Practical Appreciation
Everything is Illuminated

'Everything is one world in distance from the real world'

Foer, Jonathan Safran. Everything is Illuminated. Penguin Books, 2002, p. 103.
This is a partial analysis of Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated. I will be focusing on style and the representation of truth. I have compiled some questions that you may use to further explore the novel.

Everything is Illuminated

Everything is Illuminated examines from different angles what happens to truth when we embrace fiction and why we embrace fiction when we are addressing the truth. How, when no meaning is available, meaning is constructed, and how, when there is no truth to be had, it is fictionalised.

It also addresses the exquisite pain of not being able to say what you want to say; that language does not suffice to contain and communicate determinate meaning, and the exquisite pain of the awareness of the multiplicity of meaning contained in concepts such as love, life and being.

The premise of the book is a journey that the author made to explore his family's history, but which came up short. There was nothing to discover. The novel is, in part, an attempt to address this nothing, the absence of meaning where meaning was expected to be found.

multiple narrators
He is not the only author, however; there are two internal co-authors, Jonathan, whose name co-incides with that of the external author, as it were, the name on the cover of the book, and Alex, a young Ukrainian. We are not reading the finished product. We are reading the book as it is being written, edited and passed between the two internal co-authors.

Jonathan's narrative tracks the history of his family in Trachimbrod, from the momentous birth of his ancestor Brod to the destruction of the town. Alex tracks their recent quest to uncover that history, and the present, including the edits of the book.

Everything is Illuminated plays on multiple modernist stylistic conventions, and postmodern and post-structural concepts, but also integrates elements of literary realism. It makes use of distinct stylistic techniques characteristic of literary realism and addresses multiple perceptions of and attitudes to the representations of truth and reality.


The two internal co-authors each express different modes and styles of literary realism.

Jonathan practices a blend of modernist literary realism; un-linear, discontinuous and impressionist, at a distance to his subject, yet structured, and magical realism.

Alex, on the other hand, is represented by two forms of writing; in the form of the letters to Jonathan (and letters are documents, or not?), and his account of their "quest". The quest narrative is dominated by dialogue and action and beset by commentary, un-structured, but continuous and devoid of symbolic language. Alex initially struggles with his writing. His English is, admittedly, 'not first rate' (23). Both narrative and letters are beset with vulgarities and misplaced or misconstrued words and idioms as a consequence to Alex being forced to write in a foreign language and, indeed, write, at all.

characterisation of Alex
There are depths to Alex, however, that surface early on and trickle through the cracks of his broken language. There is deep-felt affection and warmth for his little brother whom he feels protective towards and rightly so, for their father is a brute. There is the ambivalent relationship to the grandfather, characterised by both respect, unspoken love and a nervous understanding that underneath the feeble form are depths of feeling, secrets and sadness which Alex is hesitant to penetrate.

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style and intent
Alex's letters and narrative are comical, but not consistently so, as we quickly come to understand Alex's domestic situation. Neither is Jonathan's narrative dominated by a single style. Each is attempting to represent the truth from their own relative perspective, to place themselves and their family history and relationships in a greater context.

The continuity, linguistic particularities and density of dialogue, along with the vivid characterisation of Alex, all lend to the appearance of the real. We could very well believe that Alex is "real" and, through him, that his narrative is "true".

On the other hand, Jonathan is clearly fictionalising; he animates objects and mythologises characters, suggesting magical properties. This does not negate our sense of the real, however, as, initially, Jonathan's style is consistent. We quickly become familiar with the conventions of Jonathan's narrative and accept the rules by which it is constructed. We know what to expect.

Jonathan's objectivity
Jonathan himself is abstract, as he does not intrude upon his own narrative. His impersonality and style further lend to the appearance of the real in the narrative, but of him, his narrative tells us very little.

We only know Jonathan through Alex's letters. Alex serves as Jonathan's referent, in that he addresses his letters to him. The whole structure of belief depends on Alex. Our main referent to the "real" is thus Alex, not the journey made by the external author or even the general historical past and the ever-present ghost of the Holocaust, looming in the wings. An internal referent, not external.

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The Representation of Truth

authors approximate eachother
We initially accept Alex as truthful much due to his immediacy and, initial, innocence in the area of writing. However, Alex is far from being as "guileless" as he signs himself. As the work proceeds, the two internal authors begin to influence and approximate each other. Alex becomes more confident and begins to comment and edit Jonathan's work. He begets literary ambitions. Jonathan, who initially is critical of Alex's attempts at fiction and deems them vulgar, begins to incorporate elements of Alex's style in his narrative.

the nature of fiction
As Alex begins to master expressing himself, he becomes increasingly aware of the difficulties of expression. It doesn't get any easier, the more accomplished you become. Nuances appear and disperse determinate meaning. He also becomes aware of the power of fiction. 'Not-truths' hang before him 'like fruit' (117). Can we not have a happy ending?, he begs Jonathan. Can we not make this or that character more noble or achieve true love? He argues that seeing as they are being 'nomadic with the truth' anyhow (179), why not make the book 'more premium than life'? This sentiment is expressed also in Jonathan's character, Brod, who understands she can 'never be happy and honest at the same time' (79).

truth vs beauty
It eventually comes to a clash between the two, as their concepts of Beauty clash. To Alex, the beautiful is true; to Jonathan, truth is Beauty. Jonathan desires to represent the truth, although circumstances force him to use fiction, while Alex desires to depict the beautiful and create a fiction superiour to truth. Alex calls Jonathan a coward for not pursuing the beautiful, and happiness. Jonathan tries to resist the temptation that Alex would embrace, to make the telling and the receiving of the story more easy, more pleasing, more obvious, more less like and more than the truth.

distance and intention
The circumstances which make fiction necessary to Jonathan are the distance to his subject, separated from him by time, and by terrors, general and particular, which make the truth hard to approach. He is also separated from his subject by style; his choice of magical realism provides a more comfortable distance to his subject, protecting him, but at the same time it is a form of distortion of what he is trying to discover. We see how he becomes increasingly aware of this; he circumvents his subject, depicting events and then returning to them to depict them closer or in a different way, approximating the truth from different angles, in a constant process of repetition and editing. As the project evolves, an increasing sensuality penetrates Jonathan's narrative; his characters become both impression, thought, and tangible flesh and less extreme, less magical, more human.

