Night

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Guilt and Inaction Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Having and Losing Faith in God Theme Icon
Inhumanity Theme Icon
Fathers and Sons Theme Icon
Guilt and Inaction Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Night, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Guilt and Inaction Theme Icon

On several occasions in Night, Eliezer watches as his father is beaten and can do nothing about it. Or, rather, he could perhaps help his father in the very short term, but he would quickly pay for it with his life. (Eliezer's father, too, must watch powerlessly as Eliezer is whipped by a kapo.) Even though a small act of resistance is the equivalent of suicide, Eliezer cannot help feeling guilt about his fear and his inaction. The whole of the imprisoned community must feel this same impotent rage. Weak and undernourished, surrounded by soldiers with machine guns, in a place where they are utterly expendable, the prisoners' options are limited in what they can do to defend themselves, without inviting torture and slaughter. But that doesn't make Eliezer feel any better about himself when an SS officer beats his dying father in the head with a truncheon, and Eliezer does nothing to prevent the act or to retaliate for it. By writing the book, however, he is taking action and preventing these and many other acts of brutality from going unrecorded.

Guilt and Inaction ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Guilt and Inaction appears in each chapter of Night. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Guilt and Inaction Quotes in Night

Below you will find the important quotes in Night related to the theme of Guilt and Inaction.
Chapter 1 Quotes
"I have been saved miraculously. I managed to get back here. Where did I get the strength from? I wanted to come back to Sighet to tell you the story of my death. So what you could prepare yourselves while there was still time… I wanted to come back, and to warn you. And see how it is, no one will listen to me…"
Related Characters: Moché the Beadle (speaker)
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

This is the first indication that something is deeply amiss, and yet also at the tendency for people to not want to believe in horrors that might uproot their lives. In this case, Eliezer's community largely ignores the warnings from Moché the Beadle because what he describes seems too awful to be real. Moché's warning offers an opportunity for the Jews to leave Eastern Europe, but nobody heeds Moché the Beadle's warning because to take his words seriously would be to acknowledge a reality that nobody is prepared to live with.

What Eliezer notices about Moché the Beadle is that his faith – which was once all consuming – seems to have slipped. Here, Moché the Beadle says that he was "saved miraculously" and "managed to get back here." But he does not attribute the strength that this took to God's intervention, as Eliezer would have assumed. Instead, Moché the Beadle is concerned with the human over the divine – he says he found the strength to return so that he could save his community. This foreshadows the loss of faith and the futility of gestures of humanity that occur in the rest of the book. 

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Night. No one prayed, so that the night would pass quickly. The stars were only sparks of the fire which devoured us. Should that fire die out one day, there would be nothing left in the sky but dead stars, dead eyes.
Related Characters: Eliezer (speaker)
Related Symbols: Fire, Night
Page Number: 18
Explanation and Analysis:

This is an early indication of the fear that the Jews are facing as waves of deportations occur and people are reshuffled into worse and worse living quarters. Nobody knows what will happen to them and they shift between optimism and despair – this passage describes a night in which nobody hopes. At this moment, Eliezer has not yet lost his faith, but this is a sign of it waning; he and his community do not pray amid chaos because they don't want to prolong the awful night.

This passage illuminates the significance of two of the book's most prominent symbols. Here, night is seen as a time in which fear and despair dominate and faith is scant. Wiesel later described his life after the Holocaust as "one long night" – this moment, which Eliezer hopes will be temporary, is actually representative of an experience that will scar him profoundly and forever. Fire, too, is important here. While fire in religious texts is sacramental and even good, this passage shows fire as negative. To describe the fire as "consuming us" foreshadows the fires of the death camps.

Chapter 3 Quotes
Humanity? Humanity is not concerned with us. Today anything is allowed. Anything is possible, even these crematories.
Related Characters: Eliezer, Chlomo
Related Symbols: Fire
Page Number: 30
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Jews have just arrived at the concentration camp of Birkenau, and they are confronted with a scene worse than they could have imagined. They see flames everywhere, and the air smells like burning flesh. At this moment, they understand that death is surrounding them, but they still do not understand the magnitude of this depravity. Another prisoner tells Eliezer and his father that they are to be burned, and Eliezer tells him he doesn't believe it because humanity wouldn't tolerate burning someone as young as he is. The other prisoner's response is that humanity is not present there. 

