Melancholy and Mourning in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close


Sien Uytterschout ( studied Germanic Languages at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel and graduated in 2005. In 2006, she successfully concluded the MA programme in American Studies (Universiteit Antwerpen) with a dissertation on trauma in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Currently, she is working for GUST (Ghent Urban Studies Team).

Kristiaan Versluys ( is Professor of American Literature and Culture at Ghent University (Belgium). He has published The Poet in the City. Chapters in the Development of Urban Poetry in Europe and the United States (1987) and some eighty scholarly (book) articles in international journals and collections. His specialities are urban literature (especially the literature of New York) and Jewish-American fiction. He is preparing a study on the discursive responses to 9/11.


Whereas melancholy (or ‘acting out’) entails a complete repression of all trauma-related memory, mourning (or ‘working through’) is an endeavour to remember the traumatic event and fit it into a coherent whole. In Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, these two ways of reacting to and dealing with trauma are embodied respectively by the protagonist’s paternal grandfather and by his paternal grandmother, both survivors of the Allied firebombing of Dresden in 1945. Foer ties up this ‘old’ trauma with a fresh one – 11 September 2001 – by having the Schells lose their only son, the protagonist’s father, in the attacks on the World Trade Center. Aspects of both acting out and working through are in turn synthesised in the protagonist himself – Oskar Schell. In his behaviour, the boy displays characteristics of both a melancholic and a mourner.

I. Introduction

Since Dominick LaCapra’s reintegration of the Freudian terms ‘acting out’ or melancholia and ‘working through’ or mourning in the field of trauma studies (LaCapra 1994, 2001), this dichotomy has become the default theoretical groundwork for working with trauma in literature. Melancholy and mourning both apply to memory. Typical reactions to trauma comprise either a repression of all trauma-related memory or an endeavour to remember the event and fit it into a coherent whole.

By means of a brief overview of trauma theory, this essay will uncover the aspects of melancholy and mourning in Jonathan Safran Foer’s latest novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. In Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, these two ways of reacting to and dealing with trauma are embodied respectively by the protagonist’s paternal grandfather and by his paternal grandmother, both survivors of the Allied firebombing of Dresden in 1945. Foer ties up this ‘old’ trauma with a fresh one – 9/11 – by having the Schells lose their only son, the protagonist’s father, in the World Trade Center. Aspects of both acting out and working through are in turn synthesised in the protagonist himself, Oskar Schell. In his behaviour, the boy displays characteristics of both a melancholic and a mourner.

II. Trauma theory

A traumatic event is often so violent and disruptive in nature that it cannot be fitted into existing referential frameworks. As a result, survivors of trauma cannot grasp the magnitude of what has happened to them (Greenberg 2003b, 23; Radstone 2003, 117). A victim’s memory fails to register the event at the moment of its occurrence, because the extent of ‘its violence has not yet been fully known’ (Caruth 1996, 6). Through the paradoxical workings of dissociation – a defence mechanism of the human mind – a trauma survivor does not register or integrate into memory (the impact of) the crisis, but neither can he or she completely banish the event from memory. Trauma at the same time resists integration into and erasure from the mind.

Dissociation entails a process whereby the event(s) experienced in a state of trauma will not be open to memory in the usual way (Coates et al. 2003, 3). The traumatic past is only accessible to the victim by a deferred act of understanding (Greenberg 2003b, 31),1 and experiences that resist knowing will inevitably manifest themselves belatedly. This belated expression of symptoms does not occur by way of a coherent narrative or in a conscious effort of the trauma victim. Instead, the belatedly experienced trauma makes itself known in an uncontrollable and a highly fragmentary fashion, in the form of, for example, flashbacks or nightmares. Since 1980, this set of symptoms has been officially recognised by the American Psychiatric Association under the denominator of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD (Leys 2000, 2).

While following up World War I veterans in the early 1920s, William Brown established that his shell-shocked patients were often incapable of finding an outlet in speech or in action for their powerful trauma-related emotions (quoted in Leys 2000, 84–85). Instead, the soldiers would unconsciously externalise their emotions into physical or bodily symptoms. The patients had absolutely no (conscious) access to the memories of the incidents that formed the basis of their condition. This dissociated remembrance or self-inflicted amnesia of the traumatic event is what Pierre Janet (1980, 23) calls le souvenir traumatique (traumatic memory).2 Janet emphasises that traumatic memory must not be equated with a complete erasure of particularly painful memories. Instead, traumatic memory concerns a modification of the victim’s consciousness that enables him to disintegrate a part of his memory in which he can (temporarily) stow away the traumatic event. The solution to overcome this dissociation consists of guiding the trauma victim from his disjointed traumatic memory to a coherent narrative memory. In other words, traumatised people have to learn to express themselves and try to fit their experiences into a larger, coherent whole (p. 24).

