The Function of Madness in Elie Wiesel's Works

Term Paper, 2007

27 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction

2. Elie Wiesel

3. Wiesel’s View on Madness

4. Madness in Wiesel’s Works
4.1 Night, Dawn, Day
4.1.1 Night
4.1.2 Dawn
4.1.3 Day
4.2 Twilight

5. Conclusion

6. Works Cited

1. Introduction

“Why do I write? Perhaps in order not to go mad. Or, on the contrary, to touch the bottom of madness.”[1] As this quotation indicates, madness plays a major role in Elie Wiesel’s thoughts and, consequently, in his writing. Being a Holocaust survivor, Wiesel went through hell. He made experiences which were so atrocious that an escape into madness would seem the only possible way to stay (physically) alive. Yet, Elie Wiesel did not go mad in the common sense of madness; and reading his writings, one realizes soon that he has a somehow extended understanding of madness.

Madmen, questions on madness, and madness itself appear in most of his works. Wiesel says he seems to attract madmen, even in real life.[2] This started in his early childhood, when Moshe the Beadle, a homeless drunkard of Sighet, frequently joined the Wiesel family for their Sabbath meals.[3] Later, Elie Wiesel made several experiences which led him to suppose that madmen have a clearer sight and a deeper knowledge of things.[4] This, of course, leads to the question whether it is indeed the madmen who are mad, or rather all the others. Going even further, he writes that the whole world might have gone mad and eventually he considers whether God may be mad, too.[5]

Still, one question remains: What is the function of madness in Wiesel’s stories? Why does it seem as if he could not do without madness? What does he want to convey to his readers by sticking to his topic of madness?

This paper will deal with the function of madness in Wiesel’s writing, focusing on his early ‘novels’ Night (La Nuit, 1958), Dawn (L’Aube, 1961) and Day [better known as The Accident] (Le Jour, 1962), and Wiesel’s number one novel on madness, Twilight (Le Crépuscule au loin, 1988).

When preparing this paper, I also read and analyzed The Town Beyond the Wall and The Gates of the Forest. During the process of writing, however, I noticed that bringing in all six novels would be too much material for this paper, so I decided to limit myself to Wiesel’s first three ‘novels’ and Twilight. Nonetheless, a few very pointing examples from the other two novels will be included to underline certain statements.

My analysis in this paper will begin with a short description of Elie Wiesel’s life since it plays an important role in most of his stories, especially in his early works (later he tried to avoid autobiographical similarities).[6] According to Wiesel, he only writes as a witness and because he is a witness;[7] that is why lots of autobiographical information can be found in his stories – even if it becomes less obvious in his later works. Wiesel’s main protagonists are mostly similar to the young Elie: they are making or have made comparable experiences before, during, and after the Holocaust; they come from the same little town and live in the same places, such as Paris, New York, and the USA.[8] The characters and the outcome of each story reveal Wiesel’s thoughts and opinions.

In the second part of this paper, I will investigate Wiesel’s understanding of madness. This will clarify the importance of madness for Elie Wiesel and it will show that, for Wiesel, madness is much more than just a mental disorder in the common sense.

Having given some insight into Wiesel’s past and in his comprehension of madness, I will turn to the actual analysis of the four novels. I will examine the madmen, madwomen, and other occurrences of madness in each novel, and interpret my results regarding their respective function.

In my conclusion, I will show that there are several functions of madness in Wiesel’s novels: he wants to show us that in our insane world faith, even if it sometimes seems like sheer madness too, is important to survive and to overcome insanity. For him, mystical madness is essential, because it reminds him that God is here. For him, most madmen are messengers of God who are closer to God and thus closer to the truth than anyone else. Nevertheless, he also writes about those who are insane because of physical and/or psychological torture. Many Holocaust survivors suffer from their experiences which will not leave their thoughts; Wiesel believes that the belief in God – mystical madness – is the only way to overcome this unhealthy kind of madness.[9]

2. Elie Wiesel

Eliezer Wiesel was born in Sighet, Romania, on September 30, 1928. He grew up in a pious and well-educated family, being the third of four children; the only boy. His father, Shlomo Wiesel, owned a grocery store. He was a community leader who helped Polish Jews flee from the Germans even though he knew that this was dangerous for himself. Although he was arrested for it once and probably tortured in prison, he continued helping the refugees after his release.[10] Young Elie loved reading religious texts and writing Torah and Talmud commentary.[11] Due to his strong artistic inclinations, he was on his way towards becoming a writer of some kind even before his Holocaust experiences.[12] Shortly after his Bar Mizwa, young Elie started studying the kabbalah although his father thought he was much too young. They made a deal that Elie would be allowed to study mysticism as long as he would not neglect his studies of the Talmud with its commentaries. His father’s second demand was that he study modern Hebrew.[13] Two of Wiesel’s fellow kabbalah students fell severely ill due to their mystic practices and Elie would later admit that he might have shared their fate had not the Germans invaded Sighet in spring 1944. He even says that it is ironic to realize that the murderers had “saved” him in a way.[14]

