How does the title of the novel corresponds with Oskar’s emotions?
The novel's title corresponds quite closely to Oskar’s emotional state, which is heightened by various stimuli and which is rarely within his control. The words “extremely” and “incredibly” are repeated frequently as reflections of his emotional state and his incredible sensitivity to all sorts of stimuli. The worlds also help to understand the way that the world is so threatening to him. Even without his father's death to exacerbate it, Oskar's condition (which some critics believe is a form of autism) involves a hyperawareness that leads to social inadequacy. As a result, his imagined responses are often extreme and violent, such as when he imagines attacking Jimmy Snyder during the play. In some ways, the title describes an emotional state that Oskar eventually learns to calm, in order to better appreciate the present without confronting it so aggressively at every turn.
What is the significance of photography and other visual aids in the text?
Jonathan Safran Foer is noted for his use of unconventional visual storytelling, and he in this novel uses such storytelling to reinforce his themes and characterizations. The photographs and unconventional typefaces offer an extended insight into the minds of Oskar and Thomas Schell Sr., two of the novel’s narrators. Oskar’s scrapbook photographs often appear in the text before their significance is revealed, an example being the image of the falling man. Little by little, they help to reveal a preoccupation with death that the first-person narrator would otherwise be incapable of directly expressing. Similarly, the doorknob images in Thomas Sr.'s sections symbolize his inner struggle (his locked vs. unlocked emotional state). Also, his use of mostly-blank vs. over-filled pages helps to distinguish between times in which he despises communication and those in which he has too much to say. Foer’s use of imagery can be overwhelming and often redundant, but certainly stresses the intensity of the emotional hang-ups that the characters face. Finally, while Grandma's sections are bereft of visual aids, the unconventional formatting - a sort of loose verse poetry - reflects her connection to her emotions, her ability to follow intuition rather than intellectually decided order.
What is the cohesive thread that binds the different stories together?
Though all three narrators - Oskar, Grandma, and Thomas Schell Sr. - tell their own stories, there is an impressive degree of cohesion between those stories. On one level, the importance of family is a clear connective theme. All three narrators are related, and have similar thought processes and patterns in their mannerisms. Further, they all grapple with how to integrate their family lives into their intense private lives. However, more profoundly, each narrator also explores the relationship between public trauma and private grief. Each grapples with a level of guilt and regret because of a great trauma, and yet each has translated that public trauma into a very private, esoteric grief. The way in which each character confronts that grief serves as a benchmark by which to measure the others. In particular, the two older characters provide stories that implicitly pose a question about Oskar: will he be able to transcend his grief to find a satisfying life, as Grandma did, or will he end up socially inept and unable to manage his pain, like Grandpa?
How does Oskar’s belief system change over the course of the novel?
In the beginning of the novel, Oskar’s belief system is rigidly formed. He seeks facts and statistics, believing that any problem or question has a scientifically objective answer. This belief system stands in stark contrast to that which his parents espouse. His mother deals with her grief in an extremely emotional way, taking solace in intangible ideas like her father's spirit. Similarly, Oskar's final memories of his father involve a fantastical story of the Sixth Borough, which requires faith rather than fact for its validity. When Oskar sets out to solve the key mystery, he is undertaking a search for an objective answer. However, through his journey, he realizes that he is actually seeking an objective answer to the tragedy of his father's death. Ultimately, Oskar grows to discover that not everything in life has a scientific answer, and that we are happier when we can accept the value of intangible, emotional experience as at least equal to that of scientific fact.
What is significant about the image of the falling man?
The image of the falling man, used several times in the novel, represents Oskar’s pre-occupation with his father's last moments. Particularly because he refused to answer to phone on 09/11, he now feels compelled to discover how his father died. The image provides a perverse encouragement, by suggesting that he might discover the objective truth of Thomas's death. By fixating on the image, Oskar remains convinced that he can bring some sort of order to this tragedy. Ultimately, he transcends this simplistic desire, and accepts that some aspects of life do not have such an objective answer. The novel ends with the image used in reverse, suggesting that the way we see things is often as important as how the things themselves objectively appear. We can remember our past the way we want to, using images like this in an optimistic rather than pessimistic way.
