De Rosnay’s novel is filled with different kinds of silence. In Julia’s story, silence is an indicator of the status of her relationships. Strained silence reveals the tension in Julia’s relationship to her husband and his family—but the comfortable silence Julia experiences with William is one of the first signs that these two characters might have a meaningful bond. Silence also has contrasting meanings in Sarah’s storyline, as silence can represent weakness and complicity, or it can be mobilized as an act of heroic defiance. While silence has no single meaning in the novel, de Rosnay is clear about the fact that silence is never neutral. Silence may be the absence of sound, but de Rosnay shows that it is clearly not the absence of emotion or power.
For Julia, silence becomes a litmus test in her relationships with men. She does not discuss her research on the Vel’ d’Hiv’ children with Bertrand, nor does she confront him about her suspicion (which is proved correct) that he is still involved with his former mistress, Amélie. A doctor is the person who informs Bertrand that Julia has decided against having an abortion, rather than Julia herself telling her husband, and by the end of the novel, Bertrand has revealed that he is depressed, making his mental health another important issue which has been swallowed up by silence. This kind of strained silence is contrasted with the uniquely comfortable silence Julia experiences with William, as she feels that they somehow both know each other. Silence, for Julia, thus becomes an external manifestation of her innermost emotions.
In Sarah’s story, silence is far more ambiguous. While always complicated, silence acts in three distinct ways. When Sarah watches with a sense of confusion and betrayal as her neighbors silently observe her family’s arrest, silence is presented as a marker of passivity and complicity. Sarah also interprets her mother’s silence in the face of the French police as a sign of helplessness. Yet de Rosnay shows that despite their silence, none of these people is evil. One of Sarah’s neighbors who is silent on the night of the roundup is a music teacher, who would formerly play French and Polish songs for Sarah’s family across their shared courtyard. While he calls out once to the police, saying, “You can’t do this!,” he ultimately falls silent, even as Sarah’s mother breaks down in sobs. And although Sarah’s mother, Rywka, does not seem brave to Sarah, de Rosnay compassionately portrays her as a woman paralyzed by grief—after all, as a grown woman Rywka realizes that Sarah’s decision to lock Michel in the cupboard will ultimately kill him long before Sarah has this realization herself. Thus, even when functioning as a means of complicity, silence is shown to be neither simply lazy nor morally bankrupt—but rather a symptom of dread, grief, and paralysis.
A second function of silence is as a misguided act of compassion. Even when used with good intent, silence and secrecy lead to suffering in the novel. This is clear in the case of the Tézacs. Although Mamé is not at home when Sarah returns to the rue de Saintonge apartment, both André and a young Edouard witness Sarah’s discovery of her brother’s dead body. André demands that Edouard keep the discovery a secret from his mother, and Edouard lives with this painful secret for sixty years, even as it devastates his relationship with his father. Furthermore, by the end of the novel, Edouard discovers that his mother knew about Sarah all along, despite his father’s insistence on secrecy. If the family had openly discussed Michel’s death and Sarah’s return, they could have spared themselves sixty years of emotional pain. Although André uses silence (in the form of secrecy) in an attempt to shield his family from emotional pain, the novel shows clearly that this use of secrecy is misguided and ultimately further compounds his family’s suffering. This is true in Sarah’s story as well: Sarah’s parents deliberately conceal from her the details of the arrests that preceded the Vel’ d’Hiv’ roundup. Imprisoned in the Vélodrome, Sarah wonders, “If they had told her, if they had told her everything they knew, wouldn’t that have made today easier?” The rhetorical nature of this question suggests, on one level, that nothing could have made the horror of the Holocaust more bearable or comprehensible. However, the way de Rosnay writes this moment also strongly implies that Sarah’s parents miscalculated in keeping so much from her, and that keeping fewer secrets could have somehow better prepared their daughter for the days ahead.
