Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close Character Comparison Essay

For the film adaptation, see Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (film).

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is a 2005 novel by Jonathan Safran Foer. The book's narrator is a nine-year-old boy named Oskar Schell. In the story, Oskar discovers a key in a vase that belonged to his father, a year after he is killed in the September 11 attacks. The discovery inspires Oskar to search all around New York for information about the key.


Oskar Schell is a nine-year-old boy whose father, Thomas Schell, died in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The novel begins after the tragedy, with Oskar narrating. Since his fathers' death, Oskar struggles with insomnia, panic attacks, and depression. He often describes the feeling of depression as wearing heavy boots, and deals with this by giving himself bruises.

One day, in his father's closet, Oskar finds a key in a small envelope inside a vase that he accidentally broke; in the keyshop he finds the name Black and thinks this has something to do with the key. Curious, Oskar sets out on a mission to contact every person in New York City with the last name of Black in the hope of finding the lock that belongs to the key his father left behind.

One of the first people Oskar meets is a 48-year-old woman named Abby Black. Oskar and Abby instantly become friends, but she has no information on the key. Oskar continues to search the city. Toward the end of his journey Oskar meets an old man he calls "the renter" because until the point of meeting, Oskar had only heard of the old man's existence from his Grandmother who referred to him as the new tenant in her apartment. (We learn towards the end of the book that "The renter" is actually Oskar's grandfather.)[1]

The book spans many months of Oskar's journey, some of which he was accompanied by his elderly neighbour, Mr. A. Black. Eight months after Oskar initially met Abby, he finds a message from her on the answering machine. Oskar had not touched that phone since his father died because his father's last words had been on an identical answering machine which Oskar had kept hidden from his mother. Oskar finds out that Abby called him directly after his visit, saying she wasn't completely honest with him and might be able to help. Oskar returns to Abby's apartment after listening to this message, and Abby directs him to her ex-husband, William Black.[2]

When Oskar talks to William Black, he learns that the key once belonged to William's father. In his will, William's father left William a key to a safe-deposit box, but William had already sold the vase at the estate sale to Thomas Schell. Then, Oskar tells William something that he "never told anyone" – the story of the last answering machine message Oskar received from his father, during the attack of 9/11. Oskar then gives William Black the key. Disappointed that the key does not belong to him, Oskar goes home angry and sad, not interested in the contents of the box. After Oskar destroys everything that had to do with the search for the lost key, Oskar discovered that his mother knew about his activities the entire time and was contacting everyone with the name Black in New York City. After the first few visits she called every Black that he would meet and informed them that Oskar was going to visit and why. In response, the people Oskar met knew ahead of time why he was coming and usually treated him in a friendly manner.

The novel has a parallel narrative that eventually converges with the main story. This narrative is portrayed through a series of letters written by Oskar's grandfather to Oskar's father Thomas, and by Oskar's grandmother to Oskar himself. The letters written by Oskar's grandfather explain his past in World War II, his first love, and his marriage to Oskar's grandmother. The letters written by Oskar's grandmother explain her past in meeting Oskar's grandfather, the trouble in their relationship, and how important Oskar is to her.

The final pages are a flip-book style animation of a photograph of a man falling from the World Trade Center. The animation makes the man appear to fall upwards.


Oskar Schell is the nine-year-old protagonist of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. He is an eccentric, intelligent, and clever young boy who self-identifies as a number of things including inventor, amateur entomologist, origamist, and amateur archaeologist. He often contemplates deeper topics and shows great empathy beyond what the average 9-year-old might have. His thoughts have a tendency to trail off into far-flung ideas, such as ambulances that alert passerby to the severity of their passengers' conditions and plantlike skyscrapers, and he has several assorted hobbies and collections. He is very trusting of strangers and makes friends easily, though he does not have many friends his own age. In the film it is alluded that he has Asperger's syndrome. Oskar mentions being taken in for testing in his first interaction with Abby Black, however he states that "...Tests weren't definitive."

