Everything is Illuminated

Everything is Illuminated Summary and Analysis of Chapters 11-13

Chapter 11: Falling in Love, 1791-1803

Brod is growing up. She insists on doing everything in her own way. The townspeople, especially the men, love her for being stubborn. The women of the shtetl are jealous of Brod because she is the object of every man's affection. They speak badly of her and make sure she has no friends. But none of them tells her the real story of her birth. Yankel also cannot bear to tell her.

Brod is so short and thin that she appears malnourished. She has very white skin, thick black hair, and thin lips. Brod is not concerned with her own beauty. All kinds of people come to her for advice, even the Rabbi.

Brod is obsessed with sadness. She distinguishes between 613 different sadnesses: "She was a genius of sadness, appreciating its subtle nuances. She was a prism through which sadness could be divided into its infinite spectrum." Nothing satisfies her. She cannot be happy or feel love. Instead, she falls in love with the idea of love. In this way, she lives a life "once removed" from everything and everyone. She humors those who woo her only so that she can pretend that life is worth something.

Yankel and Brod take care of each other. He is now very old, and Brod adopts his mannerisms. She walks with a limp even though she is healthy, and she rubs her face as though it has a five-o'clock shadow. He buys many books even though they are poor, and she returns them so that they will have money for necessities. She even makes their library public so that they can make some money. Yankel tries to gloss over the differences in their age and gender: he urinates sitting down and wipes himself like she does, he spills water on his pants to make her feel better about wetting hers, and he scrapes his knees on purpose when she does so by accident.

Their house is a little haven in Trachimbrod. They are never angry at one another, and they do not care what others think. Yankel is eighty-four and Brod is twelve. He worries about what will happen to her after he dies, so he does everything possible to prevent himself from aging. He exercises, forces himself to eat even when he is not hungry, and drinks vodka even when he cannot stomach it. Because he is losing his memory, he uses one of Brod's lipsticks to write reminders on his ceiling, like "you used to be married, but she left you." He cannot bear to have Brod know how frail he is both physically and mentally.

Yankel records a dream in the Book of Recurrent Dreams numbered 4:812, "The dream of living forever with Brod." He has this dream every night. In it, they live together forever and do not age. He imagines that when he dies, the world will end, since he cannot bear to think of Brod living on without him. He admits that he does not believe in God or the afterlife, and that Brod is the only thing that matters to him.

Before Yankel goes to bed, he tries to think positively about his life. As always, he tries to convince himself, "I am not sad." The last thing he sees before going to bed each night is the reminder he has written above his bed: "You are Yankel. You love Brod."

Chapter 12: Recurrent Secrets, 1791-1943

Yankel is now unable to stand reminders of how time is passing and he is aging. He covers the clock in his house with a black cloth, and he does the same with his pocket watch and calendar. He does not observe the Sabbath. He even avoids the sun.

Yankel reads Brod's diary while she is in the bath. In it, she wrote about how the young and old are lonely in their own ways, and that her diary is the closest thing she has to a lover. Both Yankel and Brod keep their own lives secret from themselves. Both of them repeat things until they cannot remember whether the lines are true or not.

In a fantasy sequence, Brod looks into the sky and sees things beyond her world and time. She looks through the windows of a faraway house, where a wrinkled woman goes about her business. There is a bureau covered in family pictures, including one of a woman and her daughter holding hands on a beach. Brod imagines that her own mother looks like that. Another room contains a scrap of paper that says, "This is me with Augustine, February 21, 1943" in handwriting much like hers. Then she looks through the attic wall to see a boy and girl lying on the floor together. He is reading to her from The Book of Antecedents. Brod realizes she is looking at all Trachimbrod--not just the boy, but everyone who has ever lived--reading to the girl. She reads along with them. The passage they read is called "The First Rape of Brod D." It describes Sofiowka approaching Brod after the Trachimday festival in 1804, but it does not describe the rape itself. The boy and girl fall asleep, but Brod is tormented that she cannot learn more about her own future rape.

Chapter 13: A Parade, A Death, A Proposition, 1804-1969

By the age of twelve, Brod has refused marriage proposals from every man in Trachimbrod. She agrees not to marry until Yankel is dead. For Trachimday, Trachimbrod is decorated in white string. This is to commemorate the first item to rise from the waters when Trachim B's wagon crashed. The string connects all the citizens' houses. The parade begins, and floats from neighboring shtetls pass by. Each float is covered in thousands of butterflies, attracted to them by carcasses strapped to the bottom. The Trachimbrod float is covered in blue butterflies, and Brod is atop it in her mermaid costume. A band plays Polish national songs on one end of the float, and another band plays Ukrainian traditional songs on the other end. On the Rabbi's signal, Brod throws several sacks of earth and one of gold coins into the Brod. A young man from Kolki named Shalom recovers the sack with the gold coins. Shalom is Jonathan's great-great-great-great-great-grandfather. The townspeople are drunk and making love. When people make love, astronauts can perceive it from space as a tiny glow. The more people making love somewhere on Earth, the brighter the glow.