The final function of silence in Sarah’s story is as an act of deliberate resistance to authority. This kind of silence is most clearly demonstrated by Sarah herself, who silently stares down many authority figures, including the French Nazi sympathizer—her former neighborhood policeman—who shaves her head in the internment camp. Rather than using silence as a way to avoid action or confrontation, Sarah uses silence to confront power, staring at the policeman with all the bitterness she can conjure. This is the most active form silence takes on in the novel, yet de Rosnay complicates this use of silence as well. Although Sarah is resisting in the best way she can, the novel suggests that silence as a response to oppression is a safe option, and one that is not fully honest. This is most clearly seen in the case of a woman in the Vel’ d’Hiv’ who gives birth to a stillborn baby and wails over the baby for an entire night. “No one could silence her,” the narrator says. Even in her grief, this woman is able to exert some kind of agency by voicing her pain. De Rosnay seems to suggest that this woman’s form of resistance is more powerful than Sarah’s silent form, which causes her to internalize hatred and become embittered. Silence, then, is never a neutral phenomenon. Rather, the novel shows, silence is imbued with power, but it functions ambiguously.
The Power of Silence ThemeTracker
The Power of Silence Quotes in Sarah’s Key
Why did Bertrand take such pleasure in making me out to be the snide, prejudiced American, ever critical of the French? And why did I just stand there and let him get away with it? It had been funny, at one point. In the beginning of our marriage, it had been a classic joke, the kind that made both our American and French friends roar with laughter. In the beginning.
Through the bus’s dusty pane, she recognized one of them, the young red-haired one who had often helped her cross the street on her way home from school. She tapped on the glass to attract his attention. When his eyes locked onto hers, he quickly looked away. He seemed embarrassed, almost annoyed. She wondered why.
But she had seen. She knew what it was. A young woman, her mother’s age, and a small child. The woman had jumped, her child held close, from the highest railing.
From where the girl sat, she could see the dislocated body of the woman, the bloody skull of the child, sliced open like a ripe tomato.
The girl bent her head and cried.
As she looked at Eva and her mother, the girl wondered if her parents had been right to protect her from everything, if they had been right to keep disturbing, bad news away fro her. If they had been right not to explain why so many things had changed from them since the beginning of the war. Like when Eva’s husband never came back last year. He had disappeared. Where? Nobody would tell her. Nobody would explain. She hated being treated like a baby. She hated the voices being lowered when she entered the room.
If they had told her, if they had told her everything they knew, wouldn’t that have made today easier?
The one who smelled a warm, comforting, motherly smell: delicious cooking, fresh soap, clean linen. The one with the infectious laugh. The one who said that even if there was a war, they’d pull through, because they were a strong, good family, a family full of love.
That woman had little by little disappeared. She had become gaunt, and pale, and she never smiled or laughed. She smelled rank, bitter. Her hair had become brittle and dry, streaked with gray.
The girl felt like her mother was already dead.
She held his gaze, not glancing down once. His eyes were a strange, yellowish color, like gold. His face was red with embarrassment, and she thought she felt him tremble. She said nothing, staring at him with all the contempt she could muster.
He could only look back at her, motionless. The girl smiled, a bitter smile for a child of ten, and brushed off his heavy hands.
“I know they are holding something back. I want to know what it is.”
“Be careful, Julia,” he repeated. He smiled, but his eyes remained serious. “You’re playing with Pandora’s box. Sometimes, it’s better not to open it. Sometimes, it’s better not to know.”
As I stood there, oblivious to the traffic, I felt I could almost see Sarah coming down the rue de Saintonge on that hot July morning, with her mother, and her father, and the policemen. Yes, I could see it all, I could see them being pushed into the garage, right here, where I now stood. I could see the sweet heart-shaped face, the incomprehension, the fear. The straight hair caught back in a bow, the slanted turquoise eyes. Sarah Starzynski. Was she still alive? She would be seventy today, I thought. No, she couldn’t be alive. She had disappeared off the face of the earth, with the rest of the Vel’ d’Hiv’ children. She had never come back from Auschwitz. She was a handful of dust.