The Meaning of the Photographs in the Novel "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"

Term Paper, 2018

20 Pages, Grade: 2,0



Table of Contents

Title Page

Executive Sunnnary


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Topic Description

3. Photographs of Characters Oskar Misses
3.1 Oskar's Father
3.2 Oskar's Grandfather

4. Photographs of Characters Oskar Admires
4.1 Stephen Hawking
4.2 Oskar's Cat

5. Photographs of Characters Oskar Superlicially Knows
5.1 Abby Black
5. 2 Two Cavemen and an Astronaut

6. Conclusion

7. Critical Appraisal

Reference List


Executive Summary:

In this resume, the whole report will be summarized. The photographs that will be analyzed have been taken out of the novel "Extremely loud and incredibly close", written by Jonathan Safran Foer and became an international bestseller.

The protagonist and simultaneously narrator of the novel Oskar Shell is a nine year old boy who is on a journey to find out the purpose of a key from his deceased father who died in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

Oskar is trying to find out what the left key is for and he is doing that by visiting as many people as he can, with the means of interviewing and photo graphing them.

The basic aim of this analysis was to achieve a deeper look into Oskar's inside, so that I would gain more information about his character than the written pages in Foer's novel offers.

Moreover, I wanted to prove that most of the chosen photographs which appear in the protagonist's scrapbook, whether they are taken by himself or by others, are connected to Thomas Schell Jr. and underline Oskar's emotional instability after his father's death. One of my major upcoming questions was if he can escape his difficult past through photo graphing or if it worsens his fragile condition.

To gain enough knowledge about photography, I skimmed through the book of Susan Sonntag "On Photography" and an applicable newspaper article composed by Jim Richardson about "The View from the Back".

After skimming Sontag's book, I read the novel of Safran again and analyzed the photographs with the help of my existing analyzation skills learned in school and the newly acquired knowledge from the books for my research on photography.

As a result of this analysis, one can say that the chosen analyzed photographs in the scrapbook "Stuff That Happened to Me" let to a broader knowledge about Oskar. Through the photographs he took or printed out from the internet, it becomes clear that Oskar could not get over his beloved father's death, since nearly all of the pictures have something to do with him.

However, they also show that Oskar is a very talented photographer because he respects the wishes of his models. Depending on the model, he either lets them their freedom because he knows about the truthfulness of a picture or he asks them several questions about them, in order to establish a relationship between model and photographer. The photographs also point out that Oskar is very curious and has wide interests, especially in science and in history. If the author had not used photographs in his novel, it would have been more difficult for the reader to relate to Oskar's world, his thoughts and his feelings.


In the upcoming section, I am going to explain the aim of this report. The report is written in our PM7 class Effective Communication Skills and is supposed to teach us, the main aspects of writing an academic report.

As the choice of topic was completely our free decision, I decided to write about a topic which I am passionate about, namely about a book.

I chose to compose my report about the meaning of the photographs in the novel "Extremely loud and incredibly close" by Jonathan Safran Foer.

With the help of a book about photography written by Susan Sonntag and an interesting article about photographs from behind from Jim Richardson, I analyzed the importance of the photographs the protagonist of the novel took.

1. Introduction

In Jonathan Safran Foer's novel "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" photographs help the major character, Oskar Schell to document his thoughts and feelings. Oskar is an intelligent and curious boy, so the photographs he collects in a scrapbook named "Stuff That Happened to Me" are rich in diversity.

First there are many pictures which refer directly or indirectly to family members, like his father and his grandfather. Moreover, Oskar collects pictures of people he is not related to but admires a lot, like Stephen Hawking or his cat. The third group of his photographs includes strangers whom the boy briefly or never met at all. Although not every photograph in the novel can be divided into these three groups, I will only focus on selected photographs according to the three groups.

This report will argue that every single group has its own function and reveals different things about Oskar. While photographs connected to his father or grandfather give away something about Oskar's past and his way he of dealing with his loss, the second group, pictures about admired ones helps to become a better image ofOskar's personality and his emotions. The third group that contains photographs of strangers represents his social interaction with foreigners and his interests.

Through analyzing some particular photographs in their contexts, I will achieve a deeper look into Oskar's inside, so that I will gain more information about this character than the written pages in Foer's novel offers.

Moreover, I want to prove that most of the chosen photo graphs which appear in the protagonist's scrapbook, whether they are taken by himself or by others, are connected to Thomas Schell Jr. and underline Oskar's emotional instability after his father's death.

2. Topic Description

My report for the course "Effective communication skills I" will be about photography in the novel ,Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" by Jonathan Safran Foer.

I will take a look at the protagonist's notebook "Stuff that Happened to Me" and analyze the photos by focusing on their function and their meaning.

Writing about this topic was chosen by me, due to the reason that I read the novel only recently and this book is really inspiring for me and since the picture of the falling man has already been discussed several times, I will rather concentrate on the remaining pictures of the novel, which in my opinion are also extremely meaningful.

First, I will try to fmd out why the narrator chose these particular photographs and in how far they are connected to the plot. I will examine the relationship between Oskar and the photographed persons, objects or events as well as emotions or thoughts he intends to illustrate with his pictures.

