Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

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Superstition and Ritual Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Mortality and the Purpose of Life Theme Icon
Puzzles and Cleverness Theme Icon
Trauma and Guilt Theme Icon
Superstition and Ritual Theme Icon
Love and Family Theme Icon
Language and Communication Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Superstition and Ritual Theme Icon

Oskar maintains a long catalog of rituals that regulate his behavior. Oskar’s time, in some ways, is remarkably unstructured throughout the novel—he spend his days alone, wandering around the city—he constructs very specific rules for himself that he abides by rigidly, even when they don’t seem to make much sense. For example, Oskar refuses to get onto public transportation, preferring to walk everywhere, even if it takes hours. Every time he meets one of the Blacks, he has a cup of coffee. Oskar’s a vegan, and very particular about what he will and will not consume.

Oskar also meets several other people with strange rituals. Mr. Black hasn’t left his apartment for twenty-four years before accompanying Oskar on his journey. Ruth Black lives at the top of the Empire State Building and never comes down to ground level. Oskar and his Grandma have several private rituals with each other. For example, whenever one says the other’s name, the other one says “I’m OK,” as though they’re playing a version of the game “Marco Polo.”

But a lot of Oskar’s personal growth comes when he can break out of his rituals and realize that his world will still function. Oskar clings to superstitions because he feels afraid to enter the overly vast world without their support, but when he has to step outside his routine, or when he sees others break their well-established rituals, he becomes more able to push his own limits.

Rituals in the novel are both crippling and liberating. Oskar’s rituals sometimes help him move forward with his life: without creating elaborate rules for himself, and building an expedition out of a single word, he might never have been able to begin to process his grief. But if rituals become so deeply set in stone, they can stop someone from ever doing anything different, or from moving past the event that precipitated these ritual behaviors. Routines can be coping mechanisms that provide stability in a chaotic world, but the real strength of a ritual comes when someone can let it go.

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Superstition and Ritual ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Superstition and Ritual appears in each chapter of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Superstition and Ritual Quotes in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Below you will find the important quotes in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close related to the theme of Superstition and Ritual.
Chapter 1 Quotes

I spent all day walking around the park, looking for something that might tell me something, but the problem was that I didn’t know what I was looking for…But that’s how tricky Dad could be. There was nothing, which would have been unfortunate, unless nothing was a clue. Was nothing a clue?

Related Characters: Oskar Schell (speaker), Dad
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:
Dad used to send Oskar on “Expeditions” around New York City, which helped Oskar cope with some of his fears and explore the world outside the apartment. Oskar’s father teaches Oskar how to come out of his shell and find his way in the world. Dad made the world a structured place for Oskar, something that could be navigated with a plan, rather than an infinite chaos without purpose or meaning. Oskar’s Dad’s Expeditions seem like elaborate, meaningless games, but they enable Oskar to function in the world, rather than becoming overwhelmed by everything. The Expeditions also help Oskar and his father bond, because these puzzles and clues give them a shared language through which they can communicate. By seeing the world as a puzzle with possible solutions, instead of a chasm, Oskar also has the sense that his dad has never really left him, and that by following anything that seems like a potential clue, Oskar can eventually find his father again. Dad’s “Expeditions” give Oskar the inspiration to take the key in the closet as a clue that sets him on a new quest.

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Chapter 5 Quotes

When I was exactly halfway across the Fifty-ninth Street Bridge, I thought about how a millimeter behind me was Manhattan and a millimeter in front of me was Queens. So what’s the name of the parts of New York—exactly half through the Midtown Tunnel, exactly halfway over the Brooklyn Bridge, the exact middle of the Staten Island Ferry when it’s exactly halfway between Manhattan and Staten Island—that aren’t in any borough?