It's significant that Eliezer objects to the possibility of being burned on the grounds that humanity, not God, wouldn't allow it; this is another indication that he is losing his faith. Watching the chaos around him, Eliezer seems not to assume anymore that God is a significant presence – he is more concerned with what humans will and won't do. 

Chapter 4 Quotes
That night the soup tasted of corpses.
Page Number: 62
Explanation and Analysis:

Soup has a marked significance in the book, since getting food becomes the most important objective of the prisoners as they lose their humanity bit by bit. Soup is also particularly important in this section of the book about public executions. In describing one execution, Wiesel notes that Jewish prisoners assisted in the execution of one of their own in exchange for an extra bowl of soup. In this way, soup is a weapon of the Nazis – it incentivizes Jews to be cruel to other prisoners in exchange for something they desperately need. At the same time, that any of the Jews would assist the Nazis for as little as a measly bowl of soup shows just how far the Nazis have been able to dehumanize and break down the Jews in the camp.

After watching an earlier execution, Eliezer describes the soup as tasting better than ever, perhaps indicating that he has become too protective of his own life to be particularly concerned for the lives of others. After watching the execution of the young boy in which he loses his faith, though, the soup tastes like corpses – this perhaps gestures towards the despair Eliezer feels at his loss of faith, and likely also at his sense that he is complicit in some way in the circus of cruelty he is witnessing. 

Chapter 7 Quotes
Twenty bodies were thrown out of our wagon. Then the train resumed its journey, leaving behind it a few hundred naked dead, deprived of burial, in the deep snow of a field in Poland.
Related Characters: Eliezer (speaker)
Page Number: 94
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, the Jews are thrown into a cattle car yet again to be brought to another camp. Unlike the first journey, they are now weak and dehumanized. There is barely any distinction between the many in the car who are dead and those who are alive. Throughout the book, Eliezer's sensitivity to death has diminished. While he once felt horrified by the Nazi spectacles of death, he is no longer surprised or moved by death in circumstances of cruelty. This is apparent in his off-hand description of twenty bodies being thrown from the train into the snow. This passage gives a sense of hopelessness, and of how far from their original values the prisoners have come. They barely try to discern who is and isn't dead before taking people's clothes and throwing them from the train. While a Jewish death without a proper burial would have once been unimaginable, at this point it is barely remarked on.

Chapter 8 Quotes
"Don't let me find him! If only I could get rid of this dead weight, so that I could use all my strength to struggle for my own survival, and only worry about myself." Immediately I felt ashamed of myself, ashamed forever.
Related Characters: Eliezer (speaker), Chlomo
Page Number: 101
Explanation and Analysis:

After everything Eliezer and his father have been through, Eliezer still feels impulses to abandon his father to increase his own odds of survival. This moral conflict is at the heart of the book, and despite Eliezer's shame at his own feelings, his ability to feel conflicted at all about his father indicates that he still has some humanity left.

While Eliezer is never outright cruel to his father like some sons are in the camps, he often feels that his inaction in the face of others' cruelty to his father and his secret desires to be rid of his father are just as bad. It's a conflict that the book never resolves. While Eliezer's inaction and secret feelings are understandable in the face of the incredible risks and sacrifices that protecting his father would entail, Wiesel never allows himself to fully justify his actions. He holds himself accountable to what he sees as his own moral failings, even though those failings were provoked by unimaginable cruelty towards him.

Oh, to strangle the doctor and the others! To burn the whole world! My father's murderers! But the cry stayed in my throat.
Related Characters: Eliezer (speaker), Dr. Mengele
Related Symbols: Fire
Page Number: 103
Explanation and Analysis:

At this point in the book, Eliezer's father is very sick with dysentery and it's likely that he won't survive. The doctors refuse to give sick people food and won't treat his father, which inspires in Eliezer a murderous rage that, of course, he never acts on. This is one of the rare moments in the book when Eliezer expresses a fantasy that seems to echo Nazi behavior – he wants "to burn the whole world," which is what, it must have seemed to him, the Nazis were doing.

It's important that what brings these feelings out in him is witnessing cruelty towards his father, not cruelty directed towards Eliezer himself. This is another example of the importance of his relationship with his father. In a sense, his father has replaced religion as the emotional locus of his life; his father is essentially the only thing left that can provoke an emotional reaction in Eliezer. Still, this rage does not inspire Eliezer to actually act on his fantasies of avenging the Nazi cruelty, and so it forces Eliezer also to face his inability to defend his father.