The Freudian distinction between melancholia and mourning, and LaCapra’s elaborated version of that distinction into ‘acting out’ and ‘working through’ are conceptually very similar to Janet’s two ways of remembering trauma (traumatic and narrative memory). Acting out or melancholia is a state of mind in which the victim’s notion of tenses (past, present, future) implodes. That is to say, the melancholic finds himself trapped in an endless reliving of his traumatic past while acting that past out in a post-traumatic present. By compulsively holding on to the past, the victim smothers every possibility of moving towards a liveable future (LaCapra 2001, 21). Acting out disables trauma survivors to express what they feel and forces them to express what they cannot feel (p. 42). Thus they are prevented from converting their traumatic memory into a narrative one. Melancholics semi-consciously resist this conversion because of their ‘fidelity to trauma’ (p. 22). They feel that their own coming to terms with trauma would be an ultimate betrayal of those who were lost in the event, especially lost loved ones (p. 22). Working through, on the other hand, is what LaCapra terms an articulatory practice, necessarily invoking an effort at testimony (p. 42). Slowly but certainly, the process of mourning enables traumatised people to develop a narrative memory of the traumatic event. It allows them to remember what happened to them at a certain point in the past, while at the same time realising that they are living now. Critical consideration of the traumatic past itself and of coping with that past, lessens the danger of a lapse into melancholia-related compulsive behaviour (p. 22).

If ‘acting out’ impedes the process of coming to terms with an extreme event, so does ‘pure’ working through. Trauma theorists even postulate that a process of pure working through does not exist. This notion consequently forecloses viewing a process of healing as a straightforward transition from one state of mind to another. Instead, trauma theorists presuppose that the ‘ideal’ way of dealing with trauma consists of an interlacing of acting out and working through. The former can even be a necessary antecedent to the latter, in that brief instances of acting out often offer a respite to the mourning human mind. Melancholic fantasies (for example, indulging in the belief that the lost loved ones watch over those who are left behind) are a necessary and welcome relief from the crushing reality that those loved ones are gone (Harris 2003, 146; LaCapra 1994, 205).

III. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

In the following, two of the three sufferers of trauma in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close– Oskar Schell and his grandmother – will be shown to more or less adhere to the ‘mixture’ of acting out and working through. The novel’s third character (Thomas Schell, Oskar’s grandfather) defies everything that is even remotely connected to coping with trauma. For the most part, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close consists of the rambling accounts of its nine-year-old protagonist, Oskar Schell, a boy who has lost his father in the terrorist attacks on 11 September. A year after the events, while hiding in his father’s wardrobe, Oskar stumbles across an envelope labelled ‘Black’ in which he finds a mysterious key. Thinking (and hoping) that this key is meant as one last Reconnaissance Expedition (a game in which the father sends his son out on various quests), Oskar immediately embarks on a treasure hunt across the five boroughs of New York City in search for a matching lock to his key. His plan is to meet everyone named Black living in New York. Oskar’s narrative, then, mostly recounts what and/or whom he encounters on his quest in a post-traumatic present. At the same time, his soliloquy always contains ample reference to the past, more precisely an ante-11 September past, when his father was still alive.

Oskar’s trauma narrative is interwoven with that of his paternal grandparents, both survivors of the Dresden firebombing at the end of World War II. That is to say, in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close two extreme events are brought to the fore and are linked to each other through the experiences of three traumatised characters. The air raids on Dresden make up the core of the grandparents’ (primary) trauma. They emerged from the attacks physically unscathed but forever burdened with guilt for being the only survivors of their respective families. On 11 September, they lose their only son (Oskar’s father). Hence, the grandparents’ experiences might be seen as an instance of pre-traumatisation (by the Dresden bombings) and re-traumatisation by the events on 11 September. All three traumatised characters have a unique way of coming to terms with and recounting their experiences. Whereas traumatised people mostly face both conflicting urges of witnessing and denying (or working through and acting out) simultaneously, Thomas Schell’s mind and actions are firmly embedded in acting out or melancholy. His life has become a fixated reliving of the traumatic events in Dresden in 1945.

IV. Grandfather

People who have been caught up in a traumatic event are utterly overpowered by the magnitude of what they have experienced. They cannot fit what has happened into an existing referential framework, nor can they conventionalise it. Therefore, a trauma victim’s initial reception of such unimaginable events is often one of complete incomprehensibility (Greenberg 2003b, 23; Radstone 2003, 117; Rothberg 2003, 149). Thomas Schell is one of those people. On the night of the Dresden firebombing, moments before the air raid alarm goes off, Thomas’s girlfriend, Anna, tells him she is pregnant. He is overjoyed. That there might be an actual threat to Dresden this time simply does not occur to him:

Before I left, she said, ‘Please be over joyed [sic].’ I told her I was, of course, I was, I kissed her, I kissed her stomach, that was the last time I saw her. At 9.30 that night, the airraid sirens sounded, everyone went to the shelters, but no one hurried, we were use [sic] to the alarms, we assumed they were false, why would anyone want to bomb Dresden? (Foer 2005, 210)

