The Trauma of 9/11 and the Effects of Visual Writing in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Novel "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close"

Seminar Paper, 2020

22 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Jonathan Safran Foer’ s Novel Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
2.1 Trauma described within the Novel
2.2 Coping Mechanisms of the Protagonists

3 Writing Style
3.1 Examples for Visual Writing
3.2 The Falling Man Photograph

4 Reflection

1 Introduction

“We had everything to say to each other, but no ways to say it”, claims one of the protagonists after living through the traumatic events of the Dresden bombings, 40 years of separation with her husband, and the death of their son during 9/11 in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Novel Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (Foer 81). This quote refers to the emotional state of feeling the urge to talk about the unspeakable, but not being able to verbalize it. People, who fall victim to traumatic circumstances, often face difficulties in expressing their emotions because of their experiences. Literature about such traumatic events tries to formulate the “unspeakable”, which can be helpful during the healing process of the people concerned.

This paper is completed in the context of the seminar “Writing the Unspeakable: Trauma in North American Fiction”, led by Prof. XY at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, faculty for Translation Studies, Linguistics and Cultural Studies in Germersheim. The seminar focuses on the discussion of different types of writings about events, which were traumatic for the individual protagonists as well as culturally significant for the U. S. Emphasis is placed on communication difficulties because of the horrors of war, crime, and terror. The author of this paper chose the topic “The Trauma of 9/11 and the Effects of Visual Writing in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Novel Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” after reading Everything is Illuminated written by the same author. The unconventional usage of language, symbols, and external text features such as visual writing techniques inspired the author of this paper to read and analyze further literary works of Foer.

In the following chapters, a short introduction to Foer’s life and works will be given as well as a plot summary and an overview of the main motifs of the novel to build a knowledge basis for the chapters following. After that, the trauma of the characters will be described for the later analysis of the individual coping mechanisms. An analysis of Foer’s writing style follows with focus on visual writing and photographs. On this basis, the effects of Foer’s writing style on the reader will be outlined. The paper will be concluded with a summary and a personal reflection. The descriptive method will be used based on primary and secondary literature as well as the author’s observations to elaborate the research objects, which are the analyses of the individual traumas of the protagonists as well as the effects of Foer’s visual writing techniques on the reader.

2 Jonathan Safran Foer ’s Novel Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Jonathan Safran Foer, born on February 21, 1977 in Washington D. C. is an American novelist and short story writer, best known for his award-winning novels Everything is Illuminated (2002) and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2005), which were also adapted for screen. His writing style is characterized by the usage of non-traditional elements such as visual storytelling by means of external text features (Serafin).