Brod walks home and undresses as she walks through the house. There is an odor of death and decay. Brod is described erotically: she is naked, her nipples are hard from the cold, and she has goosebumps. She finally finds Yankel dead in the library, curled up on the floor, holding a balled-up piece of paper in one hand and his abacus bead in the other.

We flash to Yankel's death: he was embarrassed to die alone on the floor. He had meant to tell Brod that he is not her real father, though he wishes more than anything that he were. Rain seeps through the house, and Yankel's reminders in lipstick peel off the ceiling. Brod takes the paper from Yankel's hand and sees that it says, "Everything for Brod."

Just then, lightning flashes. Brod sees Shalom from Kolki watching her at the window. She yells at him to go away, and she tries to cover both Yankel's body and her own. He says he will not leave without her. Yankel jerks in rigor mortis and knocks over the oil lamp. The room is suddenly dark. Yankel smiles, though he is dead. Brod turns to face Shalom and says, "Then you must do something for me." Her belly lights up with an extremely bright light.

We flash forward to Jonathan's grandmother's house: his mother is twenty-one. Jonathan's grandfather died twenty-one years ago, five weeks after coming to America and just after his daughter was born. Jonathan's mother and grandmother watch the first moon landing on television. The astronaut on the moon looks back at Earth and sees Trachimbrod light up.


Brod cannot love despite all her intimacy, good intentions, and genuine affection. This inability makes us question the very definition of love. If it is not any of those things, what is it? It is not related to the rejected marriage proposals. Foer only gives hints of definitions of romantic love and family love at this point.

Despite all their intimacy, Yankel and Brod do not really know one another. Brod even lies to Yankel and tells him that she does love him. But Brod does not love him; she is incapable of loving. They do give each other all the affection they can muster.

Yankel cannot imagine his life without Brod, and moreover, he cannot imagine Brod's life without him. This is why he is so afraid of dying, even in the first moments when he learns he is going to be a father. It is so excruciating for him to think about her living on without him that he fantasizes about the world ending along with him.

Chapter 11 also focuses our attention on memory. Yankel writes on the ceiling so that he will know who he is, even as his memory fades. It is sad and strange that he must remind himself, "You are Yankel. You love Brod" every night before bed. Everything, even love, can be forgotten in less than a day's time (especially if one is old). For a healthy person, can love outlast memory? Memory, at least, can be the key to love. Jonathan may find something of family love on his journey by unlocking memories and drawing closer to his ancestors.

Chapter 12 explains the secrets that Yankel and Brod keep from one another. We also learn what defines a secret. It is not simply something untold; it is something you consider telling but do not. For example, Brod does not tell Yankel that she has begun menstruating, while Yankel does not tell Brod that he is not her real father--although he intends eventually to do so.

Chapter 12 also examines the importance of time. For Yankel, time's power is fully acknowledged, but he hides from it. Yankel can never escape from the passsage of time and the fact that he is aging. The best he can do is to avoid the markers of time in the hope that he will forget it exists. Even as Yankel is an unwilling slave to time, Brod traverses it. She is able to fantasize far into the future, past her own rape, all the way to its being made a part of history. She even sees the writing on the back of the picture of Augustine.

Fantasy and reality are particularly convoluted in Chapter 12. Though Brod's fantasies are some of the most potent in the book, she does not control them. She can see hundreds of years into the future, but once she is there, she cannot affect what happens. Her experience reminds us that we can only control fantasies to a certain extent; even fantasies have their boundaries. In seeing a possibly real future, Brod is constrained by reality. Even so, chance is still the most powerful driving force in many people's lives, and if fantasy must yield to reality, reality often must yield to chance. Brod's limited foresight is matched by Jonathan's limitations as he seeks to unearth past facts. When Jonathan's reality is limited, he turns to fantasy (and this pattern might be observed in the author's trajectory, having written a fictional version of his actual experience).

Chapter 13 focuses on liminal space, that is, the border state between two opposites. Trachimday is shot through with the interweaving of love and violence, death and life. Trachimday is based not so much on Trachim's death and Brod's birth as on their conjunction. This founding moment sets the precedent for a further mixing of life and death. The floats in the parade are one symbol of this mixture. They are literally alive, covered with thousands of vibrant butterflies. (In some literature, butterflies represent the soul--in ancient Greek the same word is used for both--so figuratively, each float is buzzing with souls.) But dead things, the carcasses, are what draw the butterflies to the floats. The founding moment is recapitulated when Yankel dies and Brod has the nakedness of a newborn--but the newness is different now; Brod's sexual life begins.

Similarly, violence and love are interwoven in Chapter 13. Brod's rape will weave lovemaking together with violence. In addition, real love will be going on all around Brod as she is raped. It remains an open question to what extent love and violence inspire rather than repel one another.

Love, according to Jonathan, emits light bright enough to carry on for many generations. This idea is comforting after the assertions about memory and love in the previous chapter. Although we can forget love, it retains a permanence that can traverse space and time. If enough people love strongly enough, perhaps everything will be illuminated. Often, things "come to light" only after a great deal of time has passed and new eyes evaluate them. By writing about his family's history, Jonathan acknowledges the endurance of the centuries-old glow.