Related Characters: Oskar Schell (speaker)
Related Symbols: Science, Mathematics, and Invention
Page Number: 88
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Oskar again shows his tendency towards whimsical scientific questions and the ritualized ordering of spaces, through which he tries to make sense of emotional issues. At this point in the novel, Jonathan Safran Foer also inserts a picture of several bridge girders in a lattice pattern, and through them, one can see part of the New York skyline, though, of course, missing the Twin Towers.

On the one hand, there are several layers of supporting structures holding the bridges up, which makes the "connective tissue" between the boroughs seem very strong. However, since the bridges are all in lattice structures, the viewer can also see through the gaps between the beams, which makes the reader aware of the empty spaces as well. Throughout the novel, in all of the various plots, Foer emphasizes that there must be a balance of positive and negative space, between something and nothing, in order to create true, lasting stability. The space in the middle of every borough, on the one hand, could be thought of as a kind of a black hole, a void that belongs to no one and thus has a terrifying power to destroy those who enter. On the other hand, the space could belong to everyone, so rather than sucking people into no man’s land dangerously, it could be a trusting space supported by all.

Chapter 6 Quotes

We took the blueprint of our apartment from the hallway closet and taped it to the inside of the front door, with an orange and a green marker we separated Something from Nothing. “This is Something,” we decided. “This is Nothing.” “Something.” “Nothing.” “Something.” “Nothing.” “Nothing.” “Nothing.” Everything was forever fixed, there would only be peace and happiness, it wasn’t until last night, our last night together, that the inevitable question finally arose, I told her, “Something,” by covering her face with my hands and then lifting them like a marriage veil. “We must be.” But I knew, in the most protected part of my heart, the truth.

Related Characters: Grandpa (speaker), Grandma (speaker)
Related Symbols: Letters, Notes, and Notebooks
Page Number: 111
Explanation and Analysis:

Anna’s death in the Dresden firebombing deeply traumatized both Grandma and Grandpa, as Anna was Grandma’s sister and Grandpa’s first wife. Grandma and Grandpa marry each other with the hope that they will help each other move forward with their lives, but instead, they end up creating elaborate systems of avoiding both themselves and each other rather than processing their emotions. Anna’s death brings Grandpa and Grandma together initially, but the shared grief proves to be too much for them to process, and the grief corrodes their relationship and separates them. Anna’s death also foreshadows Dad’s death as a traumatic experience that deeply affects the whole family, and compels the family to have to figure out how to communicate with each other. The map of Something and Nothing areas is also reminiscent of Oskar’s quest around New York. Each apartment that Oskar enters on his quest has some sort of secret within it, just like Grandma and Grandpa’s apartment.

Although Grandpa doesn’t say so explicitly, the final place that Grandma and Grandpa make as “Something” or “Nothing” is most likely their bed. The description of Grandpa lifting his hands like a “marriage veil” strongly hints that they are discussing their marriage bed and, therefore, whether or not they will continue to sleep together, even though they are drifting apart. They claim that they will, but Grandpa has already written earlier in the chapter that he has decided to leave Grandma.

Chapter 7 Quotes

Then, out of nowhere, a flock of birds flew by the window, extremely fast and incredibly close. Maybe twenty of them. Maybe more. But they also seemed like just one bird, because somehow they all knew exactly what to do.

Related Characters: Oskar Schell (speaker)
Page Number: 165
Explanation and Analysis:

The description of the flock of birds recalls the title of the book, although with the word “fast” instead of “loud,” because Oskar sees the birds, rather than hearing them. The birds are symbolic, but they do not represent one single thing. Like many of the enigmatic clues and images throughout the novel, the birds have several layers of significance. At this point in the novel, Foer inserts a blurry picture of several birds flying past, apparently going very fast, as though they are falling. The image of the birds resembles the flipbook at the very end of the novel that depicts a person who appears to be falling up into one of the Twin Towers. On the other hand, the birds represent freedom. Unlike Oskar, who feels tethered to the ground with his “heavy boots,” the birds can take off, seemingly able to escape guilt and difficult emotions to begin a new life. 

