The novella is a short piece of fiction that is based on the author’s 800-page memoir of his time in the Nazi death camps. The shortened tale is told from a first person point of view. There is no attempt to enter other minds and little attempt to explain what is on the narrator’s mind. The sole purpose of the book is to relate briefly and succinctly what happened. The reader’s conclusions are meant to be independent although they have been led, quite consciously, toward an abhorrence of the moral vacuum presented in the camps.
The problem of capturing the unrepresentable, or sublime, into an art product has not been impossible since the Roman treatise on the topic by Longinus. Using examples from the Talmud (particularly Genesis and Job), the Iliad, and poetry, he displayed the successful methods for capturing nature in verse, ecstasy in poetry, the abyss in myth, and supreme beings in mere names. As a result, Occidental aesthetics views nothing as beyond the ability of the well-trained artist to present it in a packaged form.
Nevertheless, the moral chaos and utter Hell that was the Holocaust surpassed any previously recorded human abyss. For some, even fifty years later, it has broken the aesthetic mold of Longinus; how is it possible to comprehend, let alone represent, this most awful of all events? Not easily, yet Wiesel’s methods resemble those humans who preceded him in the effort to understand the horrible and sublime by representing their experience in one form or other. It is through that artistic effort that comprehension comes.
The means of representing the unrepresentable are the techniques of the sparse and staccato. In this case, those techniques are used to keep the reader, as much as possible, in mind of how precious is the breath of air the death camp inmates survive on. Words are used sparingly and, when possible, blank space is used instead.
The terse sentences remind the reader of the necessity of conserving energy: one is meant to be bothered by the apparent waste of Eliezer’s run across the camp (at the end of a workday) to check on his father. Generally, scenes are made up of few words yet loom large; the storyteller relies on the imagination of the audience, rather than on his ability. He places the dots and hints at the color, but the reader creates the image. Sentences like: “An open tomb”, “Never”, “The gate to the camp opened.” They are fragments, scraps of evidence that remain until they are sown together into a narrative which makes sense of what happened. The narrative replaces the useless pictures the GIs took when they liberated the camps. The struggle of representing the unrepresentable horror, as Wiesel discovered, is best accomplished in the same way that Longinus felt the writers of the Talmud did-with few words and plenty of space for digestion.
Night is full of scriptural allusions, or hints of reference to biblical passages. In fact, the very timelessness of the constant night is reminiscent of supernatural tales. Hasidic tales especially do not follow Occidental notions but develop their own time according to the message of the story. “Time,” says Sibelman, “is represented as a creative force, a bridge sinking man to eternity.” Within the story time are more direct allusions to particular stories. Two of the most memorable examples will suffice to demonstrate.
Immediately after realizing that the group is not marching into the death pit, there is the incantation, “Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp…” etc. This passage is a pastiche of Psalm 150. In French (Wiesel writes in French or Yiddish), the start of each line begins with Jamais (meaning never). Psalm 150 praises God for his works and deeds while the “Never” passage commits just the opposite reality to memory.
Another example of allusion is the execution of the three prisoners. One of these doomed prisoners is an innocent child, a pipel. This scene recalls the moment in the Christian Gospel when Christ is crucified. In the Gospel according to Matthew, he is accompanied by two thieves. At the point of expiration, Christ asks God why he has been forsaken. At death, the sky darkens and the onlookers murmur that this was definitely the Son of God. In contradistinction, the death of the pipel bothers the onlookers in the opposite way. There is still a look for God but this time, “[w]here is he? Here He is-He is hanging here on the gallows…”
Traditionally, the bildungsroman in German literature is the story of a young, naive, man entering the world to seek adventure. He finds his adventure but it provides him with an important lesson. The denouement finds him happy, wiser, and ready for a productive life. The classic example is J. W. von Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship.
Wiesel’s novella turns this tradition on its head. He presents an educated young man forced into a hell made by human hands. There he learns more wisdom than he asked for, even when he dreamed of learning the mystical tradition. What he learns about human behavior he would rather not apply. In the end, he sees himself in the mirror, for the first time in several years, as a corpse. The result is not that he will think about being a productive worker, but about healing humanity.