This irony becomes even stronger when looking at the absence of any feeling of safety which was about to come and stay with Elie for months. He and his family were deported in April 1944, together with fifteen thousand other Jews from Sighet.[15] They were shipped to Auschwitz-Birkenau where Elie’s mother and his younger sister were murdered in the gas chambers upon their arrival. Elie’s older sisters were separated from Elie and his father who managed to stay together. Their being together gave them the strength to stay alive in spite of the hard work, the tiny food rations, the inhuman treatment, and the long marches from one camp to another through the icy cold. Until the end, they helped each other and took care of each other, even more so when one was sick. Unfortunately, Shlomo died of dysentery and starvation only shortly before Buchenwald was liberated on April 11, 1945.[16] Like most Holocaust survivors, Elie Wiesel carries a feeling of guilt within himself because he survived and so many others did not. He also feels bad that he could not prevent his father’s death or at least keep the oppressors from hitting his dying father.

After his liberation, Elie wanted to go to Palestine but the British Government prevented Jewish immigration to the Palestine Mandate. He was thus put on a train bound for Belgium with about four hundred other Jewish orphans. However, the train was diverted to France where Elie was settled in Normandy. He found out that both of his older sisters had survived the camps and was reunited with them soon. In Normandy, Elie Wiesel began his secondary education and learned French which was to become his “language of freedom and literature”.[17]

Wiesel stayed in France, most of the time working as a journalist in Paris, until 1956 when he decided to move to New York in order to write about the United Nations for an Israeli newspaper.[18] In New York, Wiesel was hit by a taxi and was severely injured. He was still in a wheelchair when he left the hospital after weeks.[19] Meanwhile, Wiesel’s residency permit had expired and so had his passport for stateless persons which had been issued in France.[20] Consequently, he would have had to fly to France in order to get a new passport with which he could have renewed his residency permit in the United States. Since he was still not healthy enough to travel, he begged both the French embassy and the US authorities to help him somehow and feared to be deported again. Eventually, an American immigration officer asked him why he did not just become an American citizen. Five years later, Elie Wiesel was finally not stateless anymore.[21]

He has continued his career as a writer which was inaugurated by François Mauriac in 1955: he had told Wiesel that it was his duty to talk and write about his Holocaust experiences.[22] Wiesel’s first literary experiment with his Holocaust experiences was in Yiddish: Un di Velt Hot Geshvign from 1956. Mauriac encouraged Wiesel to make his experiences accessible also to the non-Jewish world, whereupon he shortened his work and translated it into French: La Nuit.[23] Although Wiesel has been a US citizen for a long time now, his novels were all written in French. His wife, Marion Wiesel whom he married in 1969, translates them into English.[24]

Elie Wiesel’s main work is writing literature; however, he has also worked as a college professor.[25] In 1986, Elie Wiesel received the Nobel Peace Prize for his human rights activism and his writing.[26]

3. Wiesel’s View on Madness

In Wiesel’s writings, we find many different displays of madness. There is for example Moshe the Beadle, a homeless drunkard who is often described as a kind of visionary, even before the war. He appears with a slightly different name in a number of Wiesel’s novels.[27] A different example is Madame Schächter in Night whose madness is the consequence of her being separated from her husband and her son before the deportation. She is completely out of her mind, nevertheless, she envisions fire which is not yet to be seen, smelled or felt. Sarah in Day is mad because of her experiences in the camps. At first she appears normal but later we understand that she is severely mentally damaged. In Dawn, one character was saved from being arrested and killed by pretending to be mad. He pretended to believe that he was dead and stayed at an insane asylum for a while. The inmates of the Mountain Clinic in Twilight all believe that they are someone else, most of them biblical characters. All of the characters mentioned above are in a way isolated from society because they tell stories which other people cannot believe or do not want to hear because they are afraid they may be true after all.

At first, these madmen and madwomen seem to just have lost touch with reality in the ordinary sense of clinical madness. However, this is not the kind of madness which Wiesel is primarily concerned about.[28] In most cases he describes the madness of those who see life in such a different perspective that they evoke great fear in the so-called sane. This fear leads them to incarcerate the ‘madmen’ or even to kill them. “The Hebrew prophets got this sort of treatment from the defenders of the status quo, Jesus of Nazareth got it from the Romans, Archbishop Romero got it from the military, and six million Jews got it from the Nazis.”[29] In each of these cases it was fear that lead to evil; a growing fear that the others may be right after all, which would destroy all truths of the past.[30] Wiesel sometimes calls this kind of madness ‘mystical madness’ because it has much to do with the essential questions of life and with faith.[31] However, these madmen have such a different view on life, the world, and its workings that listening to them and taking them seriously must lead to the point where we ask ourselves: “[S]ince we cannot both be right, what if they are right and we are wrong?[32]


[1] Wiesel, Elie. “Why I Write.” Confronting the Holocaust: The Impact of Elie Wiesel. Ed. Alvin Rosenfeld and Irving Greenberg. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978. 200.