Chapter 8 Quotes

He took a picture of every doorknob in the apartment. Every one. 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.

Related Characters: Grandma (speaker), Grandpa
Related Symbols: Doorknobs
Page Number: 175
Explanation and Analysis:

In her letter to Oskar, Grandma writes that she wants to communicate with Grandpa, but when she tries to hold open a door, both metaphorically and physically, he is more interested in his memories and in obsessively creating an archive, rather than trying to move forward. Instead of actually living in his life, Grandpa devotes his time to making a record of the spaces around him. Doorknobs are particularly important to Grandpa, since a doorknob burned him in the Dresden firebombing, and therefore they hold an extremely significant symbolic place in his mind.

Doorknobs represent thresholds throughout the novel. A door can provide an entrance and open an avenue of communication. For Oskar, each person with the last name Black lives behind another mysterious doorknob, and every doorknob opens into a new world. Each doorknob is also an opportunity to try the key that Oskar carries around with him all the time, as he carries the hope that each door could be a potential solution to his quest. However, a door can also be used as a wall to close out the world and shut people out. Jonathan Safran Foer includes several of these pictures of doorknobs, which make the reader feel like he or she is also the intended recipient of these letters, since we get to experience not only reading about them, but also see the actual artifacts. Some of the doorknobs pictured are locked, suggesting the effect of closing off from the world. However, the locked doorknob also entails that there is a key that will open it, so there is still hope.

I went to the guest room and pretended to write. I hit the space bar again and again and again. My life story was spaces.

Related Characters: Grandma (speaker)
Related Symbols: Letters, Notes, and Notebooks
Page Number: 176
Explanation and Analysis:

The fact that Grandma has been deliberately typing spaces over and over, unbeknownst to Grandpa, symbolizes the fundamental gap between them. Grandpa is heartbroken when he sees Grandma’s sheaf of blank papers, since he thinks that she believes she has been typing actual words the whole time. Grandpa lies to Grandma to protect her feelings, and Grandma lets Grandpa lie, because, to her understanding, this lie is more palatable than the truth, which is that Grandma is typing a blank autobiography because she believes that her life is a blank. Grandma has married her dead sister’s lover, she cannot communicate with him, and her family is gone, so she thinks that her life is now just an empty space. However, an empty space can be filled. Grandma’s letter to Oskar has several spaces between every sentence, and there are many line breaks, yet because she has a message to convey to Oskar, she is starting to have words to put in between the spaces.

Chapter 9 Quotes

I adjusted the string so the keys—one to the apartment, one to I-didn’t-know-what—rested against my heart, which was nice, except the only thing was that it felt too cold sometimes, so I put a Band-Aid on that part of my chest, and the keys rested on that.

Related Characters: Oskar Schell (speaker)
Related Symbols: Keys
Page Number: 200
Explanation and Analysis:

The fact that Oskar keeps the key over a Band-Aid over his heart is very symbolic for several reasons. Although Oskar claims that the Band-Aid is to protect his skin when the key bumps against it, symbolically, the Band-Aid suggests that Oskar is trying to heal his broken heart, which broke on “the worst day,” that is, September 11. Oskar keeps the key on his chest for the practical reason that he knows it will be safe and he knows he can keep track of it, but symbolically, carrying the key right over his heart shows how precious this object is to him. Not only is the key the engine that drives the quest to find the right Black and unlock the box, the key also represents Oskar trying to come to terms with himself and figuring out how to unlock the secrets he has kept locked inside himself. Carrying the key is creating a physical wound on Oskar’s chest, but carrying the locked-up secrets is creating an even deeper psychological wound inside Oskar’s heart.

Chapter 11 Quotes

A millimeter at a time, the Sixth Borough receded from New York…The eight bridges between Manhattan and the Sixth Borough strained and finally crumbled, one at a time, into the water. The tunnels were pulled too thin to hold anything at all. The phone and electrical lines snapped…those fireflies in glass jars, which had once been used merely for decorative purposes during the festivals of the leap, were now found in every room of every home, taking the place of artificial light.