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As Jonathan approaches the end of his narrative and of Trachimbrod, the magical and the realistic become increasingly distinguishable from one another into two modes, co-existing, but not integral. The magical realism is subverted and disrupted. The destruction of Trachimbrod mirrors the birth of Brod, without the happy-ending, each statement presented in un-structured, continuous, wrenching realism.

The destruction of Trachimbrod is a dream, of course, one dotted down by one of Jonathan's fictional forefathers; a nightmare of prediction. Jonathan cannot get any closer to the truth that time and horror will always separate him from. So he uses that separation and horror to approximate it.

As the two internal authors begin to approximate each other, we are forced, as readers, to re-adjust our expectations continually; we are leaving the familiar behind and entering something altogether different. The appearance of the real is no longer present in the style, but rather in our interaction with the changes. The conventions are being formed as we read, forcing us to adapt as we adjust our expectations. Simultaneously, we are forced to consider the relationships between fiction, truth and reality.

what is truth?
Is truth, reality or history only available from a perspective, as single moments, like the old lady who keeps the past in boxes with no intelligible system to distinguish the past by except her own interpretation? Or can it be viewed as a continuous, intelligible structure, people and the past, present and future interwoven, as is suggested in Brod's vision of the future and the prophetic dreams of the people of Trachimbrod?

truth as sublime
Everything is Illuminated does not suggest that there is an objective truth to be had, but it does address the desire for it. It depicts truth and reality as sublime, inexpressible and awe-inspiring. A quantifiable, verifiable and communicable truth has become an impossible ideal. It is suggested that we will always fictionalise the truth, because it is un-obtainable.

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love : an eternal truth
The book does suggest a collective truth, if not objective. In the midst of multiplying uncertainties, one constant emerges throughout the book : love. Love is memory, echoes of fondness, of people and places. Love is history and heritage and the relationships that connect us. Love is the love of love, for things and people. Love is love of the idea of love. Like Brod's 613 descriptions of sadness, 'each perfectly unique, each a singular emotion, no more similar to other sadness than to anger' (79), love has meanings that transcend the word, the idea and the individuals that express it. It is suggested that love constitutes an eternal truth, subject to eternal variation, which disregards knowledge and fate. As Brod notes, 'nothing is more than it is unless imbued with a thought or emotion' (80), suggesting that fiction is an act of love.

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Ultimately, the novel suggests that there is a dividing line between truth and fiction: sadness. The sadness that Bord identifies as being one of the sadnesses of the intellect; 'Sadness of not knowing enough words to [express what you mean]' (211), that language is insufficient to express exactly what you mean. Even if truth could be had, it cannot be told, not really.

There is also the sadness that eventually follows when an un-truth has been repeated so many times, it has become truth, but which hurts more than the truth it was supposed to hide (117), like Alex's father screaming 'It doesn't hurt' when he beats his sons or Brod saying she loves things in order to hide her fear that she cannot love at all.

Fiction may protect us from anything, except fiction itself, but it may also draw our attention to the fictions that hurt us. As happens for Alex, at the end of the book, when he exits it, and fiction, in an act of love.

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Critics have found it hard to place Everything is Illuminated in a literary and critical context. Labels such as "pseudo-modernist" and "post-postmodernist" have been used, due to its acceptance of eternal truths and its stylistic characteristics. Arguably, Everything is Illuminated is another manifestation of literary realism, in a new guise, a new form, and once more addressing our changing and complex relationship to reality and truth and its representation.

Works Cited

  • Foer, Jonathan Safran. Everything is Illuminated. Penguin Books, 2002.
Suggested Further Reading

  • Adorno, Theodor W. and Max Horkheimer. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Stanford University Press, 2002.
  • Baudrillard, Jean. Impossible Exchange. Translated by Chris Turner, Verso, 2001.
  • Baudrillard, Jean. Selected Writings. Edited by Mark Power, Polity Press, 1988.
  • Baudrillard, Jean. Symbolic Exchange and Death. Translated by Iain Hamilton Grant, Sage Publications, 1993.
  • Eagleton , Terry. Literary Theory : An Introduction. Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1996.
  • Iser, Wolfgang. The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response. The John Hopkins University Press, 1971.
  • Jameson, Fredric. 'Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism'. Postmodernism : A Reader, edited by Thomas Docherty, Pearson Education, 1993, pp. 62-92.
  • Lyotard, Jean-Francois. 'Answering the Question: What is postmodernism?'. Postmodernism : A Reader, edited by Thomas Docherty, Pearson Education, 1993, pp. 38-46.
Table of Contents


Difficulties of a Definition

Terminology and Aesthetics
- What is in a Word?
- the Real and the Realistic
- Reality and Fiction

a History of Literary Realism
- Introduction
- Early Literary Realism
- Late Literary Realism

What is Literary Realism?
- Approximating a Definition
- Attitudes
- Conventions

Critical Approaches
- Introduction
- Formalism
- Reader Response Theory
- Aesthetics
- Marxist Criticism
- Post-Structural Criticism
- Postmodern Criticism
- Postmodern Anti-Realism

Practical Appreciation
- Madame Bovary
- Everything is Illuminated

Study Proposals




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