Everything Is Illuminated Summary

Jonathan Safran Foer

Everything Is Illuminated

  • Plot overview and analysis written by an experienced literary critic.
  • Full study guide for this title currently under development.
  • To be notified when we launch a full study guide, please contact us.

Everything Is Illuminated Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer.

Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Everything Is Illuminatedis based on his journey to the Ukraine to meet a woman. This woman’s family is the reason Jonathan’s grandfather survived World War II. While he never actually finds the woman he is seeking, his other experiences lead him on a journey of self-discovery. In the Ukraine, he meets a young man named Alex,whose interests are cars, America, and women. Alex’s father,a travel agent,hires Alex to act as interpreter for a visiting American client. Alex’s father hires his own dad to drive the American around, despite the fact that he has claimed to suffer blindness since his wife died. The American client is Jonathan.

Jonathan is searching for a place called Trachimbrod, which is where his grandfather grew up. He arrives at the train station, and Alex and his grandfather drive him to a town called Lutsk, where they will stay in a hotel until the next morning when they can leave for Trachimbrod.

Generations ago, a girl is found after a wagon crash into the Brod River.A rabbi finds her,names her Brod, and gives her to a local man who adopts her. Her adoptive father tells her that her mother died in childbirth, even though that is not true. Brod believes him and mourns the loss of her mother. One day, she comes home to find her father dead and learns the truth about where she came from. She is so upset by this information that she hires a young man to kill the one who revealed the truth to her. Brod is Jonathan’s four-times great grandmother.

Alex, Jonathan, and Alex’s grandfather begin to seek Trachimbrod, but they run into a problem—no one has ever heard of it. As they drive through the countryside, they stop and ask every person they see for directions to Trachimbrod but no one can help. It is not until Alex finds an older woman named Lista sitting before a little house and shows her a picture of the family that saved Jonathan’s grandfather that they make any headway. She not only recognizes Jonathan’s grandfather in the photo, but tells Alex that she is the only one remaining of Trachimbrod.

The novel flashes back again to Brod, who marries the young man she met on the night her adoptive father died. Together, they enjoy three happy years, until her husband is injured at the flourmill. Though he survives, his personality changes, and he becomes violent. Despite the fact that he often beats Brod, she remains with him and bears him three sons. The youngest of their children is the twice great grandfather of Safran, Jonathan’s grandfather. Safran’s life was similar to Brod’s in Trachimbrod, and after many lovers, he marries. The day his wife is due to give birth to their first child is the same day the Nazis arrive.

Flashing forward again, Lista leads Alex, his grandfather, and Jonathan to where Trachimbrod once was. She tells them that the Nazis had bombed the area before coming in to kill any survivors. They made the men spit on the Torah or else watch their families be killed. Lista’s sister had returned to gather the belongings of the people of Trachimbrod, to keep until they or their relatives came to ask for it. She was shot, leaving Lista to look after the items. She gives Jonathan a box with a label that reads “In case.” Later that night, back at the hotel, Jonathan, Alex, and his grandfather examine the contents of the box, among which is a picture of Alex’s grandfather, his wife, and his closest friend, Hershel. He tells Jonathan and Alex how his life and actions in the village of Kolki led to Hershel’s death.

For some time, Alex and Jonathan continue to correspond as they try to write about searching for Safran’s savior. However, Jonathan does not always write the truth, preferring to make the story happier. Alex wants to keep to reality, and so stops answering Jonathan’s correspondence. However, Jonathan later discovers that Alex threw his father out of their house because his father was abusive. Jonathan learns also that Alex’s grandfather took his own life to protect Alex from history.

Memories and truth are important themes in Everything is Illuminated. They drive Jonathan’s and Alex’s journeys into the past, as well as Alex’s grandfather’s decision to kill himself. They both learn about the atrocities of war—another theme—though Jonathan tries to sugarcoat the past to make it happier. Family identity is an important theme in the novel, because it is what Jonathan seeks—though it is Alex who discovers it.

Everything Is Illuminated was Foer’s debut novel. It was published in 2002, and three years later, a film by the same name was produced staring Elijah Wood and Eugene Hütz. Foer’s treatment of the present and past timelines received critical acclaim, as well as five awards and inclusion on several best books and bestsellers lists.