The Periodic Table

by Primo Levi

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 588

In the periodic table, the chemical elements are arranged according to their atomic number. The divisions in a person’s life are also periodic but not laid out flat. Because author Primo Levi was a chemist, he arranged his memoir—and in some ways understood his past—in an analogy to the foundations of chemistry. This metaphor is embedded in the book’s organization, with chapters named for elements. His stated purpose is to explain the victories and defeats, even the miseries of chemistry. For Levi, science is anything but detached from human emotional life.

Charting his youth in a Jewish family in northern Italy, the author moves between his personal experiences and his training in chemistry, and the shadow of Mussolini’s rise. While his family background helped propel him into this training, they were targeted as Jews, and Primo was sent from Italy to Auschwitz. Before publishing this book, Levi had already become known for other works about surviving the concentration camp. Here, his speaks of the preceding years and elaborates on some experiences of his imprisonment and its aftermath, allowing the reader a longer look at suffering and survival. What stores of energy can a person draw on to endure the unendurable? Science as much as faith help Levi through the darkest days.

Time and chemicals are far from the same, but time affects the results of chemical mixtures. Making a single element the chapter’s theme, Levi imbues its contents with other associations of that element. The mirrored themes of reaction and inaction appear throughout. Talking about chemistry raises questions about human behavior and motivation. Does placing a number of people with different properties in a particular situation mean they interactions will have the same result? The consequences of dehumanizing people, including literally subjecting them to science experiments, fit into that consideration. He takes a question such as what keeps people from moving, resisting, or stemming the tide of tyranny and links it up with inert gas.

Levi was a chemist by training and profession, but more than that, chemistry saved his life. Specifically referencing the element cerium in the chapter’s name, he explains its presence in an alloy he used in the camp. Incorporating the metal into lighters, he created a useable product that he traded for food. The combination of skill and serendipity also symbolically brought a light into his bleak existence, the prospect of survival that usually seemed so remote. More generally, working as a chemist in the Auschwitz lab kept him from other, far harsher labor requirements, again keeping him alive. Later correspondence with the one-time lab director brings up the topics of guilt and blame, redemption, and restitution that survivors grapple with. While being fully immersed in the particular ethical quandaries of World War II-era Nazism, the book connects with post-war survival and rebuilding as universal situations.

The unexpected combustions that occur from mixing elements can be compared to the results of mixtures of memoir and fiction. Levi has commented on the blurring of events in his recollections, largely from hazy memories associated with trauma, for which some readers criticized him. But he also notes that the work is his account of his own life, and that alterations are part of every author’s role. The Periodic Table has also been praised as a work of science, not only in its explanations of scientific ideas but in boldly confronting the ethics and responsibility of research and applied science alike, that was so grotesquely deformed in the fascist regimes.

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