Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell

Elie Wiesel, Night (1958) (Translated by Stella Rodway 1960)

The book by the Hungarian-Romanian-Jewish Holocaust survivor who settled in the United States Elie Wiesel, Night (1958), is a hybrid of a memoir and a novel, being part personal history, part social history, and part historical fiction.  It is meant to stand as an emblematic record of the suffering of the Jews during the Second World War, having been written when there were relatively few Holocaust memoirs.  Consequently, the text presents horrific events in anticipation of their capacity to surprise and shock the original audience of the late 1950s.  Since then, awareness of these kinds of events has become woven into the fabric of contemporary sympathies and historical memory.  These events may currently be less shocking but the public’s recognition is far more pervasive.  Night may have contributed to generating that awareness. 

Night features the theme: never forget, never again.  The notion of ‘never forget’ is explicitly expressed in the text and it represents a form of defiance and resistance by the survivors.  This event shall never be allowed to recede, like so many other tragic historical events, from the public consciousness because to do so would be tantamount to allowing the perpetrators to escape condemnation.  The ‘never again’ dimension of this theme is not expressed explicitly but rather implied, in part by the very writing of this book.  The author hoped that by producing an emotionally moving account of the horror inflicted on the European Jews that it would contribute to such an event never being repeated. 

In line with the never forget, never again theme are frequent warnings in the text about the fatal mistakes that the Jews made that allowed the trap to close upon them.  Most of these mistakes were due to their tragic naivety, misplaced optimism about the goodwill of mankind and the omnipotent benevolence of their God, their misplaced trust in authority figures who actually bore the Jews ill will, and their procrastination that allowed the last avenues of escape to pass unexploited.  The never forget, never again theme presents a warning to Jews of potential dangers, and it presents a moral claim on gentiles on how they should treat Jews. 

Night also explores issues regarding religious doubt and the loss of faith.  Night, in part, looks at the Holocaust as a theological issue that challenges Jewish spirituality.  Some Jews, like Elie Wiesel, painfully concluded that there can be no God that allows his people to suffer in this fashion, while other Jews are shown to gain strength from their faith, while others lose their will to survive when they lose their faith. 

Night also seeks to establish the idea that the Holocaust was the worst event in human history in that it involved the systematic slaughter of the Jewish race for no reason other than their ethnicity.  It also brought to the fore the most evil dimensions of human nature, not only regarding the SS perpetrators but in regards to the morally reprehensible behaviour of many of their victims who were desperate to survive their perilous circumstances.  This inversion of the natural moral order is conveyed by Elie Wiesel in his depictions of father-and-son relationships where, for example, it seemed logical to deny food to one’s dyeing father because scarce supplies were of more use to those with a chance of survival.  Night is a book about the evil in bad people and the evil that can emerge in good people when they are put in extraordinary situations. 

Night is not completely pessimistic.  Elie Wiesel points out that these kinds of tragic events can bring out the best in some individuals, which is evident in his featuring of the heroic will to survive exhibited by many Jews.  It is also evident in the ethical behaviour of some gentiles, such as a sympathetic Hungarian policeman who warned the Jews to escape. 

Night also sought to establish the notion that the genocide inflicted on the Jews should be known as the ‘Holocaust’, which means sacrifice by fire. It is it is a more evocative and emotive label that captures the meaning of the event for Elie Wiesel and others who survived it.  Many other books and films have echoed this notion and it has become most recognised and accepted label for this tragic episode in history. 

Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez

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The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.) 

Subject: Night meaning, Night themes, Night analysis, Night notes