Oskar's mother, Linda Schell, referred to as "Mom" by Oskar in the book, cares for her family greatly. After Thomas's death, Linda tells Oskar "I won't fall in love again."[4] Though it is implied that she knows Oskar is running around the city meeting strangers, she nevertheless allows him to do so in order to discover more about his father.

Oskar's grandmother is a kind woman who is very protective of Oskar. She calls out to him often, and Oskar always responds with "I'm okay" out of habit. When she arrived in the United States, she read as many magazines as she could to integrate herself into the culture and language. As Anna's (Oskar's grandfather's first love) younger sister, she enters into a tumultuous marriage with Oskar's grandfather, and the couple breaks up before the events of the novel.

Mr A. Black is an elderly man who is one hundred and three years of age, who lives in the same apartment building as Oskar, and joins him for some of his journey. Prior to meeting Oskar, Mr. Black had not left his apartment in twenty-four years, after having had a rather adventurous life. He is nearly deaf, and cries after Oskar turns on his hearing aids after a "long time" where he was unable to hear.

Oskar's grandfather, Thomas Schell Sr. (also referred to as "the renter") is an important character in the story, even though he does not physically meet Oskar until the book's end. After the death of his first love, Anna, Oskar's grandfather loses his voice completely and consequently tattoos the words "yes" and "no" on his hands. He carries around a "daybook" where he writes phrases he cannot speak aloud. He marries Anna's younger sister, Oskar's grandmother.

Anna is an absent character. She is Oskar's grandfather's first love. Oskar's grandfather falls in love with her instantly. She dies in the Dresden firebombings of World War II after telling Oskar's grandfather of her pregnancy. She is Oskar's grandmother's sister.

Abby Black is William Black's ex-wife. She is forty-eight years old and lives by herself. She is friendly and welcoming to Oskar when he arrives at her house, though she does decline Oskar's offer of a kiss.

Oskar's father, Thomas Schell, dies before the events of the book begin, having been in 1 World Trade Center the day of the attacks. Oskar remembers him as caring, smelling of aftershave and always humming the song "I Am the Walrus" by The Beatles. Thomas Schell organizes several expeditions for Oskar, such as a game to find an object from every decade of the past century. These adventures with his father are one of the reasons Oskar begins his journey about the key.

Stan is the doorman in the building Oskar lives in. He alerts Oskar when he has mail.

Buckminster is Oskar's cat.


Jonathan Safran Foer's inspiration for his main character came when having difficulty with another project. In an interview, Foer stated, "I was working on another story and I just started to feel the drag of it. And so, as a side project, I got interested in the voice of this kid. I thought maybe it could be a story; maybe it would be nothing. I found myself spending more and more time on it and wanting to work on that".[3] On the challenges of writing a novel in a child's voice, Foer responded, "It's not the voice of a child exactly," adding that "in order to create this thing that feels most real, it's usually not by actually giving the most accurate presentation of it."[3]

Foer combined the character he had been developing with the 9/11-centered plot. He created the story line from his personal experiences and reactions regarding the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Foer was sleeping off jet lag after returning to New York City from a trip to Spain, when he was woken by a phone call from a friend: "He said, 'You have to turn on the TV, a plane has crashed into the World Trade Center.' And then he said, 'I think it's going to be a very strange day.'"[3] In another interview, Foer said, "I think it's a greater risk not to write about [9/11]. If you're in my position—a New Yorker who felt the event very deeply and a writer who wants to write about things he feels deeply about—I think it's risky to avoid what's right in front of you."