Thomas Schell survives the Dresden firebombing. His pregnant girlfriend, Anna, does not. Having survived while his lover perished, is torture for him. He cannot reconcile his own ongoing life with the death of his loved ones, and especially the death of Anna. This paradox of survival and the ensuing, emotional crisis a trauma victim goes through is an essential component of the concept ‘trauma’. Having faced death, the question is what constitutes trauma. Is trauma caused by the encounter with and the narrow escape from death or is it rather the experience of living with the knowledge of having encountered and escaped death while others have not? Survival, then, becomes a balancing act between a crisis of death and a crisis of living (Caruth 1996, 7). In the following excerpt, Thomas attests to this wavering between two extremes:

I’m sorry. … I’m sorry for everything. For having said goodbye to Anna when maybe I could have saved her and our idea, or at least died with them. I’m sorry for my inability to let the unimportant things go, for my inability to hold on to the important things. … I thought, it’s a shame that we have to live, but it’s a tragedy that we get to live only one life, because if I’d had two lives, I would have spent one of them with [his wife, Anna’s sister]. I would have stayed in the apartment with her … I would have spent that life among the living. (Foer 2005, 132–133)

The paradox of survival is closely connected to another trauma-related concept, namely that of survivor guilt. Survivor guilt can be seen as a direct result of PTSD. Among other symptoms, PTSD entails a trauma victim’s thoroughly distorted self-image (Wirth 2005, 38). Clearly, Thomas’s self-esteem has received a terrible blow and he suffers from feelings of unworthiness (Foer 2005, 33). At least a part of Thomas’s suffering is due to his convictions that he is not worthy of having survived Dresden. These feelings of unworthiness constitute the haunting experience of being unable to live in the present and being equally unable to let go of the past. In the case of Thomas Schell and his wife, this inability to live in the present is represented by their creation of Nothing and Something Places in their apartment once they are married. Nothing Places are rectangles of space that do not exist. Whoever occupies a Nothing Place temporarily ceases to exist as well (p. 110). As they go along, the Schells systematically carve out more and more Nothing Places, so that in the end their apartment is more Nothing than Something. They even mark the Nothing and Something Places on the blueprint of their apartment, so that no (more) misunderstandings can arise as to which room is what. As an ultimate example of Thomas’s inability to love and live with someone who is not Anna, he even insists on making love in a Nothing Place. Finally, Thomas sees no other option than to leave his wife (and their unborn child),3‘not out of selfishness’ but because ‘[he] can’t live, [he has] tried and [he] can’t’ (p. 135).

However overpowering the experience of a traumatic event may be, it is possible to survive. In the case of Thomas Schell, that survival must be understood in its barest sense – a mere bodily survival stripped of all emotional well-being. As his name suggests, Thomas is a shell of the man he once was. The issue of (bodily) survival is logically tied up with the question whether or not one can (emotionally) recover from trauma. If recovery stands for regaining full ‘health’, then it is impossible. There is absolutely no possibility of ever recovering one’s pre-traumatic self (Kacandes 2003, 179–180). What is possible, however, is that over time a trauma victim manages to incorporate and master what has happened. Crucial in this process is acceptance. A trauma survivor must learn to accept that what seemed utterly impossible before, did in fact happen. Irene Kacandes (p. 180), Hans-Jürgen Wirth (2005, 43) and Dori Laub (quoted in Kaplan 2005, 123), among others, suggest that this acceptance can be facilitated by articulating what happened. Wirth goes so far as to foreclose the phase of acceptance should the traumatic experience be suppressed. Trauma must be admitted, not repressed or denied (Wirth 2005, 43). In a very literal sense, Thomas Schell is unable to share his traumatic experiences with others because he suffers from aphasia – the loss of speech. It is not unreasonable to assume that he has unconsciously inflicted this condition on himself. His inability or refusal to speak testifies to an unwillingness to cope with his traumatic past. Using language suggests at least some form of coming to terms or comprehension, and that is what Thomas wants to avoid at all cost. Thomas’s loss of speech goes hand in hand with his losing Anna in Dresden (Foer 2005, 16).

Thomas’s radical refusal or profound inability to talk about the past precludes every attempt at coming to terms with that past. His behaviour can be characterised as the process of ‘acting out’ or melancholia. It encompasses the victim’s urge to hide, to live bodily in the present but to remain psychically in the past and constantly relive the events that torment him. Acting out involves the inability to bear witness to what has happened. That inability ensnares the trauma victim in an existence in which he is unable to invest love and attachment in new relationships (Harris 2003, 145). This certainly holds true for Thomas Schell. Thomas married a woman who comes as close to the real Anna as possible: Anna’s younger sister. He does not appreciate her for her own person, but only as the last remaining link to Anna. Even when he asks his wife to stand model for his sculptures, he does not sculpt her. His sculptures are a ceaseless attempt to reconstruct (his image of) Anna.

