The Periodic Table

by Primo Levi

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 414

The term “character” is usually reserved for a person depicted in a work of fiction. Almost all the people who appear in The Periodic Table, which is a memoir, are real people, so to call them characters may seem misguided or just plain wrong. Yet the book has also been called a set of short stories, and the fictional elements are a constant topic of debate. The chapters in the book vary considerably in topic and style—some factual ones that resemble fiction, some clearly stories, one perhaps a myth.

The principal character in the book is Levi himself. In writing of himself within a variety of situations, he does not always make himself the protagonist. This multiple positioning is a source of critical commentary. Murray Baumgarten puts it this way: “the character Primo Levi in the text needs to be distinguished from the narrator, Primo Levi, the writer of the text.” Among the notable individuals the writer introduces are the following:

The chapter "Lead," the most fabulous, tells of Rodmund, a Bronze Age nomadic, who discovers and works on lead ore.

In "Iron," we meet Sandro, a friend from chemistry class, who took Primo mountain climbing and later died serving in the Italian Resistance.

"Phosphorus," set in a laboratory where he worked, includes nascent, ultimately unrealized romance with co-worker Giulia.

"Cerium" introduces his friend Alberto at Auschwitz, for whom he gets food by bartering the lighters made with the found metal alloy. This chapter gives insights into the ways of survival, both the strategies and the affective bonds that provided motivation.

The penultimate chapter, "Vanadium," brings back a chapter from earlier times, but one that has not previously appeared in the book. Through his work more than two decades after leaving Germany, Levi ends up in contact with a German doctor. Work-related correspondence turns into a discussion about Auschwitz, when it is revealed that Dr. Müller was Levi’s lab supervisor there. The schism between their understandings of what had happened there, even after 20 years, troubles Levi deeply. Not only is Müller not facing reality, but he dies, so this particular relationship can never be resolved—and leaves Levi wondering if that is true for all those who had worked over Jews in the camps.

Baumgarten, Murray. 2013. Primo Levi's “Small Differences” and the Art of The Periodic Table: A Reading of “Potassium.” Shofar, 32(1), 60-78.

“The Periodic Table by Primo Levi (1975).” 2017. Books and Boots: Reflections on Books and Art. Webpost, Simon, August 8, 2017.

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