1 J. S. Foer and the theme of 9/11 in literature
2 Plot synopsis
3 Theory of Oskar's possible mental disorders
3. 1 Posttraumatic Stress Disorder
3. 2 Autism Spectrum Disorder
3. 3 Depression
4 Oskar's character
5 Oskar's mental state
5. 1 Posttraumatic Stress Disorder
5. 2 Autism Spectrum Disorder
5. 3 Depression
5. 4 Diagnosis
GRESTYOVÁ, Natália Jane. A case study of a fictional character Oskar Schell in J. S. Foer's novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. [Bachelor thesis].
This bachelor thesis analyses Oskar Schell, the fictional character from Jonathan Safran Foer's novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. The chosen technique is called „a case study“ since it examines the case of Oskar Schell with an emphasis on his mental state. The thesis is divided into two main parts; theoretical and practical. The theory briefly deals with the author and his literary purpose, explains the plot the basic theories of three mental disorders - posttraumatic stress disorder, autism and clinical depression. The practical part demonstrates symptoms of these illnesses in Oskar's passages and in the end provides a possible diagnosis.
Case study. Trauma. 9/11. PTSD. Autism. Asperger's syndrome. Depression.
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a case study is „an intensive analysis of an individual unit (as a person or community) stressing developmental factors in relation to environment“, or, using simpler words, „a published report about a person, group, or situation that has been studied over time“ (2016). The Cambridge Dictionary adds that such a study is a „a detailed account giving information about the development of a person, group, or thing, especially in order to show general principles“ (2016). The aim of this case study thesis is to analyse the fictional character Oskar Schell from Jonathan Safran Foer's novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005) in an intensive and complex way with an emphasis on his mental traits.
The thesis aims to look at Oskar's personality with a psychological approach, examining patterns of his behavior and possible symptoms of some mental disorders. The 9-year-old protagonist, having suffered a loss of his father during the 9/11 terrorist attacks as well as naturally possessing slightly atypical intellectual attributes, is a fine example of an eccentric fictional character. By means of an overview of three mental illnesses, this paper will try to uncover and conclude whether or not could Oskar's personality be considered abnornal.
The study is divided into two main parts; theoretical and practical. The first chapter in the theoretical part deals with the author of the novel, Jonathan Safran Foer, his literary purpose with this book and his originally unintentional 9/11 theme. It also explains his motifs for creating Oskar in the way he is created. The following chapter briefly explains the plot of the story, including all three storylines, i. e. grandpa's and grandma's, not only Oskar's. The last and main theoretical passage provides the psychological definitions of three mental disorders; namely posttraumatic stress disorder, autism and Asperger's syndrome (blended into autism spectrum disorder), and clinical depression. The descriptions of illnesses are written in popular, not scientific language, making them easy to read and understand. However, they do not lack credibility and their foundation comes from the latest version of the internationally acclaimed Diagnostical and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM-V 2013).
The second, analytical section of this thesis is an empirical demonstration of Oskar's symptoms. The main chapter, again split into three subchapters, displays Oskar's parts of the narration, mostly dialogues, which depict his mental state. Starting with PTSD, followed by autism spectrum disorder and finishing with clinical depression, its purpose is to pragmatically determine whether or not could Oskar be classified as mentally ill. The conclusion, being the last chapter, offers a potential psychological diagnosis for Oskar Schell.
The psyche of the protagonist is certainly not bursting with health and well-being, but this could be justified by fairly objective reasons. These rationales are connected predominantly with the death of Oskar's dearest father and the aftermath of 9/11, but some were likely present before the tragedy. Oskar is very unique and hypothetically probably never was, or would be considered completely typical. However, any kind of diagnosis has got to stand on a sound basis, not just first-look assumptions, and that is what the purpose of this study aims to be.
1 J. S. Foer and the theme of 9/11 in literature
Jonathan Safran Foer, born in 1977, is a Jewish-American novelist based in New York City. He has written two world-famous novels, Everything is Illuminated (2002) and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005), plus one work of non-fiction about vegetarianism called Eating Animals (2009). On top of that, he has published several short essays and edited an anthology A Convergence of Birds: Original Fiction and Poetry Inspired by the Work of Joseph Cornell (2001). He is currently at the position of a creative writing teacher at New York University.
When Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close came out in 2005, it immediately gained the status of a novel about 9/11, receiving both criticism and praise. Many scholars commented on Foer's aspirations with this prose, speculating about the ethics and techniques used in the novel, and particularly, the 9-year-old protagonist Oskar. Only a few examples include stating that „by using Oskar, a nine-year-old who lost his father in the attacks on the WTC, Jonathan Safran Foer enables himself and his readership to see the trauma of 9/11 without the protective film of adulthood and distant observation.“ (Gerlach 2011, p. 19), that „dealing with exactly this issue, namely writing about a traumatic event, Jonathan Safran Foer's novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close endavours to adequately(?) represent the post-9/11 traumatic experience.“ (Scheuren 2010, p. 4), or that „In this context, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is an intriguing post-9/11 novel, as it not only deals with the twenty-first century domestic American trauma of 9/11 but engages with older and, in a sense more established, non- American traumatic events as well.“ (Engels 2013, p. 4).
However, when asked about his own objectives with ELAIC, Foer himself answered rather differently. In a video interview made by his brother Joshua, Jonathan explains how he happened to write about 9/11: „I definitely didn't want to write about 9/11 […] I started with this character Oskar and I knew that he has experienced some kind of loss, that his father died, and he was really inventive, full of all of these anxieties that had to do with skyscrapers and flights.“ (Foer 2009). Oskar's father was originally supposed to die because of a heart attack. Only later, when Jonathan showed the draft to his brother, Joshua stated that the whole plot and character of Oskar would make greater sense in the concept of 9/11, to which Jonathan immediately responded by changing the story. But still, the author does not see the main message in the 9/11 theme, claiming that the book is about a loss and the emphasis is on that itself. 9/11 is used only as a background.
With regard to the general idea and meaning of the story, Foer puts it this way: „I'm not interested in telling people what it means, I'm interested in hearing what it means from readers and then giving my own thoughts. […] Novels aren't good at giving messages, the novelist is not there to give a message but to open up a question and to make the experience more deep.“ (Foer 2009). And Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close has certainly done so, appraised by some but also condemned by many, mainly for the personality of Oskar being rather unrealistic. Foer makes his views clear: „People say: “It’s not quite realistic, what he [Oskar Schell] does.” And I think, “Yeah of course not. We can agree on that.” That wasn’t my intention. My intention was to create something that was believable. Something that you could really empathize with, someone whose journey you wanted to be along for.“ (Foer in Birndbaum 2005).
As for the reviews and subjective criticism of his literature, Foer states that he has never written a review nor thought in those terms and language. „A bird is not an ornithologist“, he justifies his publications (Foer 2009).
2 Plot synopsis
The main protagonist of the story, Oskar Schell, is a nine-year-old boy whose beloved father, Thomas Schell Jr., died during the terrorist attacks on 9/11. The novel follows Oskar as well as the lives of two other people; Oskar's grandfather Thomas Schell Sr. and Oskar's grandmother (always referred to as 'grandma' only), both of whom have gone through mourning and loss as well. There is a distinctive pattern in the narrators in chapters, beginning with Oskar, then grandpa, followed by Oskar again and finishing with grandma. The novel ends with a chapter narrated by Oskar, just as it started, concluding that Oskar's story can be seen as the framing of the novel.
The story begins one year after „the worst day“, when Oskar finds an envelope in his father's closet inside a vase he smashed, with the word „Black“ on it. Believing it somehow belongs to the clues from „Reconnaissance Expedition“, a game his dad used to create for him, Oskar decides that „finding the lock is his ultimate raison d ’ etre “ (French: Reason for being) (Foer, p. 69, emphasis original), which would get him „closer to Dad“ (Foer, p. 52). Figuring out the word „Black“ is a surname since it is capitalized, he begins a quest throughout the five boroughs of New York City aiming to meet every person named Black in order to find the lock. One of the first people Oskar meets in his search for the key's origin is a 48-year-old woman named Abby Black. They become friends although Abby does not have any information about the key. Later on Oskar meets 103-years-old Mr. Black, who, surprisingly, lives only one floor above the Schells, and he joins Oskar in his journey. Towards the end Oskar is accompanied by „the renter“, an old man who has just moved in with grandma and turned out to be his long-forgotten grandfather, Thomas Schell Sr. The book spans many months of the expedition. Eight months after meeting Abby, Oskar finds an old message from her on the answering machine. Oskar had not touched the telephone since the day his dad died, hearing his father's last words calling from the building that fell down minutes after the final „ Are you there? Are you there? Are you- “ . When Oskar comes to Abby, she directs him to her ex-husband, William Black, where Oskar finds out that the key once belonged to William's father. In his will, William's father left William a key to a safe-deposit box, but William had already sold the vase at the estate sale to Thomas Schell. Then Oskar tells William something that he has never told anyone - the story of the last answering machine message he received from his father only minutes before the building collapsed. Oskar then gives William Black the key, disappointed about the whole odyssey for the key had not only nothing to do with Thomas Schell but it also made him feel even further from his dad. In the end we find out that Oskar's mother knew about the quest from the very beginning when she found the detailed plan Oskar created, and that she had called every Black, letting them know in advance that Oskar would be coming. The novel ends up with Oskar and the renter going to the cemetery in the middle of the night, opening Oskar's father empty coffin and filling it with thousands of unsent letters Thomas Schell Sr. had been writing for years since he left his son.