Major themes of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close include trauma, mourning, family, and the struggle between self-destruction and self-preservation. Sien Uytterschout and Kristiaan Versluys have examined the specific types of trauma and recuperative measures that Oskar's grandmother and grandfather go through after the Dresden bombings and that Oskar goes through after the loss of his father. They argue that Oskar has a simultaneous death wish and extreme need for self-preservation: This theme is echoed in Thomas Schell, Sr.'s pronounced survivor guilt and Oskar's grandmother's well-disguised inability to cope with her trauma.[4] They also argue that though Oskar's journey to "find" his father does not help him get over his traumatic experience, it does allow him to grow closer to his mother.[4] Foer provides a parallel between WWII and the 9/11 attacks to not only show the timelessness of trauma and tragedy – how it affects people unbiasedly, but also how coping with trauma also means to revisit the trauma.

It is also important to note the impact of the child narrator on the effectiveness of the theme of trauma. In the novel, Oskar never directly addresses through his narration the trauma he faced. Only through his journey through the city and through his grandparents' letters does he mimic the journey one must take when coping with trauma.

Cultural impact[edit]

Authors began producing 9/11 novels as early as 2002 as a way of recognizing the tragedy. Jonathan Safran Foer's novel was one of many that confronted the aftermath of the attacks through the eyes of a New Yorker. However, 9/11 fiction is not only a new subgenre, but a new struggle for many authors. Richard Gray stated in his book on 9/11 literature After The Fall, "If there was one thing writers agreed about in response to 9/11, it was the failure of language; the terrorist attacks made the tools of their trade seem absurd."[5] There was a desire to write about the experience, to recognize the individual impact, as well as the greater social impact, while appreciating the mourning of the country, but many authors found it difficult to do so.

Foer utilizes the child narrator in an attempt to connect with that struggle. The struggle of the child to understand the trauma is reflective of the struggle many faced after the trauma of the 9/11 attacks.

Foer's novel was one of the most popular and widely read novels of this post 9/11 fiction subgenre. Because of its great popularity, its message had a greater impact than many novels of its kind. Apart from the terrorist attacks of September 11, the novel also sheds light on the experience of terrible tragedy. Rebecca Miller of the Library Journal claims "Foer nimbly explores the misunderstandings that compound when grief silences its victims."[6] The novel makes sense of and provides a way of moving on from the grief of the specific catastrophe. "Few works of literature have succeeded in drawing lasting meaning, whole or fragmentary, from modernity's string of catastrophes… but Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is one of them, providing a tool to create understanding of grief and loss."[7]

Critical response[edit]

John Updike, writing for The New Yorker, found the novel to be "thinner, overextended, and sentimentally watery," compared to Foer's first novel. He stated, "the book's hyperactive visual surface covers up a certain hollow monotony in its verbal drama."[8] In a New York Times review Michiko Kakutani said, "While it contains moments of shattering emotion and stunning virtuosity that attest to Mr. Foer's myriad gifts as a writer, the novel as a whole feels simultaneously contrived and improvisatory, schematic and haphazard."[9] Kakutani also stated the book was "cloying" and identified the unsympathetic main character as a major issue. The topic of the child narrator is a contentious one. Many critics found the child narrator to be unbelievable and not relatable. Anis Shivani said similarly in a Huffington Post article entitled "The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers," claiming Foer "Rode the 9/11-novel gravy train with Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, giving us a nine-year-old with the brain of a twenty-eight-year-old Jonathan Safran Foer."[10]

Despite several unfavorable reviews, the novel was viewed positively by several critics. Foer's child narrator was featured in a critical article titled "Ten of the Best Child Narrators" by John Mullan of The Guardian in 2009.[11] The Spectator stated that "Safran Foer is describing a suffering that spreads across continents and generations" and that the "book is a heartbreaker: tragic, funny, intensely moving".[12] "Foer's excellent second novel vibrates with the details of a current tragedy but successfully explores the universal questions that trauma brings on its floodtide.... It's hard to believe that such an inherently sad story could be so entertaining, but Foer's writing lightens the load."[13] Sam Munson, in a review of two novels on catastrophe claimed, "Foer has a natural gift for choosing subjects of great import and then pitching his distinctive voice sharply enough to be heard above their historical din."[14]

Awards and honors[edit]

Film adaptation[edit]

Main article: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (film)

A film adaptation of the novel was released on January 20, 2012. The script was written by Eric Roth, and Stephen Daldry directed.[15]Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, John Goodman, Viola Davis, Max von Sydow and Jeffrey Wright starred,[16] alongside 2010 Jeopardy! Kids Week winner Thomas Horn, 12, as Oskar Schell.[17] The film was produced by Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros.

See also[edit]


Further reading[edit]

  • Vanderwees, Chris. "Photographs of Falling Bodies and the Ethics of Vulnerability in Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close." Canadian Review of American Studies. 45.2 (2015): 171–94.


  1. ^Safran Foer, Jonathan. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. pp. 237–368. ISBN 9780618711659. 
  2. ^Safran Foer, Jonathan (2005). Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. pp. 288–368. ISBN 9780618711659. 
  3. ^ abcShenk, Joshua Wolf. "Jonathan Safran Foer: living to tell the tale". Mother Jones. 30 (3). Retrieved March 15, 2012. 
  4. ^ abSien Uytterschout, Kristaan Versluys (May 15, 2008). "Melancholy and Mourning in Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close". Orbis Litterarum. Blackwell Publishing. 63 (3): 216–236. doi:10.1111/j.1600-0730.2008.00927.x. Retrieved March 15, 2012. 
  5. ^Gray, Richard (2011). After the Fall. John Wiley & Sons. p. 1. 
  6. ^Miller, Rebecca (March 1, 2005). "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close". Library Journal. 130 (4): 78. 
  7. ^Munson, Sam (May 2005). "In the Aftermath". Commentary. 119 (5): 80–85. 
  8. ^Updike, John. "Mixed Messages" The New Yorker, March 14, 2005.
  9. ^Kakutani, Michiko. "A Boy's Epic Quest, Borough by Borough", The New York Times March 22, 2005.
  10. ^Shivani, Anis. "The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers." The Huffington Post August 7, 2010.
  11. ^Mullan, John (2009-12-19). "Review: Ten of the Best Child Narrators". The Guardian (London. 
  12. ^Olivia Glazebrook, "Wearing heavy boots lightly", Spectator June 11, 2005.
  13. ^"Miller, Rebecca (March 1, 2005). "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close". Library Journal. Media Source, Inc. 130 (4): 78. Retrieved March 15, 2012. 
  14. ^Munson, Sam (May 2005). "In the Aftermath". Commentary. 119 (5): 80–85. 
  15. ^Kit, Borys. "Stephen Daldry to direct 'Extremely Loud': Project based on a Sept. 11-themed novel", The Hollywood Reporter, April 1, 2010
  16. ^"Hanks and Bullock Getting Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close", ComingSoon.net, August 23, 2010
  17. ^Fleming, Mike. "'Jeopardy!' Wiz Kid Lands Lead in WB Movie", Deadline.com, December 15, 2010

External links[edit]


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 A Brief Introduction to Trauma Theories

3 Analysis of Main Characters
3.1 Oskar Schell
3.2 Grandfather Schell
3.3 Grandmother Schell

4 Didactic Analysis
4.1 Range of Competences/ Main Objective
4.2 Didactical Reduction
4.3 Issues, Challenges and Alternatives

5 Conclusion

6 Works Cited List

7 Appendix
7.1 Lesson plan
7.2 Entry Video
7.3 Worksheets
7.4 Home Burial by Robert Frost

1 Introduction

The novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, deals with a nine-year old boy, Oskar Schell, who tries to detect the meaning of a key, which he found in an envelope labelled “Black”, by his father, who has died in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Foer approaches several topics in the narrativelike the historic events of Hiroshima, the Dresden bombing in 1945 and obviously 9/11 accompanied by trauma. According to these events, he emphasises the continuation of life of the victim’s relatives. Furthermore, important themes are the diversity of New York, growing up, autism and love and war. In this paper I will examine how the characters Oskar, Grandfather Schell, and Grandmother Schell cope with trauma, caused by the Dresden bombing and respectively, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001.

