Oskar wants to be optimist like his father was, but he finds life after 09/11 problematic. Here, when his mother asks him whether he is an optimist or pessimist, he replies with a definitive statement of the latter. His worldview has grown jaded because of the deep depression he feels over both his father’s death and his own personal failings. As with many children who experience trauma or loss of a close parent at an early age, Oskar has lost some of his childhood innocence, and expects the world of adults to be one of pain. Therefore, he closes himself off against it. Ultimately, this quote is an expression of the pessimism and emotional coldness that Oskar's quest helps him to balance with a more emotional, nuanced worldview.
“Every time I left the apartment to go searching for the lock, I became a little lighter, because I was getting closer to Dad. But I also became a little heavier, because I was getting farther from Mom.”
Oskar's relationship to his family shifts during his quest. In many ways, he prioritizes his father's memory over his mother's presence, believing she has abandoned him. And yet he continues to feel the need to protect her, to make sure she does not worry about him. In other words, even when Oskar explicitly states his distrust of his Mom in early chapters, his inner conflict is clear to the reader. This quote is an indication of that inner conflict, that awareness that he is prioritizing death over life, choosing to go "farther" from his living Mom in pursuit of a dead man's mystery. Even if he cannot articulate the complexities of this decision, he has a lingering feeling that something is wrong with it. Finally, the quote contains a bit of dramatic irony for a reader who has completed the book, since we know that he is actually treading a similar path to his Mom's, both in terms of his emotional journey to make peace with his father's death, and in terms of the help she is providing in facilitating his quest.
“…sometimes I can hear my bones straining under the weight of all of the lives I’m not living.”
Thomas Schell Sr. suffers from survivor’s guilt, a common condition amongst people who survive extreme traumas (in his case, the Dresden bombings) when others do not. This statement is a direct expression of that guilt, and a window into his stilted emotional life. His guilt mostly centers around Anna, as he recalls the plans he made when he learned that she was pregnant with their child. His brutal regret over not having lived this life is compounded by the later choice his guilt leads him to make: the abandonment of Grandma and Thomas Jr. The vicious circle of regret and pain is reflected here, as he acknowledges both of the potential lives he has lost - one by fate, one by choice. The guilt and pain lead him to a life of solitary, silent punishment, where unrealized possibilities torment him.
“You cannot protect yourself from sadness without protecting yourself from happiness.”
Oskar’s Grandma here relates a conversation she and Thomas Sr. had when she first followed him to the airport. However, the sentiment is most important to Oskar's life, since enclosed in this statement is a concise summation of the lesson she wishes to impart to Oskar through her life story. Most of that story relates a self-doubt and depression that significantly parallels Oskar's emotional state. And yet she also wants him to know how she transcended those paralyzing emotions through love for her family. Similarly, largely because of supportive people like Grandma, Oskar is eventually able to confront his depression and move past it by accepting a more emotional worldview, one that accepts sadness as a part of life so that he can also embrace happiness without guilt. This is entirely what Grandma - as well as Grandpa and Oskar's parents - want for him.
“There’s nothing that could convince someone who doesn’t want to be convinced. But there is an abundance of clues that would give the wanting believer something to hold on to. ”
Despite Oskar's penchant for imagining outrageous inventions, he has an extremely limited worldview, one that prizes only objective scientific observation. This limitation is exacerbated by his father's death. And yet what he does not quite recognize is the way his father tried to help him expand this worldview. In this quote, spoken about the Reconnaissance Expedition Thomas Jr. created in Central Park, the man suggests that optimism and hope are a matter of choice, that one can see the world how one wants to, rather than relying simply on scientific fact. The sentiment haunts Oskar throughout his quest, though it takes most of that experience to finally internalize the lesson, which is that intangible things (like memories and emotions) can be just as real and affecting as physical objects (like a corpse or a key). He is not able to maturely grapple with his father's death until he can "convince" himself that it is okay to feel sad without having objective answers as to why the tragedy happened.
“Dad?” “Yeah Buddy?” “Nothing.”