Thomas’s unrelenting obsession with his pre-traumatic past is rooted in his inability to forget. According to Cathy Caruth (1996, 33), ‘forgetting’ is a vital phase in recovering from trauma. The process of forgetting is akin to Janet’s narrative memory and involves the trauma victim regaining an amount of reasonableness, which allows him or her to let go of the past. Thomas Schell does not attain the amount of reasonableness needed for Caruth’s ‘forgetting’. In fact, he does the exact opposite. He is fundamentally unable to relinquish the memory of his beloved Anna. Thomas’s problem becomes even more complicated when it turns out that he is painfully aware of his obsession with the past. He realises that if only he could let go, his life would be much simpler. But despite his insight into his own state of mind, Thomas cannot help himself. His entrapment in the past becomes his torture in the present:

I never thought of myself as quiet, much less silent, I never thought about things at all, everything changed, the distance that wedged itself between me and my happiness wasn’t the world, it wasn’t the bombs and burning buildings, it was me, my thinking, the cancer of never letting go, is ignorance bliss, I don’t know, but it’s so painful to think, and tell me, what did thinking ever do for me, to what great place did thinking ever bring me? I think and think and think, I’ve thought myself out of happiness one million times, but never once into it. (Foer 2005, 17)

Remembering the past is a compulsion for Thomas. In his reasoning, the fact that he lost the possibility of spending his life with Anna can only be compensated by never forgetting about it. Sadly enough, Thomas is not holding on to real memories. Instead, he cherishes projections of what a life with Anna could have been like. On several occasions, Thomas expresses the wish not to think about what could have been ever again. But he cannot help himself. The profound paradox between forgetting and remembering or thinking and not thinking comes to the fore in Thomas’s own account of the destruction of Dresden. Amidst the chaos of the burning city, Thomas remembers that one single thought kept him on his feet: Keep thinking.4 When he is lying at the foot of the Loschwitz Bridge thinking he will surely die, that one thought keeps him alive. Reconsidering this in retrospect, Thomas concludes that at that time to keep thinking might very well have saved his life. Now that he is alive, however, thinking is killing him (pp. 214–215).

Inextricably tied up with Thomas’s struggle between wanting to forget and not being able to is his aphasia. His refusal or inability to speak prevents him from sharing his experiences with others. Thomas again acknowledges his problem in one of his numerous letters to his son (Oskar’s father), ‘Sometimes I think if I could tell you what happened to me that night, I could leave that night behind me’ (Foer 2005, 208). On the other hand, upon marrying Anna’s sister, it is he who invents the rule that prohibits talking about the past. Thus, he forecloses every prospect of coming to terms with the traumatic events of his past. Thomas Schell’s aphasia can also be seen as a bodily manifestation of his psychic turmoil. From the moment Thomas is in America, the involuntary reliving of the past translates itself in aphasia. He then has this loss of speech literally inscribed in the flesh of his hands by having the words ‘yes’ and ‘no’ tattooed on his palms. When he is not communicating by writing, Thomas relies on his hands and his self-made sign language to express himself. The meaning of Thomas’s life, it seems, can be broken down to a mere ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and a few gestures. Speech, for him, is an inadequate means of expression and must therefore be omitted. With the help of this crude ‘sign language’, Thomas takes part in daily conversation without running the risk of expressing the inexpressible.

V. Grandmother

At first sight, Mrs Schell seems to do much better as a survivor of the Dresden air raids than her husband. W. R. Greer (2005, n.p.) even asserts that Grandma is the most accepting survivor in the novel. She does not lose her speech, she is not trapped in endless reliving of the past (or so it seems) and she is able to make a new life for herself and her son after Thomas abandons them. Contrary to her husband, Mrs Schell has a drive to communicate in general and to tell the story of her life in particular. Although Thomas will not budge from his choice to remain silent about his traumatic past, he does encourage his wife to do exactly the opposite. The suggestion that she write down her life story and that it will be better for her to ‘express herself rather than suffer herself’ (Foer 2005, 119) comes from him. He believes that writing will be therapeutic, a way to lighten her burden. Paradoxically enough, he sets up her desk and typewriter in the Nothing guest room. Since a Nothing Place is a place in which the occupant temporarily ceases to exist, it stands to reason that the temporarily non-existent occupant’s writing efforts do not exist either. As the novel progresses, it becomes apparent that Mrs Schell is only keeping up appearances and that, in fact, she is not coping well at all. After her first encounter with Thomas in New York, for instance, she is clearly suicidal (Foer 2005, 82). Grandma’s process of coming to terms with her traumatic past, for example by writing her life story, is not, in other words, one of ‘pure’ working through. Indeed, as it turns out, Mrs Schell does not really write at all. She only pretends that she does by constantly hitting the space bar.

Mrs Schell clearly reflects the same struggle displayed by Thomas, namely that of wavering between a crisis of life and a crisis of death. Taking her leave from Thomas after their first meeting, she plans to drown herself in the Hudson River. His motioning her to come back might be her lifeline but it takes a moment before she accepts. She is torn between the prospect of death and the possibility of starting a new life with Thomas. Eventually, she goes to him and keeps returning to him because ‘his attention filled the hole in the middle of [her]’ (Foer 2005, 83) and for the time being this is reason enough for her to live. Nor is this inclination towards self-destruction a one-time occurrence. At one point, a couple of days after ‘the worst day’ (11 September), Oskar sees his grandmother carrying a huge rock across Broadway. Although she is in the habit of picking up pretty rocks for her grandson to add to his collection, he senses that there is something unusual about this one. He remarks that his grandmother should not be carrying heavy things and that this rock looks like it must weigh a ton. Moreover, ‘she never gave that one to [him] and she never mentioned it’ (p. 104).