In addition to that, I will determine Oskar's photography technique, what photographing itself means to him, and what he attempts to achieve by collecting pictures in a notebook.

One of my major questions will be if he can escape his difficult past through photographing or if it worsens his fragile condition.

3. Photographs of Characters Oskar Misses

3.1 Oskar's Father

Oskar's interest in photography can be traced back to his intense relationship to his father, Thomas Schell Jr. who died in the attack of9/11. Father and son had a special bond together, for they did numerous activities together which only included the two of them, like their frequent search for mistakes in the newspaper or special riddles the father asked the child. When Oskar fmds a key in an envelope with the name "Black" on it after his father's death, he believes that he found clues for another riddle and wants to fmd out what the key is for, so he goes on a search. His camera accompanies him throughout the whole quest, in order to document his results. The hunt after the lock becomes very important to Oskar because he now feels connected to his father whom he misses a lot, "Every time I left our apartment to go searching for the lock, I became a little lighter, because I was getting closer to Dad" (Foer 2012: 52).

The photo graphs show that he is trying hard to fmd the answer and fulfill his father's expectations. In the past when the father riddled his son, Oskar had always shown his progress in detail to his parent and was excited about his reaction, "'Here's what I've found,' I said, pushing my pussy off the table with the tray of evidence. [... ] 'Can't you even tell me ifl'm on the right track?'" (Foer 2012: 9).

After the father's death, the child wants to hold on to this tradition, thus he keeps collecting evidences of his search. However; he does not want to show his efforts of the current investigation to anyone else, not even his mother because solving riddles had always been a father-son action. The boy replaces the real evidences with pictures of them, for he wants to hold his father up to date and aims to make him proud, because according to Susan Sontag (1977: 3) "Photographs furnish evidence".

Most of the photographs in the novel, at least the ones Oskar takes during his search after the lock, are in some way related to Thomas Schell Jr. Yet there are two pictures in "Stuff That Happened to Me" which Oskar explicitly connects to his deceased father. The first one is a shot of a tennis player from the newspaper Thomas Schell Jr. read the day before he was killed. Cutting this photograph out of the news and pasting it into his book, is an attempt to feel his father's nearness, to touch what he touched before. The photograph was cut out of a newspaper which plays a striking role in the father- son relationship and brings back fond memories of his father, due to the reason that they used to search together for mistakes in it.

The second essential photograph about Thomas Schell Jr. is a picture of a man from behind. Oskar photographed this stranger because he reminded him of his father. He cannot fully accept that his father is dead; therefore, keeps on searching and seeing his face everywhere. After the September 11 attacks, Oskar continues to seek for clues about his father's fate. On the one hand he looks at several videos and pictures on the internet to find actual proof of his father's death, on the other hand he uses his fantasy to speculate about the many possible ways his father could have died, "You saw in some of the pictures that people jumped together and held hands. So maybe they did that" (Foer 2012: 196).

3.2 Oskar's Grandfather

The other person who is strongly connected to Oskar's photography is his grandfather, even though Oskar never met him consciously. The camera the protagonist always carries with him belonged to his grandfather and is very important to the boy. Every time when Oskar pulls out the camera to take a picture with it, he refers to it as "grandpa's camera" (Foer 2012: 99).

After the grandfather learned that his son was one of the victims of the terroristic attacks on 9/11, he returns home and fmally gets to know his grandchild.

Oskar however, does not know that the silent, old man whom he accidently met is related to him. Nevertheless, Oskar immediately decides to trust him because he is fascinated by him, especially by his hands which are tattooed with the words "YES" and "NO", out of this rea­ son he takes a picture of them and puts it into his scrapbook.

Before he photographs the hands, Oskar asks his grandpa -only known as the renter to him­ questions about his tattoos, for instance "But why just YES and NO?" [ ... ] "What about 'I'll think about it' and 'probably' and 'it's possible'?" (Foer 2012: 257). These questions show that Oskar is very interested in his models and wants to know everything about them before taking pictures. This corresponds with Susan Sontag's claim that "To photograph is to appro­ priate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge-and, therefore, like power" (Sontag 1977: 2).

In this sense, photography can be seen as an appropriate hobby for Oskar because he is curious, eager to know and is not shy to ask questions.

Despite the fact that Oskar does not get to know his grandfather until the age of nine they have a lot in common. Oskar permanently uses the camera his grandpa left behind, because they share a common interest in photography. The grandfather used to take pictures of door­ knobs, an act that is met with incomprehension by his wife, "He took a picture of every door­ knob in the apartment. Everyone. As if the world and its future depended on each doorknob. As if we would be thinking about doorknobs should we ever actually need to use the pictures of them" (Foer 2012: 175). Thomas Schell Sr. took those pictures, so he and his wife would be able to rebuild their apartment if anything happened.

Like Oskar he collected the photographs in a book that he always took with him. He feared that an accident might destroy the unique order he and his wife established together and wanted everything to remain the same, since he is unable to deal with changes. For the same reason, he left his wife when she became pregnant. As it can be seen in numerous passages in the novel, the elder Thomas Schell is traumatized by the past, as he survived the bombing of Dresden where his girlfriend was killed, henceforth he is afraid ofloss. The doorknobs, on which he is focusing so much, can be understood as the repressed impulse to go and leave everything behind.

