In “Night”, Elie Wiesel describes his early experiences of the Nazi genocide against Jews and his subsequent life in a concentration camp known as Auschwitz-Birkenau. Given that the events are seen through the eyes of the young person, the major emphasis is placed upon the main character’s perception of the violence and death taking place around him and gradual loss of faith and belief in humanity; for this reason, the novel is actually entitled “Night”. It depicts the night of human existence, interpersonal relationships, human values, and religious beliefs.
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The main character of “Night” is Eliezer, a pious and studious teenage boy, who daily studies Talmud and lives in accordance with the principle of mutual support, common for his people. The events Wiesel writes about refer to WWII when the Nazis started almost worldwide “racial purification” and sought to establish the rule of the superior Aryan race. Jews were viewed as the participants of the global conspiracy against non-Jews and a cause of economic crises like the Great Depression. Eliezer grows in a small Hungarian town Sighet, populated mainly by Jews when his spiritual friend and teacher Moshe the Beadle is taken to Poland, after being declared as unable to prove his citizenship. He returns in some time narrates that his survival is purely accidental, as all of his companions were shot by German soldiers. Whereas the majority of Sightet’s Jews mistreat and disbelieve him, Eliezet takes Moshe’s story close to heart and begins to lose his childish belief injustice. This period of doubts and hopes that Moshe’s narrative is fantasy can be characterized as a twilight: “Yes, we even doubted that he wanted to exterminate us. Was he going to wipe out a whole people? Could he exterminate a population scattered throughout so many countries? So many millions! What methods could he use? And in the middle of the twentieth century!” (Wiesel, p.6). As the Nazi-led government gradually introduces additional restrictions on Jews’ lifestyle and behavior (probation of visiting cares and synagogue, the obligation of wearing a yellow star), people still have the light of hope for survival, as these rules generally do not refer to extermination the Jews of Sighet fear. The last sparkle of light is probably their life in the ghetto, where the Jewish autonomous government was established and the little society enjoyed self-regulation. Accordingly, Eliezer resumes his study of Jewish mysticism and reflections upon the sanctity and justice of the divine rule. However, this almost idyllic life soon ended, as the ghetto dwellers were forcefully taken to the concentration camps. Eliezer is separated from his mother and sisters, who are immediately taken to the gas chamber, and himself closely faces death when witnesses the murders of small children and is on the verge of his own death. The subsequent chapters of “Night” are filled with descriptions of violence, which represents almost Dantean Hell: “Never shall I forget that night, the first night in the camp, which has turned my life into one long night…Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke…Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever” (Wiesel, p.44). Thus, the main character’s faith in the goodness of the world seems shattered irreparably, as the main question he first asks is how God can expose his people to such disgusting cruelty. The loss of faith is also accelerated by the psychological transformations how fellow prisoners undergo. If they united against the oppressors, Eliezer would probably maintain his belief in the goodness of God and His care about humanity, but instead, he encounters a totally different picture: driven by selfishness, his peer readily become the camp guard and betray the other inmates by losing connection with them and ignoring those in deeper need, those who are even more disabled or disadvantaged. One more factor contributing to Eliezer’s personality changes and the development of cynicism is his own guilt for becoming de-humanized, similar to his fellow prisoners. Therefore, the psychological elements of the novel essentially refer to human behavior in critical and physically exhausting situations, when the very human life is threatened. Wiesel reveals that the camp community, treated like cattle, become inescapably brutalized, as the survival instinct stimulates everyone to neglect others. The main character also experiences this sense of disunity, as he soon begins to respond to his father’s care with indifference, almost hating himself for emotional and psychological passiveness in those issues which directly relate to his nearest and dearest person.
The struggle with faith as an aspect that interferes with the realization of the survival instinct is also evident in the book. On the first night of his imprisonment, the protagonist seeks to avoid thoughts about the justice and humanity issues in the mass murders of children he has recently witnessed. When he sees the hanging of a little child for an imaginary crime, Eliezer also desperately tries to abandon his thoughts about the divine authority, but they nevertheless persecute him, proving that Eliezer’s world is not the one where “God is dead”. In many years after the Auschwitz horrors, the main character states he has reconciled himself to his religion and found answers to his questions.
As one can conclude, “Night” is a sincere account of the Holocaust witness, which focuses primarily on the spiritual trauma caused by the Fascist genocide. In this book, the cruelty the young protagonist witnesses are immediately directed by him against his faith, so Wiesel’s intention is the description of his spiritual journey from the rejection of faith to the return to Jewish mysticism, associated with the horrifying events of years 1943-1945.
Wiesel, E. Night. New York: Bantam, 1982.