The Last Words on Earth
American Identity in Nicole Krauss’s “The Last Words on Earth"
What aspects of life compose the “American identity”? How can one acculturate after a great loss? Nicole Krauss’s short story “The Last Words on Earth” answers these questions by focusing on the life of Leo Gursky, an elderly Jewish man who lived through the Holocaust. As a retired locksmith, locks hold great and deliberate significance in Leo’s life, and represent his assimilation into American culture through the juxtaposition between his forced invisibility and his American individuality, as well as overcoming his insecurities about his usefulness as an elderly man.
Leo’s loss of himself in favour of invisibility throughout his life during the Holocaust starkly contrasts his deep desire to be seen in his old age living in America. This change in personality results from the reinforced importance of individuality and freedom he has learnt from assimilating into American culture. In her essay discussing braided narratives throughout a few short stories, Corinne Bancroft notes that “these authors use their fiction to create a potential space for readers to recognize and acknowledge the legacies of historical violence. They signal this intention in their novels’ paratextual material: Krauss dedicates her novel to her grandparents “who taught me the opposite of disappearing”(Bancroft, 265). As the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, Krauss roots Leo’s desire to be seen after years of invisibility in her grandparents’ reality of immigration surrounding World War 2. Leo’s invisibility throughout his life acts as a shield from genocidal violence and represents the world he lost. In Victoria Aarons and Alan Berger’s book titled “Third Generation Holocaust Representation: Trauma, History, and Memory,” they remark that “Krauss’s literary method seeks to reconstruct and reassemble fragmented lives, giving her characters a renewed sense of meaning and purpose” (Aarons & Berger, 153).
In the case of “the Last Words on Earth”, Krauss uses American ideology surrounding the emphasis of individuality as a method to reconstruct Leo’s fragmented sense of self after a life of learning how to be invisible in order to survive the Holocaust. Leo’s assimilation into American culture begins when his cousin gives him a job as a locksmith upon arrival in the United States. Leo remarks that “I hardly knew anyone, only a second cousin, who was a locksmith, so I worked for him. If he’d been a shoemaker, I would have been a shoemaker; if he had shoveled shit, I, too, would have shoveled shit. But he was a locksmith, he taught me the trade, and that’s what I became” (Krauss, 3). Leo’s connection to locks seems to have happened coincidentally, however, through this quote, Krauss deliberately frames Leo’s cousin as a hardworking American and an opener of doors, physically in his career, but also metaphorically by helping Leo establish himself in the United States. By being taught the trade of locksmithing, Leo simultaneously learns the American way of making something of yourself through hard work and fulfills his desire to be seen after so many years of being invisible.
In Leo’s narrative, the symbolism of locks provides the opportunity to overcome insecurities surrounding his usefulness. Like many Americans, the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality plagues Leo, forcing his usefulness and purpose to become directly linked to his self-worth. Throughout his life, Leo develops an innate need to prove his usefulness, almost as if he feels the need to prove himself worthy of a second chance at life in the United States. Survivor’s guilt about escaping the cruelty and mass genocide of the Holocaust may fuel Leo’s desire to be useful as an American and these two sides of his life act as two sides of the same coin: his insecurity about his usefulness act as a direct consequence of spending so many years completely invisible.
When Leo receives a call in the middle of the night from a man who needs his door unlocked, Leo initially says he will not help the man, yet “[Leo] was filled with guilt. [He] thought, what do I need with sleep? There will be time. Tomorrow. Or the next day. Six feet under” (Krauss, 14). Leo does not become compelled by monetary gain or his own mortality to drop everything and go help this man, but instead, Leo’s overwhelming desire to be useful overpowers everything else. Upon approaching the lock, Leo remarks that “it was a tricky lock. The man stood above me, holding my flashlight. The rain was running down the back of my neck. I felt how much depended on my unlocking that lock. I tried and I failed. Tried and failed. And then, at last, my heart started to race. I turned the handle, and the door slipped open” (Krauss, 15). The door may act as a physical obstacle for Leo, but the threat of not being able to open the door poses a critical emotional challenge for him; a chance to prove himself as a useful member of American society, even in his old age. The whole situation acts as a test of Leo’s ability to still be useful in retirement which heightens the stakes for him opening this specific lock immensely. When he finally unlocks the door, Leo overcomes his insecurity of losing the skill that brought him purpose and receives a reward in the form of gaining courage to finally reach out to his long-lost son.
The short story “the Last Words on Earth” by Nicole Krauss, follows Leo Gursky as he journeys from watching people of his religion and race become subjected to genocide to finding freedom in the United States. Krauss wrote “The Last Words on Earth” as a commentary on Jewish identity and a representation of her own intergenerational trauma. After reading and analyzing this short story, I wonder how American identity and assimilation fit into the full-length book that this story comes from. In Leo’s life, locks help represent his journey and assimilation into American culture through their symbolism of the country’s ideologies of individuality and freedom as well as the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality.