Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close | Study Guide

Jonathan Safran

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Course Hero. "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close Study Guide." August 30, 2019. Accessed October 25, 2021. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Extremely-Loud-and-Incredibly-Close/.


Course Hero, "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close Study Guide," August 30, 2019, accessed October 25, 2021, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Extremely-Loud-and-Incredibly-Close/.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close | Themes


Tragedy and Grief

Each main character—as well as a number of minor characters—in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close experiences the tragic loss of a loved one and is forced to deal with the resulting grief. Although characters deal with loss in their own ways, Jonathan Safran Foer presents a few universal truths through their actions. The first is that even the most tragic and universal events—wars, acts of terrorism, natural disasters—are intensely personal. Every human life lost affects at least one person who is still living and often many more. Tragedy is the great multiplier, affecting one generation after the other. The bombing of Dresden kills Anna, which devastates Thomas and Grandma, which leads to Dad's growing up without a father. Then tragedy strikes again, which leads to Oskar's trying to figure out how to cope without his father. The ripples are small at first but grow bigger and bigger with each ensuing loss.

Foer also demonstrates that no one is immune to pain and loss. Many of the people Oskar meets along his journey have lost someone important to them, either through death or estrangement. Mr. Black and Ruth Black have lost spouses; William Black has lost his father and his wife; and Arnold Black has clearly gone through something tragic, for he can't even look at Oskar without crying. Others are enduring different kinds of tragedies, such as Aaron Black, who is gravely ill.

The characters in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close can be divided into two groups: those who allow grief to dictate the terms of their lives and those who process it but continue living. Thomas and Ruth Black are in the first camp. Even when presented with the opportunity for a family and something resembling happiness, Thomas chooses to cut himself off from the rest of the world and mourn Anna for the remainder of his days. Ruth inadvertently does the same thing by moving to the observation deck of the Empire State Building and refusing to come down. Grandma, however, does the opposite. She, too, mourns Anna's death and loses herself in grief for many years before she realizes she has a purpose beyond lamenting her sister's death. It may feel as though her life is over, but such sorrow doesn't preclude second chances. Getting pregnant is Grandma's way of making a positive step forward. Unlike Thomas, she takes the risk of loving again. Mom also takes this risk by privately grieving her husband at the same time as she attempts to form new friendships and support systems.

At the beginning of the novel, Oskar shares Thomas's approach to grieving. He dedicates himself to upholding his father's memory and refusing to move on. "I'm not trying to find ways to be happy, and I won't," he tells Mom in "Heavy Boots Heavier Boots." Like Thomas, he doesn't think it's possible to remember someone and be happy at the same time. His opinion changes as he searches for the lock that goes with the key he found in his father's closet. Walking around New York City and meeting new people make Oskar feel positive or at least piques his curiosity. Although he meets people such as Ruth, who have let their grief rule their lives, he also meets people such as Mr. Black, who delight in memories of their loved ones and finally allow themselves "back into the world." Foer doesn't explicitly say which road Oskar ultimately ends up taking, but he likely will choose optimism while still honoring the memory of his father.

Living with Regrets

Grandma's and Thomas's stories are both stories of regret. Thomas regrets the life he didn't get to live with Anna and the life he chose not to live with Grandma. Grandma regrets not being honest with Thomas from the beginning and for never telling Anna how much she loved her. Thomas's story is a cautionary tale of what happens when regret consumes a person's life to the extent they are unable to do anything but mourn what could have been. Grandma's story, however, is more complex. She has lived as best as she can, yet she still has pangs of regret about how she behaved in the past. In most instances, she is upset with herself for not taking action. She should have told Thomas she wanted a child, she should have told Anna she loved her, and she should have told Thomas she wasn't OK. She kept her feelings hidden because she didn't want to make anyone uncomfortable. Her action, therefore, resulted in her own discomfort, with which she has lived throughout her life. Anna would have died whether or not Grandma shared her feelings when she experienced them, but Grandma wouldn't have had to fret about the "what ifs" for the next 50 years. Grandma doesn't want Oskar to make the same mistake. Therefore, she tells him in "My Feelings (4)" how necessary it is to tell people they are loved while the chance still exists.

Although they chose different paths, Grandma and Thomas both regret the way they have lived their lives. "I would do things differently," Grandma writes to Oskar in "My Feelings (4)." She would have kissed her piano teacher, jumped on the bed with her friend, and sent "ugly photographs, thousands of them." She would have lived. Thomas shares this sentiment, although he realizes it much earlier. "If I'd had two lives, I would have spent one of them" with Grandma, he writes to Dad in "Why I'm Not Where You Are 5/21/63 (2)." He knew he was making the wrong choice when he decided to dedicate his life to grief instead of his growing family, but he felt powerless to stop himself. When he returns to New York City, he has a second chance with Grandma. Despite his fears and the difficulties of the past, he, too, is ready to live.

Communication and Connections

None of the characters in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close shows a command of communication skills. Thomas can't, or won't, speak; Oskar buries "his feelings deep inside;" and Grandma pretends everything is OK when it isn't. In each case, lack of communication leads to isolation. Thomas is isolated from the world because he can communicate only by hand gestures or written words. Within their apartment, he and Grandma tacitly agree that certain topics—Anna, the bombing of Dresden, their lives before moving to New York City—are off limits. Much of the time they don't even know what the other one is saying either because Thomas uses confusing hand gestures or, to express their feelings, they both use sentences Thomas has already written in one of his many notebooks. These inadequate media result in conversations that don't convey sufficiently what the characters really mean. Even though they live in the same apartment, they drift further and further apart.

Lack of communication isolates Oskar as well. As his search for the lock brings him closer to Dad, a distance grows between him and Mom. Oskar never tells Mom what he's doing with his spare time, so he assumes she simply doesn't care about him when she doesn't ask where he's going every Saturday and Sunday. Mom never tells him that she knows what he's doing, because she wants to allow him the privacy and space he seems to require for his mission. Mom has good intentions, but they leave Oskar feeling unwanted and unloved. Furthermore, Mom and Oskar don't communicate effectively about their grief. Oskar has deep feelings but holds them inside until he practically explodes and usually ends up hurting Mom's feelings. Mom and Oskar don't talk about Dad much because both prefer to grieve privately. Because of this privacy, Oskar thinks Mom doesn't miss Dad anymore and maybe never loved him in the first place. Thus, Oskar resents her all the more. In the book's final chapter, "Beautiful and True," Mom finally tells Oskar about the last phone call she received from Dad. This piece of information, coupled with the knowledge that she knew about Oskar's quest all along, makes him feel close to her once again.

One of Oskar's rules for his quest is that he will always be truthful with the people he meets along the way. Because he obeys this rule, he forms connections with a variety of New Yorkers of different races, income levels, and ages. In searching for his deceased father, he has formed a support network of adults who all care about him. Through Oskar, Jonathan Safran Foer demonstrates that speaking truthfully about one's pain brings people closer together. Even before Mr. Black joins him, Oskar isn't isolated while crossing from one borough to the next. He has all of New York City behind him.

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