Everything is Illuminated

Everything is Illuminated Summary and Analysis of Chapters 19-21

Chapter 19: The Wedding Reception Was So Extraordinary, or It All Goes Downhill After the Wedding, 1941

It is the time of Safran's and Zosha's wedding. Zosha's parents, Tova and Menachem, take every measure to make sure the wedding is perfect. They are very affluent and live in the largest house in Trachimbrod, which is really two houses connected by an attic. Thus it is known as the Double House. They have many luxuries in their house from porcelain toilets to wine racks. Menachem loves the idea of improving the house, and he never wants it to be finished. He hires men to pretend to renovate the house, so that it will always look as if it is unfinished but has great potential.

The wedding is the town's big event of 1941. Almost everyone in Trachimbrod is invited. So many people come that the last census of Trachimbrod is taken there. Suddenly, an extremely strong wind sweeps through the house, causing total chaos. Zosha and her mother try frantically to put everything back in order. Meanwhile, Safran is in the cellar with Zosha's younger sister, Maya. She was waiting for him when he went down to the cellar to change his clothes. When she takes her panties out of his lapel, we realize that she is the Gypsy girl from Chapter 16. They have sex as the wedding reception continues upstairs.

Chapter 20: The Dupe of Chance, 1941-1924

As Safran makes love to Maya in the cellar, he gets the sense that every event in his life is a product of chance. He has no control over his life, so he cannot feel guilty for anything, not even having sex with his new wife's younger sister.

Jonathan marvels over his grandfather's physical abnormalities. Even as a baby, his grandfather had a full set of teeth. He was malnourished as a baby, because his mother could not stand having him bite her breasts. He also was an only child, because she did not want to go through the agony again. His right arm is shorter than his left, presumably because he did not get enough calcium from breast milk.

This lame arm, however, brings him good luck throughout his life. It prevents him from being drafted during the war and from working in the infamous flour mill. It keeps him from swimming into the Brod to save Maya as she drowns with the rest of Trachimbrod. It also prevents him from boarding a ship of immigrants that is turned away from America and whose passengers end up dying in a death camp. Most of all, Safran's lame arm causes many women, including Augustine, to fall in love with him. In fact, he loses his virginity at age ten and sleeps with 132 women in his lifetime, although he loves only Maya. Safran's unusual longevity in bed is another result of his early malnutrition. This characteristic makes women consider him a great lover. But Safran is unable to have an orgasm.

At age ten, he lost his virginity to the very old widow Rose W. He visited her house to help her in the name of charity. She pitied him for being crippled and, after confiding in him the details of her husband's love letters, she seduced Safran and they made love. He did not know what to do, so he followed her lead. She just wanted to be close to Safran's arm as though it were her husband. They had sex every Sunday for four years, until she confronted his youth and could no longer stand it. When she was killed by the Nazis seven years later, on June 18, 1941, her last thought was of Safran's arm.

Chapter 21: The Thickness of Blood and Drama, 1934

The Sloucher congregation pays Safran to visit widows' homes including Rose W's. Nobody knows that he is having affairs with them. Instead, they laud him for being so generous with his time. He does not even reveal these relationships in his journal. He is not ashamed, but he does not want to make any of his lovers, or his mother, jealous of his affections for someone else. He maintains that one can never love more than one person, because to love someone is to feel more for that person than everyone else.

In the present, Jonathan mentions that his grandparents met in a displaced-persons camp after the war. His grandfather's journal is the only written information he has about his grandfather's life before meeting his grandmother. He also explains to Alex why he cannot tell his grandmother about Augustine. His grandmother will realize too that it is impossible to love more than one person, and she will become jealous of Jonathan's and grandfather's love for Augustine.

The second widow Safran made love to was Lista P, the widow of the first victim of the Double House. Unlike Rose W, she did not spend her days missing her husband. She was happy, because her husband loved her so much that she could still feel it. Safran and Lista had tickets for the same seat in the shtetl theater. Instead of staying, they went back to Lista's house. There, he took her virginity--her husband was killed on the morning of their wedding, so it was never consummated.

The third woman Safran slept with was the Gypsy girl. He met her in the theater and recognized her from a bazaar, where she was a snake charmer. He was struck by her bravery as a Gypsy among Jews. He made sure that she saw his arm, and she immediately responded with a sexually-charged smile. The play was an exaggerated retelling of Trachim B's accident. We read along with the play; that is, we read interspersed among the lines of the play additional line of Safran's conversation with the Gypsy girl. He asks her whether she likes music, and they begin to fondle one another as they converse in the dark theater. The music begins to swell as they become more aroused. She leads Safran out of the theater and all through the shtetl to a petrified forest he has never seen before. They make love there as the music in the theater comes to a glorious climax.


Safran's life is rife with infidelity. Jonathan is not following the pattern Alex would wish: why would Jonathan create such a morally disappointing view of his grandfather, when fantasy and the power of the written word give him the freedom to make the man into anything he wants? Perhaps this characterization is another example of the acknowledgment that nothing can be perfect. No matter how many renovations Zosha's father makes to his grand, luxurious house, it is never done. He does not want it to be done, because then were would be no excitement, no hope for a better future. In the same way, Safran is never physically satisfied, no matter how many lovers he has. He is addicted to the constant flux, the excitement of the new. Meanwhile, he keeps his love reserved for just one person.

Safran's affair with Rose W is ultimately a testament to the power that fantasy can have over reality. When she makes love to Safran, she pretends he is her husband. She gives in to this fantasy so completely that as she dies, she thinks of the arm and not her husband. The tales of Safran's sexual exploits lead us to wonder if he has a fantasy of his own. We know that he was malnourished as a child because his mother could no longer stand to breastfeed him. A psychoanalytically inclined reader might infer that the lack of intimacy with his mother has led Safran to spend the rest of his life wanting to be held to women's breasts. But there is never a fulfillment for Safran, symbolized by the fact that he is incapable of having an orgasm.

Safran's lame arm is another manifestation of the blending of life and death. His "dead arm" brings excitement into his life. Although Safran cannot orgasm and therefore cannot procreate naturally, his dead arm brings a wealth of sexual experiences. Moreover, his arm saves him from dying in several ways. It is because of the association of his dead arm with life that Safran is never truly viewed as a crippled person. Instead, his bold presentation of the arm as a sexual object makes him exotic. Ultimately, there is something erotic in recognizing that a part of his body is unattainable. Rose W tries to make it attainable by imagining that the arm belongs to her dead husband.

The way Safran makes love to the Gypsy girl is entirely new to him, despite all his sexual prowess. This time, the acts of making love are not all; the relationship is not purely physical. We cannot be sure that Safran falls in love with the Gypsy girl, but such a connection is implied. At any rate, their relationship is far more emotionally poignant than any Safran has experienced before.

The locations where Safran and the Gypsy make love are telling about their relationship. They meet in the theater amid music and artifice, and in turn their relationship is emotional and playful. Like the play, however, their relationship can never quite be real. The cultural differences between them constitute a draw, but an unfulfilling one; the differences ultimately keep them apart. The petrified forest is significant in that it is somewhere Safran has not been before. It is also a liminal space, set off from society, where they are suspended in time and beyond the reach of the town and its traditional history. The petrified forest, dead and empty, cannot judge them even as it bears witness to their lovemaking. The forest also connects them to ancient romanticized themes of natural sexual connection, even while it is a space that can legitimate their intercultural love.