Trauma seems to me being an essential topic to discuss in school as everybody sooner or later has to deal with loss or already dealt with it in the past. As every student can identify with this potential challenge, it is important for them to get to know different ways of dealing with trauma.Foer’s story even reveals that coping with trauma is able to bring people from different races and ages together. Even if people’s trauma is caused by different events there will be a connection between these people. Moreover, it would be possible to teach this topic interdisciplinary and interdisciplinary in ethics or religious education classes.

As everyone could be affected by trauma I determined this topic for my planned lesson. The reason for choosing thesubtopics namely ‘inventing’ and ‘heavy boots’ referring to Oskar; Grandfather Schell’s ‘aphasia’ and ‘the doorknobs’ and finally, ‘supressing’ and ‘the feeling of being needed’ with regard to Grandmother Schell reveal concreteness for the main topic. I decided to teach the topic by group work to facilitate the exchange of experiences without the danger to be exposed in front of the class. I thought this is the best way, as the students can talk about how they perceived the character and his or her ability to deal with the trauma they have gone through. The team work is followed by a presentation and discussion of this work to ensure all students have reached the same level of knowledge. Moreover, it is important have the ability to emphasise with this character and change their perspectives or contribute their own experiences with loss to explain the others why somebody could show such behaviour.

I will analyse the topic by a characterisation following by a psychoanalytic approach. For one it is important to get to know why people are behaving differently after experiencing loss and second, it is illuminating for the students to become aware thattrauma can be responsible for the person concerned being left with an altered personality. The lesson I have planned relates to both, characterisation and psychoanalytic approaches. After the lesson the students should have general knowledge about trauma and its effects. Furthermore, it should be clear that trauma can only be overcome by going through two phases, which build up upon each other.

2 A Brief Introduction to Trauma Theories

According to the American Psychiatric Association, trauma is anofficially recognised mental illness, since 1980. The symptoms[1] can be put under the denominator of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) (Leys, 2).There are various theories which give reasons for suffering from trauma. In this paper I focus onCathy Caruth, and DominickLaCaprawho build up their theories on the basis of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis which I also briefly explain.Nevertheless, other scientists that build up trauma theories like Pierre Janet, Ruth Leys, KristiaanVersluys and SienUytterschout are taken briefly into consideration in this paper too.

The basic trauma theory is provided by the ‘father of psychoanalysis’ Sigmund Freud.In his developed psychological system described in Jenseits des Lustprinzips, he claims that a traumatic neurosis is ascribable to the moment of surprise, which is followed by a shock (Freud, 222.). In the Freudian theory psyche consists of several layers. The exterior layer its system avoids a permanent overstimulation of the outside world. However, intense attractions that cannot be prevented by this layer do exist. Freud calls these attractions traumatic emotions.The person affected experiences a reduction of the normal psychological performance triggered by the destruction of the external layer (Freud, 237-240).

Inspired by Freud, the author Cathy Caruth defines trauma as follows: “In its general definition, trauma is described as the response to an unexpected or overwhelming violent event or events that are not fully grasped as they occur, but return later in repeated flashbacks, nightmares, and other repetitive phenomena.”(Caruth, (1996), 90.). According to Caruth, the repression of the consequences theevent involves, activated by the shock of the happening, enables the person not to lose control about the physical functions. It is a natural protective reaction of the bodyfor instance,to be able to deal with a shock without collapsing (Uytterschoutt, 217). The person affected suffers from delayed consciousness raising of the events as “the outside has gone inside without any mediation.” (Caruth, (1996), 59; Leys, 2). Moreover, Caruth argues that the event is not completely involved in the consciousness and therefore, cannot be experienced entirely(Caruth, (2000), 85).

