Ambiguity

Oskar struggles with the reality that part of life is learning how to live without answers. This theme appears early on during Oskar’s dad’s last Reconnaissance Expedition, during which he refuses to give Oskar any direction as to his goal. In response to Oskar’s frustration that he doesn’t know the right answer, his dad explains that there’s no wrong answer, encouraging Oskar to find freedom in searching and drawing his own conclusions. However, Oskar finds the search for meaning terrifying as he continually imagines ways that his dad might have died. The novel portrays this ambiguity as an uncomfortable but inevitable part of life. For example, when Thomas and Grandma attempt to delineate their apartment into the clear categories of “something” and “nothing,” the two begin to blur, signifying that people cannot escape uncertainty. Ultimately, Oskar learns to embrace ambiguity, symbolized by his decision to dig up his dad’s grave and acknowledge that he may never know how exactly his dad died. On his way to the cemetery, Oskar joyously sticks his head out of the limo sunroof at the part of the 59th Street Bridge that exists in neither borough—a liminal space—finding wonder in a place with no clear meaning. 

Relationships

Foer portrays love and familial connections as more essential to life than personal greatness. Oskar’s dad introduces this theme through his anecdote about the Sahara Desert. According to his model, changing things on a small scale that only affects those directly around you still changes everything. Mr. Black emphasizes the same idea to Oskar in talking about his own life story, in which he trades covering globally important events like war for staying at home with his wife, prioritizing his own love over what the world deems important. Mr. Black further disparages so-called greatness when he points out that he can sum up most of the famous people in his index with the words “war” or “money,” destructive and emotionally empty forces. Although Oskar initially wanted his dad to become immortalized as “great” in Mr. Black’s index, he becomes overjoyed to see Mr. Black has distilled Oskar into the word “son.” The card helps Oskar realize that he himself became important to Mr. Black because they spent time together on his quest. Thus, the word “son” means that Oskar became significant through his love for his dad, a triumph of personal love and commitment over fame. 

Deception

Throughout the novel, characters lie to protect their loved ones, only to unintentionally cause more harm. Thomas pretends to read Grandma’s blank memoir to spare her feelings, but he instead makes her believe that he doesn’t see her as a full person separate from Anna. Oskar’s mom secretly oversees Oskar’s quest, allowing him the illusion of keeping her out of his grieving process. However, her well-meaning deception causes Oskar to believe that she doesn’t love him or that she can’t handle his grief. Although the magnitudes of these secrets differ, in both cases the choice to act out a charade instead of having an honest conversation hurts the very person it was intended to protect. Foer highlights the importance of uncomfortable but necessary honesty again at the end of the novel when Oskar decides to dig up his dad’s grave. The emptiness of the grave forces Oskar to acknowledge that he might never know what happened to his dad. After taking this step, Oskar repairs his relationship with his mom by speaking honestly with her about his fear of being institutionalized. Their shared openness addresses difficult feelings of grief but, in the end, allows Oskar to feel certain that his mother loves him unconditionally.