Like her husband, Grandma is burdened with survivor guilt. As a girl, she collected letters. Long after the Dresden bombing, when she has been living in New York for quite some time, she cannot help but wonder ‘about those letters laid across [her] bedroom floor. If [she] hadn’t collected them, would [their] house have burned less brightly?’ (p. 83). Aside from feeling guilty about having fuelled the fires that destroyed her house, Grandma also struggles with deep feelings of unworthiness. Grandma’s low self-esteem surfaces whenever she ventures an opinion on something. These instances are so recurrent, that Oskar cannot help but notice them. When he asks his grandmother for advice, she always insults herself before answering: ‘I’m not very smart, but I think’ (p. 70). The most significant moment of her self-loathing occurs just after she finds out that her son was in the restaurant Windows on the World when the planes struck:

When I no longer had to be strong in front of [Oskar], I became very weak. I brought myself to the ground, which was where I belonged. I hit the floor with my fists. I wanted to break my hands, but when it hurt too much, I stopped. I was too selfish to break my hands for my only child. … I had to go to the bathroom. I didn’t want to get up. I wanted to lie down in my own waste, which was what I deserved. I wanted to be a pig in my own filth. (p. 231)

In stark contrast to Thomas, Grandma is a talker. She wants to share her experiences with others. Proof of her readiness and willingness to talk is her compulsive desire to attain a native-like competence in English. She wants to tell her specific story as a survivor of the Dresden firebombing. That urge to get her story out is expressed by her feverishly writing the letter to her grandson justifying her actions at the end of the novel. By contrast, it is rather peculiar that the reader never gets her own account of the Dresden bombardments. One does not find out where she was and what she was doing when the first bombs struck the city, or what she did to survive. The only thing the reader does find out is that she tried to help her father free himself from a pile of rubble after the attacks (p. 308). The reader learns through Thomas, not through Grandma, that her father survived the attacks on Dresden, but that he committed suicide soon after. In her narrative, Grandma familiarises the reader with the story of her childhood in Dresden before that fatal night in February 1945 and with that of her adulthood in New York City. The breach between the two narratives is the omission of her traumatic experience in Dresden.

On the whole, though, it seems that Grandma is better at coping with her past than her husband. At a certain point, she suspects that Thomas is on the verge of leaving her and their unborn child. When she confronts him about his imminent departure, he tells her that he does not know how to live. She admits that she does not know either but that at least she is trying. He in turn retorts that he does not even know how to try (Foer 2005, 181). However, Grandma confesses to Oskar that what has enabled her to go on is that she has spent her life learning to feel less: ‘Every day I felt less. Is that growing old? Or is it something worse?’ (p. 180). Grandma’s erosion of feeling climaxes when she hears of the attacks on the World Trade Center. She admits that she ‘didn’t feel anything when they showed the burning building’ (p. 224) and that she did not feel empty upon realising that her son was dead (p. 231). Grandma’s detachment and emotional numbness have been described by Judith Herman as essential elements of constriction, a post-traumatic state of mind in which the victim surrenders to passivity and outward calm (Herman 1997, 42–43). Hence the initial impression that Grandma might have succeeded better than Thomas in making a new life for herself. In truth, though, she is just as much subject to the tyranny of her traumatic past as is her husband.

If Grandma has gone through a (conscious) erosion of feelings and repression of memories in the waking world, she is avalanched with them while asleep. Whereas Grandma is able to dam up memories of her traumatic past while she is awake, that past returns to haunt her in her dreams. And even then, it is not from Grandma herself that the reader learns this, but through Oskar’s observations. Oskar and his grandmother are constantly in touch through a set of two-way radios. He bids her good morning when he gets up and they usually talk when either of them cannot sleep:

‘How did you sleep, darling? Over.’…‘Fine,’…‘no bad dreams. Over.’… Some nights I took the two-way radio into bed with me and rested it on the side of the pillow that [the cat] Buckminster wasn’t on so I could hear what was going on in her bedroom. Sometimes she would wake me up in the middle of the night. It gave me heavy boots that she had nightmares, because I didn’t know what she was dreaming about and there was nothing I could do to help her. She hollered, which woke me up, obviously, so my sleep depended on her sleep, and when I told her, ‘No bad dreams,’ I was talking about her. (Foer 2005, 104)

Grandma’s internal suffering clearly manifests itself in her suicidal nature and it leaves marks on her body, more specifically on her eyes. One of the first things the reader learns about Grandma is that she has bad eyesight. Later on, Thomas realises that his wife cannot see at all when she hands him the blank pages of her life story. Near the end of the book, however, Grandma confesses that her eyes are ‘crummy’ but that she can still see. Pretending she was going blind was her way of drawing Thomas’s attention. Another physical sign of Grandma’s suffering is her inclination to hurt herself. This becomes especially apparent after she has lost her son in the attacks of 11 September, when arguably her previous trauma (of Dresden and of being abandoned by her husband) is awakened and strengthened by this new one.5

