La jeune fille à la perle

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Tracy Chevalier

1. “Where is God? Where is He?” someone behind me asked.
For more than half an hour [the child in the noose] stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red, his eyes were not yet glazed.
Behind me, I heard the same man asking:
“Where is God now?”
And I heard a voice within me answer him:
“Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows . . .”

Explanation: An innocent child with an angelic face, who perpetrated no crime except devotion and affection to man, was chosen to die. His death was particularly gruesome. The prisoners, observing the scene, asked, “Where is God?” In other words, how could a supposedly all-powerful God who is supposed to be benevolent allow this to happen? God must be either passive, helpless, or disinterested in human welfare.

Some of the prisoners chose to believe that He is helpless and impotent to reverse the evil. They, therefore, concluded that “He is hanging here on the gallows,” meaning with the child, and that He is metaphorically dead.

This is reminiscent of Nietzsche's statement of the famous “God is dead” phrase. One can read it in one of two ways. One could read it in the way that Nietzsche intended it, that humankind has destroyed God by their disbelief in Him and their embrace of agnosticism/atheism, as contrasted with the medieval that God is alive and well. Alternatively, one can interpret it as simply posing that while an earlier age had claimed God’s existence, more sophisticated man was beyond that and realized that belief in His existence was senseless. There simply made no sense to assert belief in a God, particularly since science and technology had replaced Him. This was Durkheim’s rationalized thesis of modernity, wherein the increasing state of sophistication in science displaced need for belief in a deity.

The scene also reminds one of the crucifix. There, it was Jesus whom classical Christianity identified as the God spirit. Jesus was innocent, the Lamb of God, dangling on a cross. Here, too, was a child (the iconographic symbol of God—innocent, angelic) also hanging on the gallows. It was, as Mauriac noted, nocturnal Golgotha.

2. Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.
Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.
Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.

Explanation: The alliterated “never” emphasizes resolution never to forget the atrocities of the Holocaust. More so, this phrase elaborates on the traumatic impact that those first few moments had on the author: moments where the world turned upside down and where all he saw were flames consuming the innocent, the hush of death, the constant smoke from the chimneys that he was told were constantly incinerating living people, and, perhaps worst of all, the helpless children—still alive—being cast into the fiery pits. It was these incidents that, in one brief night, turned Eliezer—the believing Orthodox Jewish youth who had only known faith—to disbelief in God.

The phrase seven times cursed and seven times sealed may perhaps be an allusion to the Jewish prayer of Unesenah Tokef recited on Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the fast heralding the New Year), in which it is said that life and death are inscribed and sealed for the coming year. Individuals are either cursed with a calamitous, untimely death or rewarded with prosperous life. Seven is recurring number in Jewish lore, with its significance implying something that is tenacious and irreversible.

3. What can we expect? It’s war . . .”
Elie Wiesel, Night, Ch. 1

Explanation: Anything is allowed in war. As Wiesel recounts in the introduction to the most recent edition of the book, it was an upside-down world in which people did whatever they wanted.

In war, no morals or principals apply. The world has gone mad, and anarchy is the answer where the law of the jungle prevails and where each man fights for his own survival and his own interest alone.

4. The yellow star? Oh well, what of it? You don’t die of it.
Elie Wiesel, Night, Ch. 1

Explanation: Many of the Jews rationalized: It may demean or derogate you to wear the star, but it will not physically cause your death, so why be bothered about it? There are worse things that could occur. This was the reasoning of Eliezer’s father, among others. They were wrong. The yellow star was directly linked to their death, in that the SS identified the Jews by virtue of their star and, accordingly, selected them for “special treatment.” This, indeed, was the reason for wearing the star: in order to make selection easier for the Germans.

5. I was a body. Perhaps less than that even: a starved stomach. The stomach alone was aware of the passage of time.
– Elie Wiesel, Night, Ch. 4

Explanation: Food took up all of man’s consciousness, so that higher thoughts and desires no longer existed. The physical need and desire for food was uppermost, and it alone marked the passage of time by dint of the small allotment of food they were granted each particular day. The calendar gained significance and was commemorated by this daily morsel of food.

6.Keep your anger and hatred for another day, for later on. The day will come, but not now.
Elie Wiesel, Night, Ch. 4

Explanation: As told to Eliezer by one of the inmates, revenge would be useless and counterproductive now. Hold on to it, for you will need to take revenge on the Germans later.

7. We were masters of nature, masters of the world. We had forgotten everything—death, fatigue, our natural needs. Stronger than cold or hunger, stronger than the shots and the desire to die, condemned and wandering, mere numbers, we were the only men on earth.
Elie Wiesel, Night, Ch. 6

Explanation: All that the prisoners/survivors cared about were themselves and their existence. The motivation to live took over every bit of their strength; this fierce drive toward survival made them stronger than regular men. In a sense, it forced them to become superhumanly strong. Indeed, Viktor Frankl, a psychoanalyst-philosopher raised through his experiences in the Holocaust, recounts that only those who had a fierce drive to live were enabled to survive. These became more than men; they became supermen. Their desire to surmount the atrocities compelled them to march on, to live in the moment and to forget all so that they surmounted their natural handicaps and continued plodding.

But I had no more tears. And, in the depths of my being, in the recesses of my weakened conscience, could I have searched it, I might perhaps have found something like-free at last!
Elie Wiesel, Night, Ch. 8

Explanation: While feeling guilty for having ignored his father’s last supplication, Eliezer also feels relief in that his father was liberated from his suffering at last. His father had, particularly toward the end, desired death, as seen in the opening of the chapter, in which he longs to rest with the bodies, not wishing to consider that they were actually corpses. His suffering, from then on, had been unrelenting, culminating in delusion, delirium, beatings, and starvation. His death was a relief both to Eliezer and, most certainly, to himself.

8. From the depths of the mirror, a corpse gazed back at me. The look in his eyes, as they stared into mine, has never left me.
Elie Wiesel, Night, Ch. 9

Explanation: Eliezer had likely become a musulman, the Holocaust term for an extremely frail person who was practically a walking skeleton. The “look in his eye” was likely that of an adult way beyond his years who knew more suffering than any human should feel on this earth.

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