Elie Wiesel: A Mystery of True Identity
“What and how they speak may not be so remarkable as that they speak at all” (qtd in Estess par.1) are words that Ted Estess uses to describe Elie Wiesel’s writing career and, specifically, what Wiesel incorporates in his books. In this critique, Estess states his opinion on characters in Wiesel’s popular books, mentioning aspects of these narratives like style and tone. The first main point Estess goes over is Wiesel’s use of questioning, which he says distinguishes itself from other styles of questioning: “…the shape his questioning takes … has for meaningful dwelling in the world…The shape of his questioning is an ancient one-that of storytelling” (qtd. in Estess 1). What makes Wiesel’s questioning styles unique is that readers will understand his stories through questioning the actual story and will also figure out the meaning behind what Wiesel is actually saying through his words. This questioning leads to the next main point in Wiesel’s books, his perspective on God. Wiesel tries to understand his identity and who he really is by questioning God himself.
As described by Estess, Night doesn’t give the actual answer about one’s self-identity, though this inquiry is answered within Wiesel’s second major book, Dawn: “Dawn questions precisely the notion that the answers will be found within by the solitary individual” (qtd. in Estess 10). In Dawn, the main character realizes what he has become as a person and what he believed was right to do: “But when you lose a friend everyday, it doesn’t hurt so much. And I’d lost plenty of friends in my time…That was the real reason I followed God to Palestine and became a terrorist; I had no more friends to lose” (Wiesel 170). In this example, the main character reflects how he came to his current part of life from past experiences and shows how he answers his own question of what he is as a person, and what he would describe himself as. This tactic closely relates itself to another common mechanic used in Wiesel’s writing, questioning self-identity. A common style that Estess mentions in which Wiesel uses predominantly in many of his books entails masking the characters and showing them as “unfinished.” Estess believes that masks are more for dead than alive people and that is an inadequate model of a character. Wiesel says “ A Jew has no right to wear disguises.” (qtd. in Estess 3). Another important detail about Wiesel’s style of writing is that he focuses on the characters, from feelings and emotions to their progression throughout the story, even though Wiesel does not really concern himself with the plot or action to a pronounced extent. As articulated by Estess about this focus on the characters, “His Plotting in the longer stories is extraordinarily loose, providing only an external frame for the exploration of the interiority of his characters” (qtd. in Estess 6). A character searching for what he or she truly is as a person shows up a handful amount of times in many of Wiesel’s writings; for example, in the book Night, the main character talks about his soul and what his deepest desires as a person are: “I thought of us as damned souls wandering through the void, souls condemned to wander through space until the end of time seeking redemption, seeking oblivion, without any hope of finding either” (Wiesel 54).
Next, Wiesel’s writing shows how his characters “move toward action because they wish to gain a story for their own lives” (qtd. in Estess 6). The reason that Wiesel incorporates so much action in his works is that “he experienced so deeply in the Holocaust the consequences of the failure to act” (qtd. in Estess 6). This failure to act against wrongdoing appears throughout Wiesel’s memoirs, as in Night when the main character watched one of the guards in the Holocaust camp beat his father to death. In this situation, the main character wanted to act against this brutality but couldn’t because he was afraid the guard would beat him viciously also, leaving the main character unable to help his father or himself. In addition, the indifference Wiesel uses to characterize his characters, mainly in Night, shows how his characters allowed the near destruction of the Jewish population because they could not interfere with such brutality since their was a strong factor of fear that took over them. Furthermore, Wiesel’s action allow him to show defiance against indifference. As Wiesel said about indifference, “We tell the tale of the Holocaust to save the world from indifference” (qtd. in Estess 8). “Storytelling is Wiesel’s mode of inquiring into the nature of things” (qtd. in Estess 9). One final point that Estess talks about is that Wiesel’s books do a good job of challenging the reader, “a challenge to allow his own perspectives to be interrogated and his horizon of understanding to be altered and expanded.” (qtd. in Estess 9). This means that readers must accept that, during reading one of Wiesel’s work’s, their perspectives might be challenged and that they have to be willing to change or accept the perspective given. For example, in Wiesel’s book And the Sea is Never Full, Wiesel often question’s God and in his faith in him. This faith is more directly “attacked” in Night where the main character asks why God won’t save him and thus concluding God died on the cross in the camps. Such deep perspectives definitely challenge a reader’s perspective and they must be willing to accept it.
In Wiesel’s most well known book, Night, Wiesel take readers through a terrifying journey of what he went through the camps and the many struggles that he had to overcome through this journey. All detainees were stripped of their belongings and had to give their whole life away in the Holocaust camps. Through the main character, Wiesel shows how his belief in God vastly changed through his experiences in the camps. In the beginning of the book, the main character wanted to learn the Kabbalah and was devoted in praying to god everyday. The main character and the priest of his town would read the Zohar over and over again “to discover within the very essence of divinity” (Wiesel 23). But after the forcible departure to the Holocaust camps, the narrator finds that his beliefs change greatly: “For the first time, I felt anger rising within me. Why should I sanctify His name? The Almighty, the eternal, and the terrible Master of the Universe, chose to be silent. What was there to thank Him for?” (Wiesel 51). Another important aspect of Night is that Wiesel doesn’t leave bits and pieces out of his experience in the camps. Wiesel, in detail, goes through the daily experiences while being a prisoner in the camp with strong emotional descriptions like “The idea of dying, of ceasing to be, began to fascinate me. To no longer exist. To no longer feel the excruciating pain in my foot. To no longer feel anything, neither fatigue nor cold, nothing. To break rank, to myself slide to the side of the road…”(Wiesel 104). He later shifts to descriptions of torture and greed: “The volunteers undressed him and eagerly shared his garments. Then, two “gravediggers” grabbed him by the head and feet and threw him from the wagon, like a sack of flour” (Wiesel 117). Such descriptions and handful of others give readers a more first-handed experience, since Wiesel wrote the book from his experiences, rather than creating a truly fictionalized version of the Holocaust. When considering statements such as those above, readers can make connections to when they themselves have lost loved ones.
Wiesel’s books have set him apart as one of the greatest modern humanitarian writers, especially among writers about the Holocaust. His usage of different styles of writing makes his novels special in the sense that readers will finish reading a book and take something valuable from it. In addition, works like Night and Dawn take readers through what Wiesel went through in his lifetime and readers get a good sense of what Wiesel truly meant by writing a book, of his commitment to both art and the truth. Strategies in writing such as questioning self-identity and masking characters guide readers through Wiesel’s perspective in his beliefs about God and about himself as a person.
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