Another indicator for trauma is the repetition of an indigested incident. It comes to recurring hallucinations, dreams, thoughts or behaviour. These memories can occur by somatic perception, scents, sounds or pictures. The traumatic experience is inherent and chases the person affected (Caruth, (2000), 85.) Caused by repetition of the event the traumatic past remains current. Even if the event occurred a decade ago, the pictures in the peoples’ heads have such a currency, as if they could match the present (Horstkotte, 132.).

The historian Dominick LaCapradistinguishes between two phases of coping with trauma namely the ‘acting out’ and ‘working through’ stages which are based on Freud’s melancholia and mourning phases. The phase of ‘acting out’ means, to deal with the past through a repetitive reliving of the traumatic experience in a post-traumatic present (LaCapra quoted in Uytterschout, 218). During this phasecontinuing life is impossible for the traumatised person because in their mind life actually takes place in the past. If a person is busy dealing with the past, there migth be no room for the present nor for the future. This often leads to the inability to express feelings or thoughts, which are accompanied by the incapacity to progress to the ‘working through’ process(Ibid, 218).The narrative memory, as the psychologist and psychotherapistPierre Janet names the ‘working through’ process of LaCapra, enables traumatised people “to remember what happened to them at a certain point in the past, while at the same time realising that they are living now” (Ibid,218). Running through only one of these procedures could evoke a mental illness. It is important to consider that the mentioned processes build up upon and complement each other (Ibid, 219) Thus, ‘ideal’ way of dealing with trauma consists of an interlacing of acting out and working through” (Ibid, 220). To overcome this dissociation, traumatised people have to learn to express themselves and try to fit their experiences into a larger, coherent whole (Janet, 24).

3 Analysis of Main Characters

In this chapter the focus is on the three main characters Oskar, Grandfather Thomas Schell Senior and Grandmother Schell. The included characterisation and background information will reveal the differences between the protagonist Oskar, and his grandparents. On this basis, I analyse and demonstrate their individual and differentways of dealing with theirsuffering. Therefore, a psychoanalytic approach is used.The analysis of different ways to continue life after experiencing trauma in the narrative Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close raise the awareness of students’for theimportance to interchange both experiences and approaches. Furthermore, it displays that it is natural to be lost in emotions.

3.1 Oskar Schell

The intelligence and inquisitiveness of the nine-year old Oskar Schell is obvious. Even though he uses short sentences like a child, he deals with lots of different adult topics for instance his favourite book Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time.[2] (11) Oskar even knows that Hawking suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and that this involves the inability of using his hands, which does not seem very child-like (11).The boy is “too smart for his age” (Uytterschout, 228) and is totally aware of his intelligence which becomes clear when he claims to be a pacifist in his jujitsu class. Knowing children of his age do not know the word, Oskar explains it to them (2). He has a strong emotional bond to his father, who was as Ingersoll states “the perfect father, reminiscent of the idealized father figure” (55). This is illustrated when Oskar says that “[b]eing with him [makes] my brain quiet” (12) and gives the reader a feeling that Oskar places great trust in his dad.His father’s death evokes a deep change in Oskar’s life course.To be able to cope with this loss, he tries to get distracted by thinking about creative inventions he could develop: “I could invent a teakettle that reads in Dad’s voice, so I could fall asleep […]” (1)

As mentioned above Oskar thinks a lot about adult themes but, when it comes to his feelings he describes his grief by wearing “heavy boots”: [...] I got incredibly heavy boots about how relatively insignificant life is” (86). The metaphor of wearing heavy boots to describe his sorrow also implies its transference to a physical restriction. In situations of grief a person can feel paralysed by the event happening to us. Moreover, heavy boots sound as if they are too big for his feet, meaning in the figurative sense that the feeling is too intense to deal with. Hence, we are not able to move like we want to.