VI. Oskar

Oskar is a very complex character. He is nine and too smart for his age. He combines mature thoughts and ideas with an overall behaviour typical of a child. So most of the time, Oskar is a nine-year-old boy with corresponding wishes and desires such as making mischief with his friends Toothpaste and The Minch. On the other hand, though, his favourite book is Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, he speaks French and is all in all very knowledgeable. Ever since he lost his father in the attacks on the World Trade Center on 11 September, his life has been a daily struggle to (emotionally) survive. He continually ‘wears heavy boots’, which is his expression for being very sad and depressed. Conversely, when he is happy, Oskar is feeling ‘like one hundred dollars’. Throughout the book, he comes across several people who make his boots even heavier, not least his own grandmother. At one point, Oskar feels so depressed that he explicitly expresses a death wish: ‘What’s so horrible about being dead forever, and not feeling anything and not even dreaming? What’s so great about feeling and dreaming?’ (Foer 145).

Evident in Oskar’s musings about life and death is the struggle for a balance between self-destruction and self-preservation, also present in Thomas Schell and Grandma. Although Oskar voices an express wish to die, at the same time he is afraid of death. When visiting the elder Mr Black, Oskar asks for coffee instead of tea because ‘[i]t stunts [his] growth, and [he is] afraid of death’ (Foer 2005, 154). The boy seems to think that drinking coffee will not only prevent him from growing in length but also from growing older and by extension from dying. Oskar’s fear of death is symbolically embedded in the story of the Sixth Borough, a bedtime story told by his father on the night of 10 September. The story’s starting point is that ‘once upon a time’ New York City had a sixth borough. One day, the borough started drifting away and nothing could be done to hold it back. The entire borough simply floated away and finally ended up in Antarctica where its life became static and fixated. However, the New Yorkers of that time were able to hold on to a small piece of the Sixth Borough: Central Park.

Central Park didn’t used to be where it is now. … It used to rest squarely in the center of the Sixth Borough. … Enormous hooks were driven through the easternmost grounds, and the park was pulled by the people of New York, like a rug across the floor, from the Sixth Borough into Manhattan. Children were allowed to lie down on the park as it was being moved. The children of New York lay on their backs, body to body, filling every inch of the park … and the children were pulled, one millimetre and one second at a time, into Manhattan and adulthood. (p. 221)

The theme of the Sixth Borough combined with Oskar’s earlier express wish to stunt his growth is reminiscent of the story of Peter Pan. Oskar and Peter prefer the status quo of their childhood albeit for entirely different reasons. Peter does not wish to grow up because to him, adulthood means to stop having fun. Oskar wants to stunt his growth because he is afraid of getting old and dying. The life of stasis in the Sixth Borough as it has become part of Antarctica resembles the Neverland, the island where Peter Pan and the Lost Boys live. The people of the Sixth Borough are frozen in mid-life, just as the children in the Neverland never grow up. The children of New York, however, asleep in Central Park as it is being pulled into Manhattan, grow up overnight. The story of Central Park, in other words, can be seen as a metaphor for the inescapability of adulthood. The stasis of life in the rest of the borough that ended up in Antarctica can in turn be seen as a reflection of Grandfather’s fixation with his traumatic past and his static melancholic frame of mind.

In keeping with Oskar’s complexity of character, the boy embodies most of the symptoms of trauma, those normally attributed to adults as well as those specific to children. As such, Oskar grapples with Kacandes’s notion of the breach between a pre-traumatic and post-traumatic worldview (Kacandes 2003, 180) and experiences this disruption with feelings of profound sadness:

The next morning I told Mom I couldn’t go to school again. She asked what was wrong. I told her, ‘The same thing that’s always wrong.’‘You’re sick?’‘I’m sad.’‘About Dad?’‘About everything.’ (Foer 42)

Oskar then goes on to tick off on his fingers everything he is sad about and runs out of fingers before having finished his enumeration. Obviously, Oskar was not always an unhappy child. This state of mind is a recent development, one that started on ‘the worst day’. According to Kacandes (2003, 171), there are a number of outlets for this sadness, all of which can be detected in the character of Oskar Schell. The boy faces the psychological need to do detective work to unravel what happened to him and to attribute meaning to it. On a symbolic level, Oskar’s quest for the lock to which he has the fitting key is a tentative step towards ‘unlocking’ his trauma. The sadness about his disrupted worldview goes hand in hand with bouts of hypervigilance and overactivity. On his wanderings through New York City, Oskar is obsessively on the lookout to avert lurking dangers. He goes out of his way to avoid being in places (the Empire State Building and skyscrapers in general) or using certain facilities (public transportation and elevators) that to his mind are obvious targets for future terrorist attacks or are prone to causing accidents, like the one involving the Staten Island Ferry. Oskar’s panic attacks logically follow from his hypervigilance, in that he avoids all these things because they make him extremely panicky (Foer 2005, 36).

