Symbols & Symbolism in Night by Elie Wiesel

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  • 0:00 Understanding Symbolism
  • 1:15 Setting of the Novel
  • 2:54 Corpses
  • 3:56 Night
  • 5:10 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Liz Breazeale
'Night,' an account of the Holocaust by Elie Wiesel, is full of symbols and symbolism. In this lesson, learn about a few of those symbols and their importance within the work.

Understanding Symbolism

You know how every Valentine's Day you find hearts everywhere? At the store, in a box of chocolates, some coffee shops even make heart shaped bagels. This is because a heart has come to represent love, an overwhelmingly abstract idea that's really hard to describe or understand on its own.

Hearts are just one example of symbolism at work in the real world. Symbolism is the use of an easily recognizable person, place, or thing to represent an idea that may otherwise be difficult to grasp or explain. Authors use symbols all the time in their writing to anchor readers to a certain idea.

Elie Wiesel, author of the book Night, utilizes several symbols that crop up repeatedly throughout the story. The book tells the story of Eliezer, a Hungarian Jewish teenager who is taken by the Nazis to various concentration camps (first Auschwitz, then Buna, then Buchenwald) during the Holocaust in WWII. It's widely believed that the narrator of the story represents Wiesel himself, although scholars have had a difficult time telling how much is based directly on Wiesel's memories of his own time in Auschwitz.

Setting of the Novel

There are many references to flames and fire throughout Night, which symbolize not only death, but also the cruelty of the Nazis. The first really memorable mention of fire comes in an early chapter of the book, as Eliezer and his family travel by cattle car to their unknown destination. You'll find out later that the people end up in Auschwitz in Poland, the most infamous of all Nazi death camps. As the train rolls onward, a woman named Mrs. Schächter shouts several times that she sees flames on the horizon. Nobody else can see these flames and, since the poor woman has already been separated from her husband and two older sons, everyone assumes she's lost her mind.

Mrs. Schächter is gagged and beaten by the other members of the cattle car in order to silence her, but she continues to shout about seeing flames that turn out to be nonexistent. This enhances the horrible, tense feeling of foreboding you feel for the passengers, because you already sense the symbolism behind this incident. Flames are destructive, and their presence on the horizon can't mean anything good, even if they aren't real.

Only a few pages later, after Eliezer and his family have arrived at Auschwitz, Eliezer witnesses children being burned by the Nazis. Not only does this present a vivid image, but also, it calls to mind the giant crematorium, a machine used to burn the bodies of Jewish prisoners in the concentration camps. The crematorium has a particular stench that permeates the entire camp and that Eliezer can smell constantly, reminding him again and again of the death that is always around him.

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