of separation. The fact that most of the story occurs in New York City, a place filled with millions upon millions of people, suggests that this feeling of loneliness can't be cured by simple human interaction—it's much deeper than that. Even though the novel contains quite a few attempts to connect with others, ultimately what brings our heroes together are circumstances almost totally outside of their control.
Leo, Litvinoff, and Charlotte Singer prove that loneliness and isolation are unavoidable components of the immigrant experience (sad).
Although Alma's mother learned languages to bring her close to others, they have only served to reinforce her isolation from the world (double-sad).
Of the two main characters in The History of Love, one is an old man primarily looking back and the other is a teenage girl looking boldly forward. So it comes as a bit of a surprise that it's the old man of all people who's the most unsure about his identity, even stopping to spin around as he walks through the snow, checking to make sure he left footprints. Of course, there are questions about identity beyond verifying that one does, in fact, exist (though that's a good place to start, yes?). The book considers questions of self-conception and self-creation, along with weighty issues like racial identity, religious identity, and the immigrant experience.
The book—especially Leo's story about the pinhole camera (4.40)—argues that one's identity is ultimately shaped by other people, rather than oneself.
Even though we know very little about Alma's mother, we might argue that she has the clearest identity of anyone in the book.
The pallor of death hangs over The History of Love like… well, the Grim Reaper himself. We'll deal with grief in a minute, but first we have to talk about death. Leo spends most of his days fixated on his inevitable death—fearing it, courting it, or just plain wondering about it. His memories of his loved ones often include some reference to the times of their deaths too, almost turning their status as "dead" into a characteristic, or personality trait. Even his embrace of life is a direct reaction to his constant thoughts of death. Death is everywhere in this book, but foremost in Leo's worried mind.
Although Alma's relationship with death almost comes from her grief over her father's passing, by titling her journal How to Survive in the Wild she reminds us that even young folks must guard against encroaching death.
Litvinoff's illness and his last days are described in detail in order to emphasize that he himself never created anything. Death reaches him in a way it cannot reach Leo, who experiences a kind of second life after having been assumed dead in Poland for all these years.
While Leo might be alone in his meditation on death, all the characters in The History of Love unite in their experiences of grief. Leo grieves for the loss of his beloved, the son he never knew, and a friend he can't even admit is gone. The members of Alma's family—her mother, her brother, herself—are grieving for the death of her father, David, in their own totally different ways. And as survivors of the Holocaust, Leo and Litvinoff represent the collective grief of the Jewish people.
Turning his dead friend Bruno into an imaginary friend is a way of handling his grief over losing all his friends and family to the Nazis.
Alma's mother's obsession with "Posthumous Nobels" stems from her grief that her husband died without any proper recognition from the world.
The History of Love is a book about… a book, so you'd better believe literature is going to be important here. It explores the ways in which literature manages to both unite and divide, connect and isolate, comfort and infuriate. In an interview about The History of Love, Krauss said, "Yes, almost everyone in the novel is a writer of some kind or another. Some of their books have never been read, some have been lost, some are written in journals, some published under the wrong name." There you have it, then. As one of the four big L's of the novel (the other three being loneliness, language, and love), literature is a big part of what makes this book tick.
In The History of Love, writers of literature are unavoidably separated from others. So, despite the happy ending, Alma and Leo will not be able to create a real relationship. (Sorry to break it to you like this.)
Although Leo's books have helped bring other people together, they have only succeeded in making him feel more abandoned.
"Daddy issues"—there, we said it. While there are certainly other family dynamics in The History of Love—sibling rivalries, the adoption of a stepchild, single motherhood—the relationship between father and child is pretty central to the novel and provides its most emotional tension. In all cases, one half of the relationship (a father, a son, God) is absent, and the other half (a father, a daughter, a believer) struggles to deal with that absence, with varying levels of success.
Leo's negligible mention of his own father reveals his shame of being unable to have a relationship with his own son.
Pardon our amateur psychologist's cap, but Bird's relationship with Mr. Goldstein stems from his desire for a surrogate father.
Issues of language and communication come up in a number of contexts in The History of Love. Then again, this comes as no surprise, given all the reading and writing going on (see the "Literature-Writing" theme for more). One of the characters even titles a book "Words For Everything" (whether he is convinced of the truth of the phrase is another question). But perhaps the most significant aspect of communication in the novel is translation—literal translation between languages, yes, but also the whole interesting interaction (messy at times) between how we express ourselves and how we're then understood by those around us.
Leo refuses to speak Yiddish as a defense mechanism against the memory of his beloved Alma and his painful experiences in Poland.
Come again? In three of the central relationships in the novel, at least one-half of the couple is speaking in a foreign language, suggesting the impossibility of humans ever truly understanding each other.
For most of The History of Love, religion waits patiently on the sidelines. While it's of course significant that most of the characters in the novel are Jewish, Judaism itself—as a religion—isn't really discussed directly until Bird's character takes center stage near the book's conclusion. That said, the crisis of faith that Bird undergoes (weighing faith against doubt), and all the uncertainty that comes along with it, can be found throughout the book.
Bird is the only character who believes in God.
Bird's magical mediation between Alma and Leo is not proof of a higher power in the universe, but rather it's proof that humans really are in control. So, at least we have that going for us...
On one level, the theme of "The Home" once again points back to issues of "Identity" and "Family." But it can also be considered in its most literal sense—how the physical places where the characters live illustrate something else that's happening beneath the surface. For example, Leo's apartment is unbelievably cluttered—so cluttered he's surprised he hasn't been buried alive yet—in the same way that his mind is saddled with painful memories and his body is burdened with the weight of eight decades. The fact that most of The History of Love takes place in New York City, surrounded by millions of strangers, powerfully reinforces the loneliness and isolation felt at one time or another by every character in the book (see the loneliness theme for more).
Leo's awe when he sees the opulence of Isaac's and Bernard's respective houses serves to estrange him from his son even more—now in terms of class.
Bird's Noah act is more than an act. His construction of the ark is his attempt to create a home for his family, in effect becoming the "man of the house."