Eliezer is more than just a traditional protagonist; his direct experience is the entire substance of Night. He tells his story in a highly subjective, first-person, autobiographical voice, and, as a result, we get an intimate, personal account of the Holocaust through direct descriptive language. Whereas many books about the Holocaust use a generalized historical or epic perspective to paint a broad picture of the period, Eliezer’s account is limited in scope but gives a personal perspective through which the reader receives a harrowingly intimate description of life under the Nazis.
First and foremost, it is important to differentiate between the author of Night, Elie Wiesel, and its narrator and protagonist, Eliezer. That a distinction can be made does not mean that Night is a work of fiction. Indeed, except for minor details, what happens to Eliezer is exactly what happened to Wiesel during the Holocaust. But Wiesel alters minor details (for example, Wiesel wounded his knee in the concentration camps, while Eliezer wounds his foot) in order to place some distance, however small, between himself and his protagonist. It is extremely painful for a survivor to remember and write about his or her Holocaust experience; creating a narrator allows Wiesel to distance himself somewhat from the trauma and suffering about which he writes.
Wiesel did not write Night merely to document historical truths about physical events. The memoir is concerned with the emotional truth about the Holocaust, as experienced by individuals. As Eliezer struggles for survival, his most fundamental beliefs—his faith in God, faith in his fellow human beings, and sense of justice in the world—are called into question. He emerges from his experience profoundly changed. The Holocaust shakes his faith in God and the world around him, and he sees the depths of cruelty and selfishness to which any human being—including himself—can sink. Through Eliezer, Wiesel intimately conveys his horrible experiences and his transformation as a prisoner during the Holocaust.
Aside from Eliezer, Eliezer’s father, Shlomo, is the only other constant presence in the work. However, whereas Eliezer develops throughout the work, experiencing horrible revelations and undergoing numerous changes, Eliezer’s father remains a fairly static character, an older man who loves his son and depends upon him for support. We do not get to hear Shlomo’s thoughts about his experiences, and the only development we are shown is his gradual decline, a decline that all of the camp’s prisoners experience.
This lack of insight into Shlomo reflects the work’s commitment to Eliezer’s perspective. Instead of understanding Shlomo and his experience objectively or through his own eyes, we see him through Eliezer’s eyes. Eliezer is constantly thinking of his father, and their relationship is crucial to Eliezer’s experience. Eliezer’s father serves not so much as a three-dimensional character but as an aspect of Eliezer’s life. We do not see what is going on in Shlomo’s mind because Eliezer can tell us only about his own experience.
Shlomo is a central presence in the memoir because he is of utmost importance to Eliezer. He functions almost as the center of Eliezer’s struggle for survival. Eliezer’s relationship with his father reminds him of fundamental feelings of love, duty, and commitment to his family. His commitment to his father also reminds him of his own humanity, of the goodness left in his heart. All around him, he sees fellow prisoners descending to the deepest depths of selfishness and cruelty, but his relationship to his father reminds him that there is life outside of the Holocaust, and a set of fundamental moral values that transcends the cruelty and hatred of the Nazi universe.
Moshe the Beadle is the first character introduced in Night, and his values resonate throughout the text, even though he himself disappears after the first few pages. Moshe represents, first and foremost, an earnest commitment to Judaism, and to Jewish mysticism in particular. As Eliezer’s Cabbala teacher, Moshe talks about the riddles of the universe and God’s centrality to the quest for understanding. Moshe’s words frame the conflict of Eliezer’s struggle for faith, which is at the center of Night.
In his statement “I pray to the God within me that He will give me the strength to ask Him the right questions,” Moshe conveys two concepts key to Eliezer’s struggle: the idea that God is everywhere, even within every individual, and the idea that faith is based on questions, not answers. Eliezer’s struggle with faith is, for the most part, a struggle of questions. He continually asks where God has gone and questions how such evil could exist in the world. Moshe’s statement tells us that these moments do not reflect Eliezer’s loss of faith; instead they demonstrate his ongoing spiritual commitment. But we also see that at the lowest points of Eliezer’s faith—particularly when he sees the pipel (a youth) hung in Buna—he is full of answers, not questions. At these moments, he has indeed lost the spirit of faith he learned from Moshe, and is truly faithless.
Finally, Moshe may also serve as a stand-in for Wiesel himself, as his presence evokes an overarching purpose of the entire work. As has been stated previously, Night can be read as an attack against silence. So many times in the work, evil is perpetuated by a silent lack of resistance or—as in the case of Moshe’s warnings—by ignoring reports of evil. With Night, Wiesel, like Moshe, bears witness to tragedy in order to warn others, to prevent anything like the Holocaust from ever happening again.
The reason Night ends by leaving you with questions is because, as Moishe the Beadle said in the beginning, "there is a certain power in a question that is lost in the answer."
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