One of the most enduring themes in the novel, death overshadows the motivations and emotional wellbeing of all of the main characters, especially Oskar as he struggles with his father’s passing. Death is both personal and abstract in this book. Thomas Sr.'s experiences during the Dresden bombing acquaint him with the fear and truth of death as his city and family are destroyed. The many deaths which occur that day haunt him, and affect his inability to be close to others later in life. Oskar grapples with a similar potential. The imagery of the man falling from the World Trade Center both frightens and obsesses Oskar, and serves as the center of other death photographs he collects. Ultimately, the novel's dramatic tension largely revolves around whether Oskar can make his peace with the unfair, illogical nature of death so that he can then move forward and escape a cold, tortured existence like that which Grandpa (and to a lesser extent, Grandma) lives. Death and its companion, grief, become the primary obstacle which each of the characters tries to overcome.
A quiet but all-encompassing theme, love binds the main characters together as they navigate the complexities of their grief. Ultimately, the novel suggests that love serves as the flip side to death, and one must ultimately choose between the optimism of the former or the pessimism of the latter. Grandma’s love for her son and grandchild became the focal point of her existence. She risked the state of her marriage to conceive her child, choosing her child over her husband. Thomas Sr. has a more difficult struggle with the concept of love. His abandonment of wife and child suggest that he did not love them, but the years of letter writing and his eventual return to America indicate his inner conflict. Ultimately, he has been corrupted by his love for the deceased Anna, and his inability to understand how to live with that. Oskar’s mother eventually reveals a complicated, mature love that allows her son to be distant when he needs it, but which is always devoted towards him nevertheless. Unlike Grandma, whose love is often suffocating, Oskar’s mom operates as an observer. She remains a steady presence in his life without impeding on his loving memories of his father. And finally, Oskar eventually realizes that his journey is as much about making peace with love as it is about making peace with death. When he comes to embrace this truth, he is able to move on from the otherwise all-encompassing grief over his father's death.
Correspondence, especially in the form of letter-writing, has a special place in the book. Though it in many ways reinforces the theme of Communication, correspondence is unique in the way it grounds both the letter-writer and the intended receiver into a past that defines them. The novel is split between three perspectives, which largely imbue it with a more historical air. Grandma and Thomas Sr. endeavor to tell their life stories, to explain their contradictions and emotional pasts, both in hopes of being understood and in hopes of passing on their life lessons. The present is so complicated that only by controlling their voice through a letter can they attempt to relate the ever-present existence of the past.
Similarly, Oskar and a Grandma (when she was young) use correspondence as a way to understand the world outside themselves. The many letters Oskar receives from celebrities and heroes, most of which are impersonal, only frustrate him, make him feel as though he is not connected to the greater world. When Stephen Hawking writes him with a suggestion for life, it is powerful because it comes at a time when Oskar is realizing the way he is connected to the world outside of himself. Similarly, when Grandma received the letter from the inmate and then began collecting letters from everyone she knew, she was trying to understand people through the way they express themselves in writing. The power and limitations of written language are explored in equal doses, and are reinforced by the novel's experimental typeface. Overall, correspondence is an important part of Oskar's growth and of the novel's over-arching ideas about understanding one another.
Each of the three narrators exemplifies the theme of the journey in a different way. The most obvious example is Oskar’s quest to find the lock that fits his father’s key. His journey through the streets of New York is both a physical expedition and a mental undertaking. However, by overcoming his fears of strangers, crowded places, and heights, Oskar also undertakes an emotional journey, one that helps him move past his grief to better understand his connection to the world outside himself.
Grandma’s journey is emotional from the start. She speaks of a shadowed yet naïve childhood during World War II, and of her arrival in New York City seven years later. She strives to Americanize herself, but often stumbles when confronted by foreign concepts. Her marriage to Thomas is tarnished by the memories of her deceased sister, but she moves past some of her self-doubt by deciding to get pregnant and focus her life on her child (and later her grandchild). Later, her focus shifts inward, and her journey becomes one of self-discovery through her correspondence.
Thomas’s journey is about trying to transcend the pain of his past. He is unable to escape the trauma of the bombings, and lives his life according to abstract rules which deny him the true possibility of happiness. After he learns of the death of his son, his journey switches focus and becomes about the present. His love for Oskar is his saving grace as he moves forward into a new life without the hindrance of self loathing.
Overall, the novel suggests that physical and emotional journeys are interlinked, that by searching in any way do we ultimately come to search within ourselves.
Communication, or the lack thereof, appears frequently as a major them. Do the frequent occurrences of miscommunication suggest that life is built around lies, such as that Oskar tells by omission about the answering machine? Or do they result from people's excessive pre-occupations with themselves?
Grandma and Thomas Sr. arrange their marriage so that they do not have interact with one another unless they want to. The creation of “Something” and “Nothing” places in the apartment only add to the distance that already exists between them. Their flawed relationship leads to a myriad of miscommunications and misunderstandings. That Thomas Sr. cannot speak only reinforces this idea.
Further, Oskar continually misinterprets both verbal and non-verbal signs from others. Not only is his entire quest predicated on a false assumption, but he misreads his mother's behavior as negligent, and entirely undervalues the grief that others around him feel (at least at first). Taken this way, the novel then becomes about learning to listen to one another, to be open to emotional resonances and messages from others, so that we can grow. Whether or not miscommunication in the text is meant to suggest excessive pre-occupation with ourselves, the novel's message is definitely that we are healthier when we learn to be open to truths outside of our limited perspectives.
Trauma is everywhere in this novel. The 09/11 attacks are the prime example of trauma which affects every main character. However, Foer also explores other historical atrocities. The Dresden bombings not only provide insight into what Thomas Jr. may have felt during his final hours, but also foreshadow the deep impact of such large scale trauma on the psyche of a fragile mind, like Oskar’s. The quest for the key's lock provides Oskar a chance to work through his fears, to ease himself away from the trauma of the attacks.
On a large scale, the novel tackles post 09/11 America without questioning the attacks or the ethics of its aftermath (the War on Terror). In other words, the novel explores the personal trauma that results from atrocity, rather than the political ramifications. The plot concerns itself with the effect of 09/11 on the Schell family, touching on themes like unity and identity which certainly resonate with that period, but which are grounded in a limited experience here.
The central theme of the text, family, connects the main characters through the significant figure of Thomas Jr. whose death influences everyone. Oskar's experience with family after this - his resentment over Ron, his scape-goating of his mother, his emotional instability - all suggest the difficulties of being a child in a broken home. Eventually, the novel becomes about Oskar making peace with his circumstances, learning not to let his pain define him so he can be happy with his loving family.
The novel reinforces this theme through suggestions of other family tragedies. Thomas Sr. and Grandma both experienced great loss during the Dresden bombings, and their lives provide distinct examples of how one might react to such grief. Where Thomas Sr. turned away from emotional connection, Grandma eventually devoted herself to the creation of a new family. In effect, they provide a template for two paths Oskar might take. Luckily, he comes to appreciate the family he has (following Grandma's path), while even Thomas Sr. grows to feel some of that optimism because of his experience with Oskar.
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.