Trauma and guilt are very closely connected throughout Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Throughout the novel, several characters demonstrate what psychologists call survivor’s guilt, which is when people who survive a traumatic event think they’ve done something wrong and feel guilty simply because they are still alive. National trauma is deeply connected to individual trauma throughout the novel. The major national trauma of September 11 becomes intertwined with the major personal trauma of Dad’s death. Oskar and his family have to deal with both the huge, public tragedy of 9/1l and their own individual disaster that shakes them to the core. Oskar feels incredibly guilty about the phone messages that Dad left on the morning of September 11, 2001. Oskar hides the answering machine tape with his Dad’s voice because he is too ashamed to admit to his Mom that heard his Dad but didn’t pick up. Oskar continues to obsess over his Dad, and his quest to find out who “Black” is becomes his way of trying to cope with the guilt that going through such a traumatic experience has produced.
Oskar’s Grandpa is also tremendously affected by trauma and guilt. After the Dresden firebombing, Grandpa eventually stops talking: his pregnant wife, Anna, had died in the bombing, and he has such tremendous survivor’s guilt that he becomes unable to speak. Grandpa married Anna’s sister, who is Oskar’s Grandma, after the war, but when Grandma became pregnant with Oskar’s Dad, Grandpa left her, adding yet another layer to his feelings of guilt. But even though Grandpa doesn’t speak out loud, he still communicates. He has the words YES and NO tattooed on his hands, and he writes notes when he needs to say something more complicated. Grandpa also writes long letters to his son (either his unborn son who died in the Dresden firebombing that he himself survived, or Oskar’s Dad who he abandoned), even though he never mails them.
Many of the feelings of guilt that trauma produces become resolved indirectly through the novel, rather than directly. Oskar does not ever get to say a proper goodbye to his Dad, but the key provides closure for William Black, who has been attempting to process his own father’s death. Grandpa does not get to reconnect with his son, but he connects with family when he moves in with Grandma. Guilt connects everyone in the novel, and though characters might not be able to help themselves directly, they can each help each other. Tragedies might not have a direct solution, but by many indirect routes, the guilt can become bearable. Building community is presented as a way to deal with trauma and guilt: things that are crippling to bear alone can become manageable if there are others around to help spread the load around, if not lessen it.
Trauma and Guilt ThemeTracker
Trauma and Guilt Quotes in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Isn’t it so weird how the number of dead people is increasing even though the earth stays the same size, so that one day there isn’t going to be room to bury anyone anymore?
There were four more messages from him: one at 9:12, one at 9:31, one at 9:46, and one at 10:04. I listened to them, and listened to them again, and then before I had time to figure out what to do, or even what to think or feel, the phone started ringing.
It was 10:26:47.
I looked at the caller ID and saw that it was him.
I haven’t always been silent, I used to talk and talk and talk and talk, I couldn’t keep my mouth shut, the silence overtook me like a cancer.
And maybe you could rate the people you knew by how much you loved them, so if the device of the person in the ambulance detected the device of the person he loved the most, or the person who loved him the most, and the person in the ambulance was really badly hurt, and might even die, the ambulance could flash GOODBYE! I LOVE YOU! GOODBYE! I LOVE YOU!
I have so much to tell you, the problem isn’t that I’m running out of time, I’m running out of room, this book is filling up, there couldn’t be enough pages, I looked around the apartment this morning for one last time and there was writing everywhere, filling the walls and mirrors, I’d rolled up the rugs so I could write on the floor, I’d written on the walls and around the bottles of wine we were given but never drank, I wear only short sleeves, even when it’s cold, because my arms are books, too. But there’s too much to express. I’m sorry.
I felt, that night, on that stage, under that skull, incredibly close to everything in the universe, but also extremely alone. I wondered, for the first time in my life, if life was worth all the work it took to live. What exactly made it worth it? What’s so horrible about being dead forever, and not feeling anything, and not even dreaming? What’s so great about feeling and dreaming?
But still, it gave me heavy, heavy boots. Dad wasn’t a Great Man, not like Winston Churchill, whoever he was. Dad was just someone who ran a family jewelry business. Just an ordinary dad. But I wished so much, then, that he had been Great. I wished he’d been famous, famous like a movie star, which is what he deserved. I wished Mr. Black had written about him, and risked his life to tell the world about him, and had reminders of him around his apartment.
I want to stop inventing. If I could know how he died, exactly how he died, I wouldn’t have to invent him dying…There were so many different ways to die, and I just need to know which was his.
I was in Dresden’s train station when I lost everything for the second time.
There won’t be enough pages in this book for me to tell you what I need to tell you, I could write smaller, I could slice the pages down their edges to make two pages, I could write over my own writing, but then what?
He needed me, and I couldn’t pick up. I just couldn’t pick up. I just couldn’t. Are you there? He asked eleven times. I know, because I’ve counted. It’s one more than I can count on my fingers….Sometimes I think he knew I was there. Maybe he kept saying it to give me time to get brave enough to pick it up.
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.