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close tells the story of Oskar Schell, a nine-year-old boy with limitless imagination and creativity on the one hand and a troubled soul on the other. He loses his father, Thomas Schell Jr., in the attacks of 9/11 and tries to cope with his loss by navigating himself through a series of quests. Oskar lives in Manhattan together with his mother, who is often absent due to her job. Oskar’s overprotective grandmother lives across the street and visits him frequently. After finding a key in his father’s closet, Oskar takes the decision to investigate and find the corresponding lock to the key. He hopes to find out more about his father’s last days before the terror attacks on September 11, 2001 by doing so. His only clue is the word “Black”, which is written on the envelope the key was in. Assuming “Black” being the last name of the person, who can provide information about the lock and hence about his father, Oskar decides to visit every person in New York, whose last name is “Black”. In the course of his expedition, he interviews a variety of interesting and eccentric characters, being accompanied by his elderly neighbor Mr. Black. One of those characters is Abby Black, who seems to know more than she is willing to tell. Besides Oskar’s journey the relationships between him and his mother, his grandmother, and his grandfather are described more closely. In the beginning of the story, the grandfather is introduced as “the renter” living in the guest room of the grandmother’s apartment not being recognized by Oskar as his grandfather. Oskar’s quest goes on for eight months but does not bring him closer to the information he is searching for. After finding out that “the renter” is in fact his grandfather, he decides to dig up his father’s empty grave together with him and fill it with actual memories, as his body has never been found. The grandfather fills the empty coffin with all the letters, he wrote to his son throughout the years. Abby Black confesses that she knew the owner of the key all along. She admits that it belongs to her ex-husband, who tried to find the key by searching for Oskar’s father. The quest concludes within a reconnection of Oskar and his mother on an emotional level, who arranged the whole quest for him and made sure he would be safe and secure throughout his adventure. The secondary narration of the novel consists of overlapping stories, including the letters of Thomas Sr. to his son and those of Oskar’s grandmother to Oskar. The grandfather’s story begins in Dresden, where he falls in love with Anna Schmidt. She gets pregnant but dies during the bombings together with her family, except for her younger sister. Traumatized by the events, the grandfather loses his ability to speak and moves to New York, where he meets Anna’s sister and marries her. Their relationship can be described as strange and emotionally distant. After her getting pregnant, the grandfather cannot handle to situation and leaves his family. He returns after their son’s death and lives in the grandmother’s extra room as “the renter”. The grandmother’s story is also told in the form of her writing letters from the airport. She tries to explain the story of her life to Oskar and why every decision she ever made was influenced by self-doubt and depression. Her letters conclude with her leaving Oskar for a life together with her husband at the airport. This decision is made easier by knowing that the relationship of Oskar and his mother grew stronger after his quest (Foer).

The major themes addressed in this novel are inter alia the motifs of death, love, trauma, correspondence, family, communication and miscommunication as well as the motif of journey. Death overshadows the emotional state of each character on a personal and on an abstract level. The experiences of the Dresden bombings, for example, confronted Thomas Sr. with the truth of death as he loses his family and home during war. Later in life, he is haunted by the trauma of these events, which affects his ability to build close relationships to other people. Love connects the protagonists during their time of grief. Oskar’s journey across the boroughs of New York leads him towards the realization that making peace with his fathers’ death means making peace with the concept of love as he becomes closer to his mother along the way. The motif of trauma is obvious and omnipresent in the novel. The prime examples are the 9/11 terror attacks and the Dresden bombings during Second World War. The correspondence theme, especially the writing of letters to each other, reinforces the communication motif, which constitutes a link between the characters’ past and presence. The family motif connects the protagonists just like the motif of love does. Thomas Jr.’s death influences every family member as well as their further experiences concerning family structures. Oskar, for example, dislikes Ron, his mothers’ new (boy)friend, until he learns that Ron also had to face traumatic experiences concerning his family. The theme of communication and miscommunication is shown through the lies told throughout the story. Oskar, for example, hides the answering machine so that none of his family members would find out about the last messages of his father on the morning of the “worst day” as September 11, 2001 is called by Oskar. Also, Oskar misinterprets the behavior of his mother towards him. Not being able to read verbal and non-verbal signs, he thinks of her as a negligent person and undervalues her grief as a result of this fact. Throughout the novel, the protagonists learn to improve their communication skills by writing letters and notes for each other. Opening-up about feelings to friends and family members helps the protagonists to navigate through the complexity of grief. This is closely connected to the motif of journey as every protagonist goes on one individually – both literally and metaphorically. The most obvious journey is made by Oskar, who searches the lock for the key, overcoming deep dark fears along the way such as his fear of talking to strangers, being at crowed places and using elevators. His grandmother’s journey is of emotional nature from the beginning. Being haunted by the trauma of Second World War, she struggles with communication concepts and decides to focus on the lives of her child and grandchild instead of her own life to avoid a confrontation with her “demons” of the past (ibid.). The following chapter deals with the traumas of the protagonists of the novel. The individual traumas will be discussed leading to an analysis of the coping mechanisms of the characters.

