In the chapter entitled “Gold” in his memoir The Periodic Table, Primo Levi describes his life in World War II Italy. He is part of a group of seven friends in Turin in 1942, living as best they can with the rationing and wartime deprivations. The seven are mostly...
In the chapter entitled “Gold” in his memoir The Periodic Table, Primo Levi describes his life in World War II Italy. He is part of a group of seven friends in Turin in 1942, living as best they can with the rationing and wartime deprivations. The seven are mostly professional people; Levi himself is a chemist. Most of them write poetry, and they all declare themselves to be “enemies of Fascism.” As a group they are “superficial, passive, and cynical.” Even during the war, they go to plays, read and discuss literature, and try to live as normally as possible.
But the war catches up with them eventually, and the group becomes part of the resistance movement among Italians as the Nazis move in and take over. Levi and his friends are living in the Piedmont when the Fascists catch up with them in December of 1943. Levi and two others are captured and put into prison. Levi manages to get rid of his false identification card and notebook filled with names and addresses. At the prison, he is kept in a cold, single cell and is regularly interrogated although he doesn't know enough about the resistance movement to be of any use, and what he does know, he doesn't share. He and his companions manage to work out a code system to communicate.
One day when Levi is brought into the boiler room to warm up, he meets a fellow prisoner who speaks to him at length, explaining that he is a gold prospector on the Dora River and has been captured for smuggling contraband. For this man, the most important thing in life is freedom, and his little bit of gold allows him to embrace that. He even talks about how he keeps some of the gold to play with, simply because it symbolizes his freedom. Levi finds himself envious of this man and his free life.
The themes of this chapter revolve primarily around the ideas of resistance (or lack thereof) to evil and of freedom. Levi and his friends mostly ignore the war until it comes home to them. Then they have to put their ideals into action, and they take all the risks of joining the resistance movement. Obviously, Levi is not one of the leaders, but he is still a member, and this makes him vulnerable to capture, which he is willing to risk in order to stand up for what he believes. Yet Levi wishes to be free. This desire is at the heart of the resistance movement, and it is embodied by this gold prospector Levi meets in prison. This fellow prisoner values his freedom above all and would rather have freedom than wealth.