“I'd get that feeling like I was in the middle of a huge black ocean […]everything was incredibly far away from me” (36). This statement emphasises that Oskar is lost in his emotions, but again he can express his feelings in a very adult wayThe boy feels that his father's death forces him to feel bad. This becomes clear before one of his therapy sessions with Dr. Fein: “I didn't understand why I needed help, because it seemed to me that you should wear heavy boots when your dad dies, and if you aren't wearing heavy boots, then you need help” (200). He thinks that just going on with life would be like a betrayal to his father.

According to the death of his father, Oskar mentions that even after one year of the terrorist attacks “there was a lot of stuff that made [him] panicky like […] airplanes, Arab people, bags without owners [and] smoke […]” (36). It is obvious, that the boy has developed these fears after the ''worst day'' (12). Moreover, he is not able to express his anger and sorrow through words anymore. Most of these feelings are only set in his mind like in the part of the book where Oskar plays the Role of Yorrik in a school play of Hamlet. He imagines himself smashing the head of Jimmy Snyder, a bully who terrorises him at school, but soon bursts out into a tirade of violence, directed against all the things and people that weigh heavy upon his shoulders:

The only thing that makes any sense right then is my smashing JIMMY SNYDER's face. His blood.[...] I keep smashing the skull against his skull, which is also RON's skull (for letting MOM get on with life) and MOM's(for getting on with life) and DAD's skull (for dying) and GRANDMA's skull (for embarrassing me so much)and DR. FEIN' s skull (for asking if any good could come out of DAD's death) and the skulls of everyone else I know.[...] It would have been great. (Foer 146-147)

The quote presented is the only part of the novel, in which Oskar expresses his anger to such an extent. However, it has to be highlighted that Oskar only imagines the situation.

Searching for distraction, not knowing how to continue life, feeling lost and anger corresponds to the ‘acting out’ mode which LaCapra describes in his trauma theory. Furthermore, Oskar listens over and over to his father’s last messages on the answering machine, which demonstrates repetition of an event. As Caruth claims, he tries to bring the past – the voice of his dad – into the present. But, in the course of the story Oskar changes in his thinking as well as in his behaviour. He is not as angry as before and tries to find a way to continue his everyday life.

Oskar’s first step into the ‘working through’ phase to overcome his trauma, described by LaCapra, is when he confesses to the renter, who is actually his grandfather, that he could not answer the phone when his dad called from the World Trade Center: “He needed me, and I couldn’t pick up [the phone]” (301). For the first time Oskar tells someone elsethat he feels guilty andthat he was unable to be there for his father when he needed him most. After the confession it feels like the boy is relieved, as before Oskar says “[t]hat secret [is] a hole in the middle of me that every happy thing [falls] into” (71). At the very end, when Oskar realises that his mother did not tell her about the phone call she received from his father on the day of his deathtoo, Oskar can break free from his melancholic silence and makes himself familiar with the surrounding his trauma had gradually estranged him from (324). Consequently, the boy tells his mother that “[i]t’s OK if [she] fall[s] in love again” (324). Little by little the boy turns from a melancholic to a mourner and goes through a great development of ‘acting out’ to ‘working through’ (Ingersoll 64;Uytterschout, 233).

3.2 Grandfather Schell

“I haven’t always been silent […], I couldn’t keep my mouth shut, the silence overtook me like a cancer” (16). Thomas Schell Senior does not speak anymore. He lost the ability to express his words orallydue to the traumatic experience of the Dresden bombing in 1945, in which he has lost his love, Anna, and their unborn baby.Thomas Schell does not value himself a lot, he describes himself as a “fool” who is “worthless […], pathetic […] and helpless” (33). The loss of Grandfather Schell’s speaking does not happen abruptly but is rather a process. The first word he loses is the word ‘Anna’, which implies her importance (16) and innocence, so as if to reverse his own history of creation: In the beginning was no word. He describes that “she was locked inside of [him]” (16), as if he cannot let go of her.

