Critical Essays Elie Wiesel and Existentialism


As did Ernest Hemingway, Albert Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir, Elie Wiesel expresses a relentless inner compunction to interpret twentieth-century events that confuse, frustrate, or dismay. He writes about his role in World War II to better understand the suffering of Hitler's victims. His conclusions present a grim reckoning of anti-Semitism and death camp philosophy. An avid student of existentialism, which he encountered in the late 1940s under the instruction of novelist Jean-Paul Sartre at the Sorbonne, a French university famous for preparing students of the humanities, Wiesel is heir to the European philosophers, theologians, and writers of the 1920s and 1930s who delineate human significance in terms of action. According to the existentialist's code:

Human beings are often forced into terror and alienation because of their inability to know the future or to control what is done to them or taken from them.

Often political situations create a world vision that is absurd, haphazard, destructive, and vicious toward the hapless individual.

People sometimes attempt to escape meaningless suffering even when the effort causes them more pain, a re-evaluation of life, loss, disillusion, alienation from tradition, or death.

In assuring their own survival, people may disappoint, betray, or abandon friends and family.

The only source of redemption for the world's cruelty and suffering must come from individuals willing to confront their oppressors.

Existentialism defines the hero as a solitary figure who transcends human weakness to undergo absurdly meaningless peril. Goaded by a need to penetrate the mysteries of the universe, this lone hero must abide by the dictates of conscience and exert finite, human powers to break free from isolation, anguish, passivity, or despair. As demonstrated in Night, the redemptive power of commitment, spirituality, moral tenacity, and integrity resides in action — the localized, often feeble performance of forgiveness, charity, and acceptance of others.