The Periodic Table Questions and Answers
by Primo Levi

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What is the theme of the chapter “Iron” in The Periodic Table?

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The Periodic Table by Primo Levi is not a straightforward autobiography, but rather a collection of poignant pieces of writing, each of which charts the course of Levi’s life as a Jewish scientist in the twentieth century and as a Holocaust survivor. Each chapter uses a chemical element as a metaphor for different parts of his life. It is one of the most powerful works on imprisonment in the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II and is considered to be one of the most moving science books ever written.

The chapter “Iron” is the chapter just before the one about Auschwitz and relates events fundamentally important to Levi’s survival during his time there. “Iron” is dedicated to Sandro Delmastro, a friend from chemistry class at university who used to take Levi hiking before the war. Delmastro was a very physical man, the complete opposite of Levi, and it was through him that Levi learnt how to become physically stronger, which he is certain is the reason he was able to survive the camp. Comparisons with Delmastro also taught him about his need to write and lead him to remember his friend not as a monument in stone (Delmastro was killed leading a resistance group in 1944), but as memorable words on a page. So, a major theme of the chapter is strength.

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