Related Characters: Dad (speaker), Oskar Schell
Page Number: 219
Explanation and Analysis:

Oskar’s Dad tells Oskar a fable about a mythical Sixth Borough of New York City. In the first chapter of the novel, Oskar describes the scene in which Dad tells him the story, but only now does the reader get to read the full story, which emphasizes the puzzle-like structure of the novel itself. The story of the Sixth Borough is very close to the center of the novel itself, which demonstrates its symbolic significance in all the various relationships and plot lines that unfold. Dad tells the story to Oskar to help Oskar process the fact that change might be sad, and we might fight to stop negative change, but ultimately, sometimes, we have to let go. When Dad tells Oskar this fable, Oskar doesn’t yet know that he will have to apply it to his relationship with his father, but the story of the Sixth Borough symbolically helps him move forward.

The fable of the Sixth Borough also resonates with the areas of Grandma and Grandpa’s apartment that are designated as Something versus Nothing. Although Grandma and Grandpa try to hold the ties between them and to keep their relationship together, their shared grief proves to be too strong a force, and it pulls them apart. Just like the tunnels and electric wires in the fable, the lines of communication between Grandma and Grandpa cannot hold. 

By the time the park found its current resting place, every single one of the children had fallen asleep, and the park was a mosaic of their dreams.

Related Characters: Dad (speaker), Oskar Schell
Page Number: 221
Explanation and Analysis:

In the fable of the Sixth Borough, the children ultimately have the power to help New York move forward from the loss of a borough. Rather than simply having an empty space in the heart of the city, the citizens save Central Park before the Sixth Borough floats completely away, tethering it in Manhattan. Children are allowed to lie down on the park when it’s being floated into the city, and the children are the ones who keep the soul of the Sixth Borough alive. The children bring beauty and spirit into the story, which helps give Oskar a sense of purpose. Oskar often feels small and powerless, which makes him frustrated and frightened, but turning the children into almost magical creatures helps him to regain a sense of purpose and power. Dreams, here, are not fantasies that will never come to pass, but peaceful reconciliations with reality.

In addition to the fable holding personal significance for Oskar and his family, in the larger context of the novel, the fable is meant to demonstrate how all of New York might be able to heal after September 11. Oskar’s own personal trauma is one individual example of the thousands and thousands of similar stories unfolding across the city.

Chapter 17 Quotes

I’d have said “Dad?” backwards, which would have sounded the same as “Dad” forward.
He would have told me the story of the Sixth Borough, from the voice in the can at the end to the beginning, from “I love you” to “Once upon a time…”
We would have been safe.

Related Characters: Oskar Schell (speaker), Dad
Page Number: 326
Explanation and Analysis:

The last words of the novel express the desired fulfillment of many of Oskar’s deepest wishes. Oskar longs to turn back time and reverse the course of history so that his father wouldn’t have had to die on September 11. By rewinding and telling the story backwards, Oskar wants to take control over uncontrollable events so that history can unfold in a different direction. But these final words also express the fact that Oskar’s wishes can’t be fulfilled. The quotation is in the subjunctive mood, rather than the indicative, which demonstrates that Oskar is presenting a wish rather than a fact. Throughout the novel, Oskar has learned that we can’t actually go back and reverse the course of history. Even though the book ends in a fantasy description of what Oskar wishes the world could be like, the reader knows that we have to move forward in reality.

Although these are the last words in the book, they are not the book’s ending. The book concludes with several photographs of a person falling from the Twin Towers, but arranged in reverse order, so that if the reader flips through them, the person appears to be falling up instead of down. This reversal of the familiar image shows the tension between fantasy and the poignant reality that all characters struggle with throughout the novel. Even though they wish they could reverse time and space in certain key moments, and even though they replay events in their minds, they have to figure out some way of moving forward in order to heal.