Study Guide

The History of Love Themes

  • Love

    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.

    Questions About Love

    1. What can we learn from the excerpts from The History of Love spread throughout the book? Some of these excerpts have very little connection to what we today would call "love." What does that say about "the history of love"? Also, what makes those excerpts so different from the rest of the book?
    2. What are we supposed to take away from Alma's mother's inability to fall in love again?
    3. Consider the "love scene" between Alma and Misha. How does this capture the teenagers' first wary tiptoes into the world of love?
    4. How do you imagine Alma's future relationships? What will her understanding of love be like as an adult?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Loneliness

    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.

    Questions About Loneliness

    1. Why does Leo create an imaginary Bruno to keep him company? How does our realization that Bruno actually died a long time ago affect our view of Leo?
    2. How can Alma possibly be surprised to learn she doesn't have any friends?
    3. How is Leo's life in his apartment connected to his years spent hiding from the Nazis?
    4. We meet Leo within the Litvinoff chapters, when they're both living in Minsk, but we meet Leo only briefly at the time, and learn hardly anything about him. What do you imagine his life to be like at that time? Do you picture him as lonely as he ends up being in New York?

    Chew on This

    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).

  • Identity

    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.

    Questions About Identity

    1. What's unique about Bird having been named after something he did, rather than after someone else?
    2. Is Leo's desire to be noticed by others worth the sacrifice of his dignity in several cases?
    3. What does Alma's attendance at the drawing class tell us about how much she matures during the novel, and about her identity?
    4. Consider the Singers' disagreement regarding Alma's ethnicity. What does each person's position tell us about how he or she defines identity?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Death

    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.

    Questions About Death

    1. As a child, Leo is very afraid of death. Why does meeting his Alma remove this fear?
    2. What is the role that obituaries play in the novel? Why are Litvinoff and Gursky so consumed by them?
    3. Leo seems to argue that his years spent in hiding have made him invisible and have robbed him of life. So why does he still think he's entitled to a death?
    4. "The Death of Leopold Gursky" argues that people start dying the moment they are born. Do you think this is true? How would this perspective shape the way someone lives life?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Grief

    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.

    Questions About Grief

    1. In looking for a new father, is Alma trying to soothe her mother's grief, or her own?
    2. Can we assume Bird's embrace of religion stems from grief?
    3. How do you imagine Leo's experience of grief before the various deaths of the Moritz family?
    4. Does Leo accomplish anything by breaking into Isaac's house after his death? Does this make him feel better or worse?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Literature-Writing

    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.

    Questions About Literature-Writing

    1. Alma has a very difficult time expressing herself vocally (see, for example, 10.7). Is this why she prefers written communication—most especially in writing this book? How does this compare to Leo's motivation to write?
    2. What do you think of Litvinoff's reaction to finding Leo's stack of obituaries? Should he be threatened that his friend is writing obituaries too? Or appreciate the bond between them?
    3. Compare Alma's mother's task translating The History of Love into English to Litvinoff's plagiary and translation of the text into Spanish. How are they similar and how are they different?
    4. Is it significant that Alma's father describes himself as a poor writer and "did not like to write letters" (5.1)?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Family

    "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.

    Questions About Family

    1. Alma has a very difficult time accepting her mother's affection. Do you think she resents her mother's closeness with her deceased father, or perhaps even blames her mother for her father's death?
    2. What's the role of extended family in the novel? Think about Uncle Julian, Bernard Moritz, and Leo's uncle (who died when Leo was nine)—how are they similar, and how are they different? What is going through Leo's mind when he tells the guy whose lock he opens that he's Isaac's father, and then his uncle, and then not really his uncle?
    3. What can we take from the fact that the Litvinoffs never have any children? Does that say anything about their relationship?
    4. How might Alma be different if her father were still alive? What did this say about her relationship with his memory?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Language and Communication

    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.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. How does Leo becoming "invisible" after the war parallel his inability to speak Yiddish?
    2. What's significant about Leo speaking Yiddish at the funeral, as both a disguise and a tribute?
    3. Alma's mother is a polyglot (meaning, she speaks lots of languages), but Alma only speaks one language. How does this illustrate the differences between them?
    4. What's symbolic about Alma and Misha's phone calls?
    5. What's up with Bird's mysterious friend Mr. Goldstein, who "mumbles in three languages" (1.3)? Is there any connection between his multilingual speech and Bird's fascination with him?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Religion

    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.

    Questions About Religion

    1. How is each character's relationship with death and dying shaped by their religious beliefs—specifically their conception of the afterlife (see, for example, 5.7)?
    2. How is Judaism treated in the novel—as a religion, a culture, a heritage, an ethnicity?
    3. What do angels represent in the novel (remember: there are angels in The History of Love and also an angel on Leo's floor)?
    4. Where do you think Bird gets the idea that he is a lamed vovnik? What's motivating that belief?

    Chew on This

    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...

  • The Home

    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).

    Questions About The Home

    1. Although the reader might first picture Leo being trapped in all the junk, or at least constricted by it, he finds a way to live there with great creativity and joy, even imagining "the roar of the invisible crowd" in his ears (1.1). How does this describe Leo's emotional life as well?
    2. How do you think Leo's fifty years as a locksmith have affected his feelings about home and family?
    3. Leo and Alma both travel to Isaac's house in Connecticut, but while Leo breaks in and wanders inside, Alma is content to stay outside and leave a note for him on the door. What does this say about each of them (besides one of them being a locksmith), and how they feel about the sanctity of personal space?
    4. Alma is constantly sneaking around the house, looking through other people's things. Do you think she would feel comfortable doing this outside the confines of her own home?

    Chew on This

    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."