Eliezer, the young protagonist of Night, is continuously torn between a sense of filial duty and an interest in self-preservation. Whenever he abandons his father, however, he begins to doubt that his own life is worth saving. Like Eliezer, several other characters face a conflict between love and self-interest. By contrasting Eliezer’s struggle with the struggles of these other characters, Wiesel shows that love keeps people alive.

Read more about the love and tension between fathers and sons in Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner.

Each time Eliezer helps his father, he senses that he is putting his own life in danger. When the two men sit together in the snow, Eliezer forces himself to sacrifice sleep so that his father can rest. The decision torments Eliezer, because he knows the sleep would have helped him to remain strong. In the midst of a terrifying “selection,” Eliezer ignores his own fear and creates a distraction, allowing his father to slip back into the group of healthy men. Eliezer’s internal struggle reaches its climax when he must decide whether to give soup to his dying father or to save it for himself. Although he chooses to assist his father in each of these situations, he must constantly suppress the instinct toward self-preservation.

The few times he allows this instinct to triumph over his sense of generosity, Eliezer wonders if he deserves to be alive. Throughout the memoir, his most selfish decisions have the surprising effect of wearing him down. When he passively watches Idek’s attack on his father, Eliezer feels so much guilt that he describes himself as a beast instead of a person. If he had rushed to his father’s defense, he may have risked a brutal beating, but he would have bolstered his sense of self-respect and maintained his will to live. Toward the end of the memoir, when he loses sight of his father, he tells himself to keep moving. Again, a moment of animal instinct fills him with disgust. When he observes a gypsy’s assault on his father, he wonders, “What had happened to me?” Each lapse in his love for his father makes him slightly less human, slightly less committed to staying alive.

Like Eliezer, many of the minor figures in Night must try to reconcile a will to live with a desire to honor love’s obligations. Akiba Drumer’s love of God becomes more and more difficult to sustain in Auschwitz, yet the moment he abandons his “cabbalistic dreams” is the moment he begins to die. Rabbi Eliahou’s son chooses to run away from his father so that he can improve his own chances of surviving, yet Wiesel implies that the life that awaits Eliahou’s son is not worth living. (Eliezer remarks that he has “done well to forget” the man, and he feels glad that Rabbi Eliahou does not know that his own cruel son may have survived.) A man on a train attacks and kills his own father for a few crumbs of bread, yet in the seconds that follow, he collapses and dies. Again and again, desperate men abandon their ties to one another and to God, only to find that they are no longer able to survive.

By making an implicit comparison between Eliezer and these less fortunate characters, Wiesel shows that love has more sustaining power than bread, soup, sleep, and physical strength. Auschwitz strips its prisoners of their dignity and humanity, to the extent that several men choose to abandon their loved ones in the interest of survival. But these men do not survive. Eliezer, a weak boy who has repeatedly risked his own life to help his father, emerges from the death camps to tell his story. Love has kept him alive.