This exchange is repeated several times throughout the novel, suggesting that it haunts Oskar. In many ways, this makes sense - it is the final moment they shared together. However, it also reveals Oskar's inability to embrace emotion. As his father left the room that night, Oskar wanted to say more, to express his love, but he held himself back. This emotional distance is more grievously expressed when Oskar could not bring himself to answer the phone on 09/11. In many ways, this moment reflects the part of Oskar's personality that his quest will change. Throughout his journey, he learns to embrace his emotions as equally real to scientific fact, and thereby to learn how to enjoy the moments of happiness, whether in memory or in the present.
“When I look at you, my life made sense. Even the bad things made sense. They were necessary to make you possible.”
Overall, Grandma's letters to Oskar want him to embrace life, to transcend his sadness by devoting himself to love for others. Here, she explains how she was herself able to transcend her own depression. At a certain point in her life with Thomas Sr., Grandma realized she was unfulfilled, and she let herself become pregnant despite the rules she and Thomas had made. She refused to remain emotionally distant, as he was. Though it only caused her greater pain in some ways - Thomas's abandonment - it had a much more powerful effect by giving her something to live for. It brought "sense" to her life by allowing her to overcome her self-obsession, to focus on the world outside herself. What she implicitly tells Oskar here is that sadness and happiness are related, and we must learn to embrace both, rather than simply dwell on sadness. Eventually, this is what Oskar himself learns.
“There are so many different ways to die, and I just need to know which was his.”
Mr. Black is one of the characters to whom Oskar is able to speak honestly, and he here admits the subtext of his journey for the lock. Because he prizes objective fact over emotional experience, Oskar feels unable to grapple with his father's death unless he can find a logical framework for it. He is unable to consider the tragic implications: some things in life do not make sense. Though he externalizes this emotional journey into the quest for the key's lock, his true goal is to make peace with the tragedy. The heartbreak expressed in this admission is unmistakable, but is tempered somewhat by the reader's growing awareness that Oskar's quest is helping him overcome this hang-up. In many ways, the fact that he is here able to express is aloud reveals that he has already grown. He is allowing himself to speak honestly, where before he hid entirely behind the pretense of the quest. He is also revealing an ability to trust someone, which was entirely absent at the beginning of the novel. That growth only continues once Mr. Black joins him.
“I’m not going to share this grief with you.”
Here, Grandma refuses to let Thomas entirely re-enter her life after his return to New York. Though she allows him to stay in the guest bedroom, she remains emotionally distant, refusing to let him meet Oskar or learn much about Thomas Jr. There are several implications to this sentiment. The first conforms to the novel's overall exploration of grief, which is expressed as entirely personal; each person grapples with it in his or her own way. Secondly, Grandma's refusal to let Thomas in is understandable considering his abandonment, but also shows that she has not entirely transcended her emotional hang-ups. The reader understands from her letters that she cares deeply for Thomas, but allowed him to leave initially so that she could have a family. In many ways, she overcame the emotional coldness that initially characterized their relationship so she could live a life of fuller love. However, when he returns, she finds that resentment and guilt have not entirely left her. It takes a while yet for her to embrace her true feelings, and decide to join him at the airport as she does at novel's end. The suggestion there is that, for all of us, our emotional journeys continue throughout our lives. We are always working to balance our sadness and happiness.
“I don’t believe in God, but I believe that things are extremely complicated, and her looking over me was as complicated as anything ever could be. But it was also incredibly simple. In my only life, she was my mom, and I was her son.”
When Oskar expresses his appreciation for his mother here, the reader understands that his emotional journey has been successful. The quest was never about the key; it was about making peace with his father's memory, learning to accept that emotional intangibles have an influence on his life. In many ways, Oskar chooses to take this final Reconnaissance Expedition (for the lock) because it allows him to pursue a tangible goal rather than face the more "complicated" emotional reality represented by his Mom, who still lives and who reminds him of his grief. The contradiction he expresses in this quote show that he has realized what his father always wanted him to: life is made of both scientific fact and emotional reality. There are no easy answers to anything important. Ultimately, what matters is how we see the world, whether we allow ourselves to be optimistic, to believe in love and happiness, or pessimistic. Oskar finally chooses the former, feeling comfortable with the straight-forwardness of his love for his mother. That is more important than the lack of clarity to a "complicated" situation like the tragedy of 09/11 and his father's death.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close literature essays are academic essays for citation. These papers were written primarily by students and provide critical analysis of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer.