Trauma in Jonathan Safran Foer’s "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"

Term Paper, 2015

29 Pages, Grade: 2,0


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.

Excerpt out of 29 pages


Trauma in Jonathan Safran Foer’s "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"
University of Koblenz-Landau  (Anglistik)
20th Century Novels
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trauma, jonathan, safran, foer’s, extremely, loud, incredibly, close
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Michelle Klein (Author), 2015, Trauma in Jonathan Safran Foer’s "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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