2.1 Trauma described within the Novel

Trauma1 can be explained as a psychological injury, which is caused by a significantly negative event, which leads to symptomatic suffering. (McCann und Pearlman 10) Throughout the novel, three major traumatic events are mentioned, being the Dresden bombings, the attacks on Hiroshima, and on the World Trade Center. These affect the individual protagonists either on a literal level, an abstract level – or on both (Foer).

The Dresden bombings took place on the February 13, 1945 during Second World War. They lasted for two days and killed between 22.700 and 25.000 people, leaving countless people injured and traumatized. Additionally, large areas of the city and infrastructure were destroyed by heavy explosives and incendiary devices (Bergander). Thomas Schell Sr. lives through the horrors of war and describes some of the incidents within his letters, such as the lake, which was filled with dead bodies Greek: traúma: wound, injury (Kurtz 240) referring to the real incident of the River Elbe being targeted. He also dramatically illustrates the zoo being targeted and animals being killed. The Dresden zoo was de facto targeted on the first day of the bombings with the animals being gunned down later (Foer; Bergander). Besides the trauma of seeing people and animals being killed as well as the city being destroyed, Thomas Sr. loses his pregnant girlfriend, Anna, to the Dresden bombings (Foer). Shortly after that, he loses his ability to speak due to the traumatic events word by word until he becomes completely unable to verbalize his thoughts and starts to carry a pen and a notebook in order to communicate with his environment (Foer). The loss or impairment of language functionality is called “aphasia” and often results from severe emotional trauma, brain damage, or from a combination of both (Benson and Ardila 3; Luria 27). Neurobiologists suggest that the traumatized individual has access to words, but is not able to verbalize, which is coinciding with the condition of Thomas Sr. The words are present in his mind but cannot be expressed by his vocal system. This results from a combination of dysfunctional autonomic arousal as well as implicit memories, structural dissociation and disorganized attachment. Thinking of the traumatic events leads to “speechless terror”, which is not to explain by the person affected. The brain tries to verbalize the atrocities experienced but is unable to structure a clear narrative. The experiences being “beyond words” lead to a “shut down” of the system resulting in speechlessness. Traumatized patients often show an inhibition of the prefrontal cortex caused by autonomic responses to the traumatized mind leading to the language processing areas of the brain being cut off (Fisher 51). Thomas Sr. is likely to share his condition with numerous other war veterans and survivors of other traumatic events (ibid.).

Another traumatic event mentioned in the novel is the bombing of Hiroshima, which happened on August 6, 1945, at 8:15 am, when the first atomic bomb called “Little Boy” was dropped on Hiroshima. Approximately 80,000 people were killed by the impact of the bomb and 70 percent auf the city were destroyed. In the following days thousands of people died from their injuries, including burns, and radiation poisoning (Hersey 1-7). In the novel, Oskar plays a taped interview of a mother who lost her daughter on the day of the bombing. The Dresden bombings and the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima have in common that both attacks were massive in scale and characterized by bombs, explosions, and fire. In contrast to the terror attacks on 9/11, Foer describes these both incidents in detail – vividly mentioning blood, burning bodies, and death (Foer). Survivors of the atomic bomb tent to have psychological impairments including cognitive disturbances such as ubiquitous stress, persistent nervousness and therefore a high irritability accompanied by the inability to concentrate on one task for a long period of time. Often, people affected are tormented by sleep disturbances, for example in the form of nightmares due to the horrific images they had to see, and which are memorized in both – the consciousness and the subconsciousness (Kolk 10).


1 Greek: traúma: wound, injury (Kurtz 240)

Excerpt out of 22 pages


The Trauma of 9/11 and the Effects of Visual Writing in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Novel "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close"
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz  (Fachbereich Translations-, Sprach- und Kulturwissenschaft)
Writing the Unspeakable: Trauma in North American Fiction
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Everything is illuminated, Jonathen Safran Foer, KuWi, Trauma, US American Fiction
Quote paper
Inna Warkus (Author), 2020, The Trauma of 9/11 and the Effects of Visual Writing in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Novel "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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