Since Mr. Schell experienced this loss,he only communicates through written language. He has tattooed yes and no on the palms of his hands (260-261.) and besides, uses a little book where he writes down his thoughts or feelings to communicate with others, using one page per statement (19-27). In the evening he “read[s] through the pages of [his] life” (18).It seems obvious that his suffering from aphasia is unconsciously evoked by the trauma, but it is actually never said.The process of becoming silent could also be an unconscious penalty for him due to failing. This is underlined by the fact that he accuses himself for having not at least died with them (132). Therefore,it is imaginable that he forbids himself to live a normal life. However, when Thomas says: “I want[…] to pull the thread, unravel the scarf of my silence […]” (17), he rather sounds as if he would prefer to regain a normal life. Mr. Schell’s silence is complete by losing the last word: ‘I’. Thomas compares himself to old people who have also lost their ability to speak too and are desperately clinging to the last word they are able to say. In the very moment when he realises that clinging to this last word is “not a complaint [but] […] a prayer” (17), he loses ‘I’. He more and more loses himself and his human features to love, to pray and thus, to hope; which means in reverse he loses the reason to take on everyday life.

In all chapters of Grandfather Schell’s different pictures doorknobs appear. The first chapter, in which Thomas comes into view, contains the story of the Grandfather meeting his future wife, Anna’s sister, in New York. At this meeting she asks him to marry her (see Foer, 32). The key in the doorknob picture sticks diagonally in the keyhole implying a state between an opened and locked door. I assume the meeting of the two characters and the following marriage could be a turning point for both of them (29).

However, the key from the next lock, which follows in Thomas’ second chapter, is removed so, enabling the observer to spy through the keyhole and get a glimpse of the good times Mr. Schell had with Anna (115). This flashback appears to be light-hearted and joyful. In comparison the Schell’s marriage is restricted by rules the two made up for example, they “never talk about the past” (108). Additionally, they create “[…] ‘Nothing Places,’ in which one could be assured of complete privacy, […] they would be non-existent territories in the apartment in which one could temporarily cease to exist” (110). These restrictions make it hard to live carefree. Nevertheless, knowing their marriage is not a usual one, they can handle the situation. Concerning this, to me the door is a symbol for the past to which Mr. Schell does not have full access anymore. If Anna had been alive the door would have been opened, so he could easily look back.Even when he is married to Mrs. Schell, he cannot let go ofAnna and spies through the keyhole into the past.

Eventually, Thomas decides to leave his wife because “[he is] not in love with her” (135) and hence, he closes the door(134). Concerning that his wife always reminds him of Anna and thus of his past, leaving her could be seen as a step into the future to overcome his trauma.When Mr. Schell writes a letter to his son Thomas, Oskar’s father, he tells him what has happened to him in the past, the bombing and the horrible loss of people he loved. The doorknob of this chapter has not got a keyhole at all. Apparently, the image evokes the idea that the possibility to open the door is not given and therefore, the key which could have opened the door does not exist (anymore). The keyhole’s non-existence could also imply the refusal to let anybody come as close as Anna came and consequently, is unable to move on to the next level of his trauma process. He prevents the repetition of the damage Anna’s death has left behind. At the end of this chapter Thomas admits to himself that the marriage between him and Grandmother Schell could have been a turning point in his life. He claims “[he and his wife] could have lived differently” (216) but, in the same paragraph he says that this would have meant to make the “impossible possible” (216). This reveals that he never believed that this could ever have happened.


[1] The symptoms that may appear in case of PTSD areirritability, sleeping disturbances, nervousness, emotional numbness, difficulties in concentration, hypervigilance (see Flatten, G., 2004, 33).

[2] If not otherwise noted, quotes will be taken from this edition with the page numbers in brackets. Foer, Jonathan Safran. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. London: Hamish Hamilton, 2005.

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