Before Elie became one of the millions of victims of Nazi cruelty, he was an idealistic and even religious teen. From his self-description, he is an ambitious boy seeking a mentor to teach him the Zohar and help him unravel Jewish mysticism. He is completely devoted to his family, and enjoys his childhood under the safety of a stable home, albeit in violent times.
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However, the experiences he narrates not only rob him of his childhood, but he also feels they erode away his religion and even humanity. When they are first driven away from their homes into ghettos and later cattle cars, he shows kindness to the fellow Jews by getting them water.
However, he is gradually exposed to a life where everyone fends for himself or herself and family bonds are relegated to obscurity in the struggle to survive. Consequently, when Elie stares at the looking glass, he finds, instead of his face, a copse staring back at him. Emotionally, this implies he is dead to the world that had shown him little apart from cruelty and in his mind’s eye, death was all he saw in himself.
Losing his childhood innocence
In the preface to the text, Elie describes the ordeal of his misplaced and frequent intimacy with death as one of the ways he lost his childhood innocence: “…the ordeal I endured as an adolescent, at an age when one’s knowledge of death and evil should be limited to what one discovers in literature?” (Wiesel 10).
In the camps, he experiences and observes events that he retrospectively thinks would ordinarily have driven someone to insanity. He probably feels his religion and even manhood die along with his lost childhood since none of these serve him in any way during his incarceration. Concerning the children he witnessed being thrown in a trench of fire, he tells himself, “…no, they were dead, otherwise I surely would have lost my mind” (Wiesel 14).
By doing so, he is trying to rationalize the evil he saw and contextualize it in a logical way. In the train car, he is exposed to the inhumanity of people beating up a helpless old woman because of screaming out in terror. Later in the camp, he is forced to watch as a child is executed, dying a slow painful death yet he is helpless to do anything about it.
Self-Loathing and shame
He severely gets to the edge of losing hope and his inaction causes him to hate and curse himself. When his father is brutalized, he is impotent to defend him and even when he is sick and dying, and Elie fantasizes about the prospect of not having a “burden” to carry. A feeling that he describes as emotionally scarring him for eternity, “Instantly, I felt ashamed, ashamed of myself Forever” (Wiesel 131).
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According to Donadio Rachel, he carries with him a great sadness, fear and shame for his very existence because he cannot do anything to improve an immoral situation. Therefore, he judges himself harshly and possibly feels he is as good as dead given what he has undergone and witnessed. He has been so close to death for so long that he sees its reflection in the faces of his fellow prisoners, who lose hope and collapse all around him. In addition, he is severely malnourished and the fact that he actually looks like a corpse may not be very exaggerated.
In the end, Elie’s reflection in the mirror bespeaks his terror at looking at the person the holocaust had turned him into. He sees past his eyes into the reflection of what he had lived through and rightly feels dead. He is surprised he actually made it through the imprisonment, having lost so much of himself and his loved ones. The loss was so great that his very existence reminds him only of the bitter reality of death, which he had to contend with for the duration of the war.
Donadio, Rachel. “The Story of “Night.” The New York Times. 2008. Web.
Wiesel, Elie, and Wiesel, Marion. Night. London: Penguin UK, 2012. Print.