Ambiguous Morality in Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

Everything Is Illuminated
Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s not a coincidence that I started reading this book during a days-long power outage. By candlelight, of course.

Actually, that’s a lie. It was a coincidence. I’d gotten it from the library weeks before and I just didn’t get to it until the power went out. But it did give me a sense of satisfaction to see the book sitting in the small pool of light cast by the candle flame.

After finishing the book, I find this image apt as I don’t know that anything was really illuminated. Just more questions and mysteries about the relative nature of right and wrong and good and evil when every choice is at least a little bit wrong, a little bit evil.

In college, I took a couple of classes in Process Theology. I really felt a connection to it, which makes me suspect I didn’t understand it properly because everyone says it’s practically impenetrable by the rational thoughts of an average person. That’s fine with me; I still like the way I understand it, even if it’s totally off.

One of the things I remember about Process Theology is that, rather than acting directly on the world, God is like a magnetic force, drawing us towards the most God-like action in each moment. As my professor explained, in this theology, “God” is essentially synonymous with “love,” so that in each moment we are drawn to the action that is most loving. We can choose to follow this pull or ignore it. If we follow it, we’re closer to God. If we don’t, we’re further from God. Because the decisions in each moment are determined by what happened in the last, that often leaves us in an individual moment with unclear choices, none of which is clearly the one that is closer to God. The professor used the example of Sophie’s Choice, but a less emotionally fraught one could be whether to stay up and blog or to go to bed early and blog in the morning. One choice is difficult because it’s so important, the other because it’s so trivial, but theoretically, the same principle applies. There is no right answer in either situation, but from a Process Theology standpoint, there is an answer that is less wrong and more in the direction of love.

I feel comforted by this idea because it’s ambiguous and because there is no prescribed course of action that is deemed “right”. I also feel a little terrified of this idea for the same reasons. It feels like a pretty loose framework, but it also feels accurate to me.

At any rate, this is about all I’m going to say about this book because I don’t want to spoil the plot.

Okay, one more thing: I thought the structure of the book was ingenious and Foer handled it with skill. I loved how Sasha and Jonathan mirrored one another until it felt almost like a conversation between the author and himself. Which, I suppose, all fiction is to one degree or another.

View all my reviews

UPDATE! NaNoWriMo Day 6 Word Count: 10,107

3 Replies to “Ambiguous Morality in Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer”

  1. I’m so glad you reviewed this. It keeps coming up in my Amazon suggestions and I’ve been dithering. I’ll give it a read after seeing your reiview.


    1. I might have to equivocate a little. I really enjoyed the book, but there were some quite disturbing images of violence in there. If you’re feeling sensitive to that kind of thing, you might want to give it a pass. If you’ve not read Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, that one was less disturbing and I think better written than this novel.


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