His grandson is also very interested in doors and takes pictures of them during his search after the matching lock to his key. Just as his grandfather, Oskar has to deal with a difficult past because he also lost a person he loved. His pictures of doors show his progress in fmding clues for the riddle his father gave to him. Taking pictures of the large amount of possible locks in New York City demonstrates his strong will and his love for his father. "I tried the key in all of the doors, even though he said he didn't recognize it [ ... ] It's that at the end of my search I wanted to be able to say: I don't know how I could have tried harder" (Foer 2012: 160).

All in all, Oskar's father and grandfather are very important for analyzing the photographs in the novel because the child feels inspired and motivated by them. With his photos he aims to keep the relationship upright and feels connected to both of them. Many of the pictures in the novel are related to the young and the old Thomas Schell; they reflect Oskar's happy memo­ ries as well as his sad emotions.

4. Photographs of Characters, Oskar Admires

4.1. Stephen Hawking

There is another male character that plays a striking role in Oskar's life, namely the physicist Stephen Hawking. Oskar is very impressed by him and refers numerous times to him. He also imitates his significant voice sometimes, asks himself in difficult situations what Hawking would do in his position and Hawking's "A Brief History of Time" is Oskar's favorite book; he reads it all the time. Hawking functions as an idol for Oskar, who calls himself an "amateur astronomer" (Foer 2012: 99).

To show his admiration, the nine-year-old writes many fan letters to Stephen Hawking. "I thought he wasn't going to respond, because he was such an amazing person and I was so normal" (Foer 2012: 11). In fact, he only receives automatic replies with Hawking's promise to answer soon. It takes the astrophysicist two years to respond appropriately, but he finally writes a very personal and honest letter back to him. Oskar however, never comments on the letters he receives from him. The reader does not learn whether Oskar is disappointed by the automatic replies or glad about the personal one. The boy writes letters to other famous scientists as well; asking them to be their assistant, nonetheless Hawking is the only one whose photograph appears in "Stuff that Happened to Me".

This photograph is interesting, because it is no ordinary portrait of Stephen Hawking. Oskar chose a picture of him where his face is seen through a camera. This could be a hint that he secretly wishes to be the one who took that specific photo and encourages his imagination that he one day could meet and then take a picture of his idol with his own camera. Moreover, the photograph is tiny, and Hawking seems a bit helpless because he does not look into the camera. Oskar decided to put this picture in his notebook, for it fits his image of the physicist. When he learned about the Hawking's illness, he asks him in a letter if he could be his "protege" (Foer 2012: 11). Here it becomes clear that Oskar conceives a strong affection for Hawking and tries to protect him, because he does not want to lose him like he lost his father. The protagonist feels guilty for his father's death and believes that he failed to protect him. He does not want to repeat that mistake, so he offers Hawking his protection.

4.2. Oskar's Cat

Oskar's cat, named after the famous inventor Buckminster Fuller is also crucial to Oskar. There is a photograph of it in "Stuff That Happened to Me" where the cat jumps out of a window. The fact that the cat is jumping shows that Oskar is curious and interested in physics, as he explains to his classmates how"[... ] cats reach terminal velocity by making themselves into little parachutes[ ... ]" (Foer 2012: 190). This photograph is, like many others also connected to Oskar's father who might have jumped out of the World Trade Center. The cat and the experiment represent Oskar's wish that his father could have survived falling from so many floors, like his cat did. This allusion becomes clearer if one compares the photo graph of the falling cat with those of the falling man which appear several times in his collection. He captured the photograph in this dangerous moment because it makes him proud of his cat and reminds him of his father's death.

However, the fall is not the only connection between his father and his pet. Buckminster is always there when Oskar talks about his father. For instance, he pushed it of the table to show his father the evidences of his search, or he petted it while he was listening to his father's last messages on the answering machine before he died. Buckminster is Oskar's best friend and he loves it a lot because it was always there for him. "[ ... ] Buckminster's paws were on my eyelids. He must have been feeling my nightmares" (Foer 2012: 74) is another passage where the intense relationship to the animal and Oskar's trust in it are outlined.

Both Hawking and Buckrninster appear in Oskar's scrapbook to illustrate his affection and interest in them. He is fascinated by both of them and mentions them very often. The photographs show Oskar's passion for physics but do also represent his stubbornness and dreams for the future related to Hawking. The pictures also show vulnerability and Oskar's compulsion to protect them. He perpetuates the astrophysicist and the cat in "Stuff That Happened to Me" because he wants to memorize them. In this sense, the two pictures also relate to Thomas Schell Jr. because after his father's death Oskar is worried that he will lose other loved ones, too.


Excerpt out of 20 pages


The Meaning of the Photographs in the Novel "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"
Fontys University of Applied Sciences Venlo  (International Business)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
General University Report, Report PM5 Effective Communication
Quote paper
Anonymous, 2018, The Meaning of the Photographs in the Novel "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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