Everything is Illuminated

Everything is Illuminated Themes


Everything is Illuminated examines the importance and limitations of memory. Memory can be enlightening, as when Jonathan recovers lost memories of his grandfather's life. He sees memories as the key to unlocking his family's secrets. By learning about his family's past, he learns about himself.

Memory can also be confining. When the people of Trachimbrod become obsessed with memories, they are unable to get anything done. Each memory begets another, and soon they cannot distinguish between memory and current events. They are immobilized by memory, like Lista the old woman. Lista considers herself the keeper of the memory of Trachimbrod, as not an honor but a punishment. She tells Jonathan that survivors are not lucky, meaning that, like herself, they bear memory as a burden. Like the townspeople, she must spend the rest of her life locked in the pain and confusion of memory instead of reaching for new opportunities.

In a different way, memory is confining for Grandfather. His memories of the war are so painful that he refuses to acknowledge them. He lives in fear of his memories. To remember is to risk danger, but it is also a chance to find peace.

The Written Word

Different incarnations of the written word are interspersed throughout the novel: The Book of Recurrent Dreams, The Book of Antecedents, the note Yankel's wife leaves him, Yankel's notes to himself on the ceiling, notes between Safran and the Gypsy Girl, and many more. In fact, Jonathan's entire journey is based on a tiny sliver of writing, the caption on the back of a photograph.

The people of Trachimbrod are obsessed with writing, as though nothing is true or official until it appears on paper. Writing offers a way to cement memories. The primary example of their obsession is the Book of Antecedents, in which they record even the most trivial things. In fact, when there is nothing to add, they write repeatedly, "We are writing..." Writing is thus the lifeblood of the shtetl. It assures the people that they exist, and it connects them to generations past as well as those to come.

Alex's and Jonathan's primary relationship throughout the book is through writing. The two young men do not really get to know each other when Jonathan is in Ukraine. It is only afterwards, when they write to and for one another, that they find a deeper connection. We witness Alex's maturation through his writing. Moreover, writing itself seems to make him stronger. At first, Alex writes with much pretension and exaggerates wildly, but he becomes more honest with each letter and chapter. It is only when he has come clean in his writing that he is able to be honest with himself about his life--and stand up to Father.

Foer reminds us that we are in the realm of the written word by focusing our attention on other written works. For instance, the letters from Alex are given in italics, while the entries in the Book of Recurrent Dreams are formatted as thin columns. To some degree Foer encourages us to become literary adventurers, in order to untangle the implicit and explicit meanings of each writer's work, including the author's.

Disaster and Destruction

The novel both begins and ends with disaster and death. In the beginning of the novel, Trachim B is (we think) killed in the tragic accident that makes him a legend. At the novel's end, Grandfather ends his own life. Countless other disasters in the novel include Kolker's accident, the rape of Brod, the massacres in Kolki, and the destruction of Trachimbrod. Yet, from each tragedy comes epiphany. Trachim's death coincides with Brod's birth. The first bombing raid near Trachimbrod coincides with Safran's first orgasm. Foer sums up this pattern with the phrase, "The Beginning of the World Often Comes." Each time a tragedy happens and a life or life period ends, new opportunities are born. From every darkness comes light.

Expressing Love

The novel suggests that it is easier to define what love is not than what it is. For example, love is not lovemaking. Safran has thousands of lovers, but he never loves any of them. The statue of the Kolker tells Safran, paradoxically, that love is doing everything for someone one does not love, as Brod does for him.

Love is often associated closely with violence and death. It can become a burden, as it does for Grandfather. His love for his wife and baby causes him to murder his best friend. This choice makes him incapable of loving anymore, once his love is permanently tainted with blood. Love is clearly a burden also for Safran, who becomes physically decrepit the first time he experiences it.


Grandfather, Alex, Jonathan, and Lista all live through their sense of responsibility toward others. They take on these responsibilities for different reasons, but they all are guided or even consumed by their duties.

Grandfather feels responsible for the way Father treats his grandchildren. He has probably wanted to kill himself for years out of guilt, but he can do so only after he is relieved of his responsibility towards Alex and Little Igor. When Alex replaces Father as the man of the house, Grandfather can finally be at peace.