The roots of Oskar’s hypervigilance and panic attacks lie in his overactivity. The child is both overactive in thought and in actions. His daytime hustle and bustle is meant to soothe a brain in overdrive. Oskar himself admits that going on his treasure hunt keeps him from going insane, or in his own words, ‘Even if [the search for the lock] was relatively insignificant, it was something, and I needed to do something, like sharks, who die if they don’t swim, which I know about’ (Foer 2005, 87). From the moment Oskar is alone for a while and has nothing to divert him, he starts dreaming up the weirdest inventions. His imagination is especially vivid at night, when he cannot sleep. Not only does he invent the most helpful things to escape from sticky situations or to make people feel better, but neither can he refrain from imagining the most horrible deaths for the people he loves. When he does finally manage to fall asleep, he is plagued by nightmares.

A condition presumably ensuing from his hypervigilance and panic attacks, is Oskar’s need of ‘zipping up the sleeping bag of [him]self’ (Foer 2005, 6). In his desire to hide from the physical and psychical threats in the present, the child resembles the melancholic and goes through the process of ‘acting out’. Apart from his desire to hide, Oskar’s ‘acting out’ also reveals itself in his ambiguous attitude towards articulating what happened to him. Oskar is at the same time able and unable to share what he is going through. That is to say, he is unable (unwilling?) to talk about his experiences with his mother and grandmother but he does explain everything to complete strangers such as the elder Mr Black and the renter (who turns out to be his grandfather).

Oskar’s selective inability to testify to his (traumatic) experiences goes hand in hand with his fits of rage. His suppressed feelings and experiences well up in the form of sudden outbursts of anger towards people in general, but mostly towards those who are closest to him, like his mother and grandmother. In one of these paroxysms, Oskar tells his mother that if he had had a choice, he would have chosen her to die instead of his father (Foer 2005, 171). Another vicious outburst is directed at Grandma for having torn off and thrown away the plate block of a sheet of valuable stamps (p. 105). Apart from having real fits of anger, Oskar also envisions a number of situations in which he reacts aggressively and even violently. One of those imagined scenes takes place between Oskar and a bully from his class, Jimmy Snyder, during the school performance of Hamlet (pp. 146–147). Another particularly violent explosion of anger is directed at his psychologist, the incompetent Dr Fein, when he asks Oskar whether any good can come from his father’s death. In his imagination, Oskar ransacks Dr Fein’s office but in reality he just shrugs his shoulders and goes out. Deeply frustrated, Oskar also turns his violence and aggression towards himself, in that he bruises himself whenever he wears particularly heavy boots or is disappointed. Upon discovering the mystery of his key, for example, he muses: ‘If I’d been alone, I would have given myself the biggest bruise of my life. I would have turned myself into one big bruise’ (p. 295). This (mild) form of self-chastisement can explain the fact that Oskar changes his mind about the issue of feeling and not feeling (and living and not living), which at the same time again establishes the boy’s state of mind as a ‘mixture’ of melancholia and mourning. In one of his particularly horrible imaginings about what he would do if trapped in a burning skyscraper, Oskar concludes that ‘feeling pain is better than not feeling, isn’t it?’ (p. 245). The physical pain of the bruises echoes Oskar’s inner pain of missing his father. Since the death of his father, Oskar has weekly appointments with Dr Fein. Oskar does not understand why he should see a psychologist, because to him, it is only natural to wear heavy boots when one has lost one’s father. Oskar reasons that not wearing heavy boots in such a case would be unnatural and food for psychologists’ sessions.

Just as Thomas constantly attempts to recreate Anna,6 so Oskar desperately clings to the memory of his father and does his best to remember every tiny detail about him. Finding the matching lock to his key is of secondary importance to Oskar. What the boy wants above all is to piece together an image of his father. Upon visiting every Black in New York City, Oskar hopes to hear that they knew his father. In the end, he is not disappointed. The Mr Black to whom Oskar’s mysterious key belongs did indeed meet the man, however briefly. When Oskar entreats Mr Black to tell him exactly what his father looked like (Foer 2005, 298), the tormented son can temporarily bask in the melancholic fantasy of minutely recreating his father’s image. Apart from just visually reconstructing his father’s appearance, going on the treasure hunt is for Oskar yet another means of keeping his father’s memory alive. Oskar thinks that the key in the envelope hidden in his father’s closet is a clue in the last Reconnaissance Expedition his father set up for him. This Reconnaissance Expedition was never properly concluded since Oskar’s father abruptly died and literally and figuratively left Oskar clueless. When the quest falls short of his expectations, Oskar is deeply disappointed:

The renter wrote, ‘You’re late.’ I shrugged my shoulders, just like Dad used to. …‘Where were you? I was worried.’ I told him, ‘I found the lock.’‘You found it?’ I nodded. ‘And?’ I didn’t know what to say. I found it and now I can stop looking? I found it and it had nothing to do with Dad? I found it and now I’ll wear heavy boots for the rest of my life? ‘I wish I hadn’t found it.’‘It wasn’t what you were looking for?’‘That’s not it.’‘Then what?’‘I found it and now I can’t look for it. … Looking for it let me stay close to him for a little longer.’ (pp. 302–304)

