Analysis of Elie Wiesel’s The Night Trilogy

This work consists of Elie Wiesel’s first three books—the memoir Night (1958), the novel Dawn (L’aube, 1961), and the fictional work Day (Le jour, 1962), also called The Accident. Although Wiesel has published more than 20 books, these three—originally published in French—are perhaps his most famous. All three narratives deal with the Holocaust and manifest Wiesel’s excellent use of storytelling, imagery, and mysticism. Night was originally written in Yiddish and first published in Buenos Aires under the title And the World Stood Silent. Initially, Wiesel himself was silent about the horrendous life in the German concentration camps, having been so overwhelmed psychologically by the Holocaust that he refused for a decade to write about his experiences in the death camps. But François Mauriac convinced him to write about the tragedy that he witnessed and that had forever changed him and the world. Wiesel’s memoir is poignant, poetic, and shocking.

The narrator begins by relating how religious he was, subsequently contrasting his religious fervor with the shattering of that faith as God watched the Holocaust unfold yet did nothing. The young narrator still believes in God’s existence but temporarily loses his faith in a benevolent and protecting God. As the memoir begins, the narrator describes Moche the Beadle, the Jewish outsider who taught him Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism). Not being natives of Sighet, Romania (Wiesel’s hometown), Moche and many others are deported ostensibly to work camps in Galicia (Poland), where their living conditions, they have been told, will improve. The information proves to be erroneous and is indicative of the false rumors spread by the Germans to provide their victims with a false sense of hope. All the nonnatives of Sighet who are deported on the cattle trains are massacred by members of the secret police, except for Moche the Beadle, who miraculously survives.

Elie Wiesel / The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity

Although the narrator is religious, he fails to realize that Moche’s survival, return, and warnings are perhaps a sign from God and an opportunity to escape. Like the others of Sighet, he does not believe Moche and instead decides to outlast the German occupation (rumors spread that the war is almost over) and to trust the occupiers to be humane. Wiesel’s point, always implicit because the author refrains from being blunt, is that the Jews saw the evil that was happening around them but refused to think that the atrocities could happen to them, owing to a misguided faith in human nature.

Most of the narrative consists of Wiesel’s experiences in such camps as Auschwitz-Birkenau, Buna, and Buchenwald. Ironically, before the Holocaust Wiesel and his father, Shlomo, lacked a strong emotional bond. The Holocaust brings them together, for they must rely on each other to survive. Losing his faith in a benevolent God, Wiesel transfers that faith, placing it less in God and more in his father. Wiesel saves his father’s life, helping him make it through selections, and Shlomo also saves the life of the narrator. Wiesel effectively juxtaposes the bond between the narrator and his father with the bond between other fathers and sons. He describes a father who, after finding a piece of bread, is attacked by his own son, who covets the bread for himself; both father and son die in the ensuing brawl over the bread. Later, during a death march in the snow, Rabbi Eliahou’s son runs ahead of his father, distancing himself from him (rather than encouraging him) so that he himself could survive. Wiesel remarks, “My God, Lord of the Universe, give me strength never to do what Rabbi Eliahou’s son has done.” After Wiesel’s father dies, the narrator accuses himself of failing to do more to help his father and of feeling some relief in being free to save himself, yet the narrator acts heroically and benevolently during this horrific time.

Unlike Night, a memoir, Dawn is a novel. In this second book of the trilogy, Elisha is a Holocaust survivor who is aimless after the war. He joins a group of Jews willing to fight and commit terrorist attacks in order to incite the British to leave Palestine so that Jews can immigrate there and begin a new life. During the Holocaust, the Jewish people had been accused of being led by the Germans like sheep to the slaughter. Some Jews believed that to shed this passivity, violence was the answer. Desiring a homeland that, they believed, could help them prevent another Holocaust, many Jews wanted to go to Palestine after the war and were willing to fight for that right.

In Dawn Wiesel explores whether violence is the answer. After a member of the group is captured and scheduled for execution, the Old Man, the leader of the group, decides that they should in turn capture a British soldier and execute him; John Dawson is then kidnapped by the group. Elisha, a relatively new member of the group (and the novel’s narrator) is selected to execute Dawson. By portraying Dawson as a decent and innocent person with a family, his murder as senseless, and Elisha as being reluctant to perform the execution, Wiesel suggests that violence begets violence and that nothing productive will derive from this Jewish organization’s decision to kill their hostage. As a Holocaust survivor, Elisha witnessed a great deal of murder and senseless atrocity; he saw many innocent people being killed; his willingness, albeit reluctant, to kill Dawson demonstrates that the victim has in this case become the victimizer. After shooting Dawson, Elisha reports, “There was a pain in my head and my body was growing heavy. The shot had left me deaf and dumb. That’s it, I said to myself. It’s done. I’ve killed. I’ve killed.” Elisha believes that by executing Dawson, he has killed a part of himself.

Although Day is a work of fiction, strong parallels exist between this novel and the author’s own experiences. For instance, the narrator shares Wiesel’s first name; both are Holocaust victims who went to France after the war then moved to New York City; and both are journalists who were hit by a taxicab in New York and seriously injured. Day manifests Wiesel’s love of storytelling; the narrator must tell his story to his girlfriend, Kathleen, and to the man on the ship; he must listen as Sarah, who as a girl in a concentration camp was repeatedly forced to have sex with Nazi guards, tells her story to him; the narrator tells the story of the rabbi who became a smuggler after watching a concentration camp inmate die of hunger after trading his bread for a prayer book; and he must listen as Gyula, an eccentric and somewhat mystical figure, tells him how he survived an incident at sea in which he almost drowned.

Storytelling is part of Jewish tradition, and in this novel it allows the reader to see how the narrator (and some Holocaust victims) struggle with survivor guilt and come to terms with having been fortunate enough to live while others, including family members, died. Gyula’s story about survival suggests that there is a purpose to survival—Gyula’s survival, for instance, allows him to help keep the narrator alive. Gyula attempts to show the narrator that suicide is not the answer to his guilt. Kathleen attempts to save him by providing him with love; this noble effort fails because instead the narrator cruelly attempts to make her suffer. Their relationship is distant and not based on honesty; it is doomed to failure, as are, Wiesel suggests, many relationships involving Holocaust survivors. The trauma makes it difficult for people to enjoy life and return to normal conditions. This powerful novel manifests a Sartrean influence and shows the author’s attempt to portray the plight of Holocaust survivors in a postwar environment, how the Shoah injured Jews not only physically but emotionally.

Kolbert, Jack. The Worlds of Elie Wiesel: An Overview of his Career and Major Themes. Selinsgrove, Pa.: Susquehanna University Press, 2001.
Phillips, Ursula, and Eile Stanislaw, eds. New Perspectives on Twentieth-Century Polish Literature. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1992.
Roth, John K. A Consuming Fire: Encounters with Elie Wiesel and the Holocaust. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1979.
Wiesel, Elie. And the Sea Is Never Full: Memoirs, 1969—. Translated by Marion Wiesel. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.
———. Memoirs: All Rivers Run to the Sea. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995.

Categories: Literature, Novel Analysis

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