The Devil's Arithmetic Themes
by Jane Yolen

The Devil's Arithmetic book cover
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The Devil's Arithmetic Themes

The main themes in The Devil's Arithmetic are memory, death, power, maturity, and identity.

  • Memory: As a twelve-year-old girl living in modern day New York City, Hannah doesn't understand her family's need to remember the past. Only by experiencing the Holocaust firsthand does Hannah come to understand the importance of cultural memory.
  • Death and power: As Hannah experiences the Holocaust, she contends with both the horrors of death and the powerlessness that Jewish people felt.
  • Maturity and identity: By the end of the novel, Hannah has matured from a petulant child into a more culturally aware individual who embraces her Jewish identity.

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The central theme of The Devil’s Arithmetic is the importance and power of memory. At the opening of the novel, Hannah is bored and frustrated by her relatives’ constant need to remember the past; she cannot understand why her grandparent’s memories are so important to them.Then Hannah is transported to a Jewish village during World War II, where she, along with other Jews, is forced into a concentration camp.Ironically, as soon as Hannah arrives at the camp, she loses her own memory: when her head is shaved, she finds that she can no longer remember her own past in New York or the history of the Nazis. Only when Hannah is stripped of her own power to remember and forced to experience the horrifying events of the Holocaust firsthand, does she begin to understand the true power of memory.

Soon after she loses her memory, Hannah has a number tattooed on her arm by another prisoner in the camps. The tattooist tells her his own daughter—who has died in the camps—shared Hannah’s Hebrew name, Chaya. The man tells Hannah she must remember, for memories keep his daughter and all those who have died alive. Without memory, he warns, life does not exist. However, Hannah cannot truly understand his message until she experiences the horrors of the camp herself.

In the camp, Hannah befriends Rivka, who has already lost many relatives. Yet instead of letting her loss defeat her, Rivka becomes more determined to live and remember—as she says, through the memories of the living, “all those gone before are alive inside us.” When Hannah tells Rivka about her own loss of memory, Rivka says this because remembering can be so painful. However, she assures Hannah that her memory will return, as soon as she is ready for it.

Only after Hannah has learned to become a stronger, braver person—by witnessing the horrors in the camps, finding the strength to keep living, and helping others even when she has so little herself—does her memory begin to return. This time, when Hannah remembers her life in America, she recognizes the true power of her memories and shares them with others. She tells Rivka and their friends that one day there will be a Jewish state with a Jewish president, that the Jews will survive.She pleads with her friends to remember as well, to “carry the message” of survival into the future and ensure that the horrors of the Holocaust will never happen again. Finally, Hannah understands and uses the true power of memory, as painful as it may be.

Related to the theme of memory is the power of storytelling in the novel.In the opening, Hannah belittles and refuses to listen to her grandparents’ stories. However, soon after arriving in the past, even before she is taken to the concentration camps, Hannah begins to recognize the power of stories. The day after she arrives in the Jewish village, Hannah meets some of the children and tells them the plots of modern books...

(The entire section is 832 words.)