What deserves particular attention in this quote is the phrase where Oskar says that he shrugged his shoulders like his father used to. Together with several other references to Oskar’s resemblance to his father and grandfather, this phrase establishes Oskar as a ‘memorial candle’. The notion of ‘memorial candles’ is especially applied to children of Holocaust survivors. In every survivor family, Dina Wardi asserts, one of the children is chosen to become a ‘memorial candle’ for all the relatives who perished (Wardi 1992, 6). The metaphor of ‘memorial candles’ entails that children become a replacement for the deceased. Thus, they are themselves and become the ones that are missing at the same time. Throughout the book, Oskar is repeatedly being told by his mother and grandmother that he resembles his father and grandfather. That he reminds other people of his father and grandfather makes him feel unspecial (Foer 43) because ‘why couldn’t I remind people of me?’ (p. 252).

As a memorial candle, the child in question involuntarily shoulders a heavy emotional burden. At the same time, though, memorial candles are also seen as a source of light and hope (Dasburg 1992, x). This ambiguity translates itself in Oskar’s own mixed feelings. However much Oskar dislikes the fact that he reminds people of another person than himself, he does exactly the same upon meeting the renter. Whether he does it consciously or not, he attributes to the renter several aspects that remind him of his father. He describes the renter as having a gap between his teeth just like his father had and as shrugging his shoulders just like his father used to. The man even shares his first name with Oskar’s father. These coincidences of course come as no surprise to the reader, who knows that the renter is in fact Oskar’s grandfather. Oskar, however, only knows this in hindsight. Moreover, when the novel draws to an end Oskar even adopts his father’s way of shrugging his shoulders. Oskar’s conscious imitation of his father results from the new-found insight that there is nothing wrong with looking like his father. It is at this point that Oskar’s behaviour becomes a mixture of acting out and working through. This insight of Oskar’s, in turn, can be interpreted as a first tentative step towards mourning and recovery.

At the end of his quest, when Oskar experiences his final disappointment as he comes across a conclusion to his search that is not at all what he had hoped for, he does turn to his mother. He spills out every secret to her and finds out that she knew all along. She even knows about her son’s deepest secret – his father’s messages on the answering machine. While unburdening himself to his mother, Oskar admits that he is conscious of his problems and that he will do his best to learn how to deal with them. Whereas in the beginning Oskar had more in him of a melancholic, he now becomes more of a mourner. The quest for the matching lock to the mysterious key he found did not bring him closer to his father, directly, but it does bring him closer to his mother, from whom he was becoming estranged (Foer 2005, 322–323).

VII. Conclusion

With his fidelity to trauma, his crushing survivor guilt and his fundamental inability to let go of the past, Thomas Schell is clearly a melancholic. Considering that they both experienced the same trauma, grandmother Schell seems to do much better as a survivor of a traumatic event than does her husband. However, in the course of the novel it becomes apparent that Grandma is only keeping up appearances and that, in fact, she is not coping well at all. She is evidently suicidal at one (if not two) points in the novel. Like her husband, she also suffers from survivor guilt and she is plagued by recurring nightmares about her traumatic past.

Oskar’s process of coping with his trauma has been equivocal from the start. His behaviour wavers between aspects of the mourner and the melancholic, with an initial inclination toward the latter. And yet, the boy cannot be said to completely fit into one or the other type. Most of the time, he feels the urge to hide away under the bed or in wardrobes and to close himself off from the world. In this desire to hide, he resembles the melancholic and goes through the process of ‘acting out’ his trauma. Typical of melancholic trauma victims is their inability or even refusal to talk about their past (cf. Thomas Schell). Oskar shares his troubles with other people (as opposed to his loved ones), and in so doing he clearly ‘works through’ his trauma.


  • 1

    This passage of time between the traumatic event and the first manifestations of trauma symptoms is also known as the Freudian concept of Nachträglichkeit.

  • 2

    ‘le souvenir traumatique se présentait d’une manière particulière; il ne pouvait pas être exprimé pendant la veille et il ne réapparaissait que dans des conditions particulières, dans un autre état psychologique’ (Janet 1980, 23).

  • 3

    Thomas’s abandonment of wife and child is part of LaCapra’s definition of ‘acting out’. Trauma victims suffering from melancholia may be profoundly unable to act responsibly and/or ethically, for example by giving consideration to other people (LaCapra 2001, 28).

  • 4

    In the description of the Dresden bombings, Foer has lifted scenes and phrases (including the phrase ‘Keep thinking’) from at least two sources: the witness account of Lothar Metzger and an article by Edda West that appeared in 2003 in the journal Current Concern, no. 2.

  • 5

    Cf. Foer 2005, 231 (cited above).

  • 6

    Thomas Schell continually tries to (re)discover Anna in her sister, his wife, in the form of sculptures, sketches, and ultimately, in his marriage to her.