Explain the significance of the doorknob image in Thomas Schell Sr.’s narration.
After the first wave of bombings in Dresden, Thomas emerged from his shelter to find his family home had been reduced to a doorframe and doorknob. He seared his hand when he touched the doorknob. Much as Oskar does with the key, Thomas externalized his grief and trauma into this object. Consequently, he uses images of a doorknob to reflect his emotional state. A glass doorknob with a large key indicates hope and promise, an optimism. It is usually associated with the feelings he had as a boy, concerning his future with Anna. A doorknob in a locked position with no keyhole represents despair. It reflects the rest of his life after Dresden, a life with no room for emotional growth or hope. When Grandma reveals that he took the photos of the doors in their apartment, we realize that Thomas's emotional distance is deliberate, a self-imposed coldness. That the image corresponds with Oskar's quest (each involving locks) suggests that perhaps family can help us overcome our difficulties, if we allow it.
What is the significance of Oskar’s letters to scientists and celebrities?
First and foremost, Oskar's correspondence with these people reveal his social inadequacy. He does not have friends of his own age, and he thinks harshly of most adults he knows. In a way, these celebrities serve as a type of imaginary friend, a way he maintains an optimistic worldview in the face of otherwise pessimistic reality. He writes to each of these people - Stephen Hawking, Jane Goodall, Ringo Starr - of his hopes and dreams. However, reality intrudes. In the same way an imaginary friend eventually hits a limit, the responses Oskar receives are mostly stock replies. The exception comes at the end, when Stephen Hawking replies personally, with a message reinforcing the importance of emotion in our lives. The letter confirms for him that there is reason to hope, that good things can happen even in the face of an otherwise painful reality.
How is Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close a fable? What do these qualities add to the themes?
Although most of the novel is seeped in a painful realism, there are many fantastical, implausible events in the story. As examples, consider: Oskar's unrealistic trek through the city; Grandpa's mute condition; Grandma's eccentricities; the grave-digging episode; and many other quirky character traits. In many ways, this fable quality helps reinforce the story's didactic aspect. It is meant to provide a lesson, a moral about the importance of allowing emotion into our lives. In the same way that Oskar eventually understands the purpose of the fantastical Sixth Borough story - it is meant to stress the importance of faith over fact - the fable-like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is meant to give us a moral perspective on childhood and life.
Discuss the significance of the answering machine messages, both in terms of Oskar and in terms of 09/11.
Each of Oskar’s father’s messages captures the uncertainty felt by the nation as the events of September 11th unfolded. One need only watch recaps of news reports from that day to remember the confusion - was it an accident? Were the trapped victims going to be rescued? The messages reflect this shared confusion, this inability to contextualize such an unexpected tragedy.
Similarly, the messages represent a fundamental confusion Oskar has about himself. The only way to understand his inability to answer the phone is in emotional terms, and yet Oskar does not like to admit that aspect of life. Through the journey, he comes closer to forgiving himself as he admits that our emotional reality is at least as important and affecting as our scientific make-up.
Explore why Oskar is so resentful of his mother at the beginning of the novel.
Oskar's harsh feelings towards his mother are entirely believable for a child who has experienced such a terrible trauma. In effect, he has made her into a scape-goat, used her as a place to transfer his complicated, confusing emotions. This process is particularly useful for someone like Oskar, who is uncomfortable with emotional responses in any situation. Remembering how she was not there when the phone rang on 09/11, he thinks of her as uncaring, but he is actually just unconsciously attempting to ignore a complicated, messy reality in which tragedies are unexplainable and emotional responses are not always within our control. By making her into an antagonist, he keeps his worldview simple and delineated. Ironically, he grows more comfortable when he eventually learns to admit that the world is complicated, since it then allows him to embrace the straight-forward love that family provides.