However upsetting might the anticlimax of Oskar's story seem, the book consists of two more storylines. Grandpa's parts are all titled „Why I'm Not Where You Are“ and are dated from 5/21/63 to 9/11/03, exactly two years after Thomas Schell's tragic death, when Oskar and grandpa decide to open the grave. The very first sentence, „To my unborn child:“ (Foer, p. 16) indicates that the chapters are in fact letters Thomas Schell Sr. had been writing to his son since he was born, but were never sent. The retrospective letters explain how Thomas Schell Sr experienced a disastrous event as well, when his girlfriend Anna, who he is still deeply in love with, died pregnant during WWII bombing in Dresden in 1945. This tragedy caused Thomas to completely lose his voice and only communicate through writing words on a notepad. He later moved to the United States, where he coincidentally met Anna's younger sister (grandma) at a Columbian Bakery in New York City. „We'd both come to New York lonely, broken and confused“, he descibes them. (Foer, p. 28) They started to talk and when she found out he had lost his voice, she started to cry desperatedly and in the end of the meeting asked him to „Please marry me“. (Foer, p. 32) Even though they did get married and eventually had a child, Thomas Schell Jr., their relationship was never happy nor fulfilled. „I thought we could have a beautiful reunion, although we had hardly known each other in Dresden. It didn't work.“ stands in one of the letters (Foer, p. 109). They would set up a number of rather absurd rules and create spaces called „Nothing Places“, „they would be nonexistent territories in the apartment in which one could temporarily cease to exist“ (Foer, p. 110). When Thomas' wife broke one of the rules and became pregnant, he decided to abandon the family and return to Germany. Years later, when finding out about his son's tragic death, Thomas Schell Sr. travelled to New York and asked grandma to accept him back. So each time Oskar came to visit his grandma, the grandfather would hide in the guest room pretending to be the renter.
However, the two of them met several times and believing the renter is a stranger, Oskar revealed him his deepest secret, the father's unanswered call and the unbearable guilt that followed him ever since. The culmination in the end comes when they fill Thomas Schell Jr's empty coffin with all the unsent letters.
Grandma's parts are all called „My feelings“ and are in epistolatory form, as a letter to Oskar as well, written from the airport on 12th September 2003. She explains her point of view from the very beginning up to the present. She is melancholic and devastated by the past, but she loves Oskar very much and that is ultimately what she wants to tell him via the letter. Her sentences are simple and each of them is followed by a blank space, suggesting her inability to talk fluently and easily about everything that has happened. In the end, she and grandpa, not knowing what to do next, agree on staying living at the airport, a neutral place between Dresden and New York, and between staying and leaving.
3 Theory of Oskar's possible mental disorders
After the publication of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close in 2005, several theories emerged among literary scientists regarding Oskar's mental state. The disorders which are most often described within Oskar's character are posttraumatic stress disorder (known as PTSD), autism, Asperger's syndrome (in this study blended together under autism spectrum disorder) and clinical depression. As there is a high comorbidity rate among all these illnesses, it is possible that Oskar shows signs of every single, or most of them, at the same time. The death of his father is believed to be the first and foremost factor in developing the disorders, but certain features of Oskar's atypical personality were likely present before the tragic event. However, this study does not rely on assumptions about Oskar's past, and only looks at the symptoms depicted in the book. Moreover, the thesis does not provide the readers with complete scientific definitions of any given disorders, for that would be overambitious and futile, but it does introduce the reader to the basic theories collected from several reliable sources.
3. 1 Posttraumatic Stress Disorder
Trauma, descending from the Greek word for wound, is a medical term implying physical injury which only became a psychological term since the emergence of psychology as a separate discipline in the late 1800’s. The most common trauma-related disorder is the posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is, simply put, the natural consequence of an abnormal circumstance or trauma.
According to the latest Diagnostical and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V 2013) published by the American Psychiatric Association, PTSD is a mental disorder that can develop after a person is exposed to one or more traumatic events, such as sexual assault, warfare, traffic collisions, terrorism or other threats on a person's life. Symptoms include disturbing thoughts or feelings related to past traumas intruding on the present, avoidance of trauma-related cues, alterations in how a person thinks and feels about themselves and the world, and hyperarousal, persisting for more than a month after a traumatic event. The first symptoms, however, often emerge later, within six to twelve months after the event.