[2] Wiesel, Elie. And the Sea is Never Full: Memoirs, 1969-. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999. 159.

[3] Ibid. 23.

[4] Lamont, Rosette C. “Elie Wiesel’s Poetics of Madness.” Elie Wiesel: Between Memory and Hope. Ed. Carol Rittner. New York, London: New York University Press, 1990. 130-152. 133.

[5] E.g. in: Wiesel, Elie. The Town Beyond the Wall. New York: Schocken Books, 1982: “Pedro broke into applause, laughing: ‘I like you, my friend! You’re trying to drive God mad. That’s why I like you.’ I thought: And God too is trying to drive me mad.” (94); “Michael wondered: is Menachem crazy too? Some, like Spinoza, are God-intoxicated. Others, like the prophets, are God-demented. And Menachem? Not intoxicated, no. But demented? Why not? How is Menachem different? ‘God is not madness,’ he had said. Who knows? And if, after all, He were? That would explain so much.” (137).

[6] Wiesel, Elie. And the Sea. 362.

[7] Wiesel, Elie. “The Solitude of God.” Elie Wiesel: Between Memory and Hope. Ed. Carol Rittner. New York, London: New York University Press, 1990. 1-7. 6.

[8] Wiesel, Elie. Alle Flüsse fließen ins Meer: Autobiographie. Hamburg: Hoffmann und Campe, 1995. 50.

[9] Rosenfeld, Alvin Hirsch. “The Problematics of Holocaust Literature.” Literature of the Holocaust. Ed. Harold Bloom. Broomall, PA: Chelsea House of Publishers, 2004. 42.

[10] Sternlicht, Sanford. Student Companion to Elie Wiesel. Westport, CT, London: Greenwood Press, 2003. 4.

[11] Ibid. 5.

[12] Schwab, George. “Elie Wiesel: Between Jerusalem and New York.” Elie Wiesel: Between Memory and Hope. Ed. Carol Rittner. New York, London: New York University Press, 1990. 20-29. 21.

[13] Wiesel, Elie. Alle Flüsse. 55-56.

[14] Ibid. 61.

[15] Sternlicht. 4.

[16] Ibid. 6.

[17] Ibid. 7.

[18] Ibid. 10.

[19] Wiesel, Elie. Alle Flüsse. 408.

[20] Ibid. 409.

[21] Ibid. 410.

[22] Ibid. 366.

[23] Sternlicht. 9.

[24] Ibid. 11.

[25] Ibid. 12.

[26] Ibid. 4.

[27] E.g. in Night, and in: Wiesel, Elie. The Town Beyond the Wall: “‘Moishe – I speak of the real Moishe, the one who hides behind the madman – is a great man. He is far-seeing. He sees worlds that remain inaccessible to us. His madness is only a wall, erected to protect us – us: to see what Moishe’s bloodshot eyes see would be dangerous.’” (14).

[28] MacAfee Brown, Robert. “Twilight: Madness, Caprice, Friendship, and God.” Elie Wiesel: Between Memory and Hope. Ed. Carol Rittner. New York, London: New York University Press, 1990. 177-187. 179.

[29] Ibid. 180.

[30] This problem is nicely described in: Wiesel, Elie. The Town Beyond the Wall: “‘That’s good,’ Moishe said. ‘You should never be afraid of other people, even if they’re crazy beyond the pale. The one man you have to be afraid of is yourself. But immediately the grave question arises: who says that the others aren’t you? Who says Moishe the Madman isn’t you?’” (15).

[31] Cargas, Harry James. “Drama Reflecting Madness: The Plays of Elie Wiesel.” Elie Wiesel: Between Memory and Hope. Ed. Carol Rittner. New York, London: New York University Press, 1990. 153-162. 156.

[32] MacAfee Brown, Robert. “Twilight: Madness, Caprice, Friendship, and God.” 180.

Excerpt out of 27 pages


The Function of Madness in Elie Wiesel's Works
University of Hamburg  (Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
Holocaust in American Art
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ISBN (eBook)
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Function, Madness, Elie, Wiesel, Works, Holocaust, American
Quote paper
Kirsten Nath (Author), 2007, The Function of Madness in Elie Wiesel's Works, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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