Alex feels responsible for Little Igor's future. He does everything he can to make Little Igor proud of him, and he aims for a new life in America.

Jonathan takes up the responsibility of uncovering not just his grandfather's past but his entire family history. Even though he lives a comfortable life in America, he feels compelled to travel far from home to accomplish his mission. He does so out of a sense of cultural responsibility, in particular to his family, although he also travels for the adventure.

Lista takes on the responsibility of keeping the memory of Trachimbrod alive. This duty overwhelms her to the point that she never ventures out of her small town to seek a better life. She is paralyzed by her responsibility to those who did not survive as she did.


The concept of illumination here is threefold. Figuratively, it means clarification and explanation. Jonathan researches his family in order to illuminate its history. In turn, this research allows him to understand his own life in its broader context. Jonathan reads his own life, at least in part, by the light of past generations.

Cosmically, the "sex light" is a glow produced by couples making love, and it can be seen from outer space. In this context, illumination stands for generation or creation. People burn brightest when they conceive children, because this is the ultimate generative act. In a related way, Jonathan brings things to light for us through his own creativity, his writing. As related aspects of the story come together, the reader feels a touch of enlightenment.

Literally, illumination can mean embellishment, as in illuminated manuscripts. In this novel, fantasy constantly embellishes reality, making everything seem more beautiful or exciting. Alex, Jonathan, and the author illuminate their stories in this way.


Whimsy, wit, and humor splash through the novel, from Alex's hilariously incorrect English to the way the Uprighters pray--dangling from the ceiling. There is something funny even in the names of the characters, such as the nearly identical-sounding names of the twins, Chana and Hannah. Often, comedy is associated closely with tragedy, as when the Kolker insults and abuses Brod. It is terrible that he hurts her, but comedic when he unknowingly inserts curses into love songs. In the best Jewish comic tradition, much of the hilarity in the novel is ironic and absurd.

Ironic humor is more than comic relief; it contributes to illumination. Although the characters do not necessarily understand what is happening to them, we laugh in solidarity with the narrator or the author, having learned something through the comic situation. For instance, the people of the shtetl are not happy to have named it Sofiowka, but that's what you get if you entrust a mad, constantly masturbating squire to guard the poll box. Humor, like the sex light, reaches generations into the future. The privileges of hindsight and distance help us laugh at misfortune without diminishing its sad power.


There are very few moments in the novel, even from within the narrative, that are to be taken as the plain, unembellished truth. Alex and Jonathan mix fantasy with reality so much in their writing that it is impossible to tell which is which. Being able to mix and choose these modes, they seem to work from a liminal space between fantasy and reality. At these points they are all the more fascinating for being so hard to define.

Fantasy is generally a positive force in the novel. Having something to believe in can be more valuable than knowing the truth. Lista may be pathetic, fantasizing that she has a baby, but this fantasy helps to keep her from crumbling under the weight of her memories. The Book of Recurrent Dreams is pure fantasy. It ties the Sloucher community together across many generations, and it serves as their legacy once they are gone.

Some characters benefit when they cast off fantasy and face reality. For example, Alex becomes a stronger person by admitting who he really is, first to Jonathan and then to Father. Grandfather can only come to terms with his past when he accepts its reality.


Chance events and coincidences often drive the narrative. These range from the lottery of 1791 to Alex's decision to approach Lista on the steps of her house in 1997. Brod chooses Yankel by chance, the Kolker is injured by chance, and Safran considers himself "a dupe of chance." These episodes suggest that we have much less control over our lives than we might prefer. Even if we fulfill our intentions, we cannot control all the effects of our actions. The one person with solid control is the author of a text, and when Jonathan writes about the past, he can choose which realities to present and how to present them, but even historians can change events and introduce fantasy, consciously or not. Foer, in his own life, found neither Trachimbrod nor Augustine on his trip to the Ukraine. But as author, he narrates about a Jonathan who uncovers the secrets of Alex's family past as well as his own.