The Periodic Table

by Primo Levi

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Analyze the "Gold" chapter in Primo Levi's The Periodic Table.

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An analysis of "Gold" in Primo Levi's The Periodic Table will examine how the author successfully uses his plot, characters, setting, and title to present his primary theme: true freedom.

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An analysis of any literary work will examine how its literary elements (title, plot, characters, setting, themes, etc.) contribute to the author's overall purpose. If we look at "Gold" from Primo Levi's The Periodic Table, we can see that his purpose to set forth a reflection on the primary theme of freedom, what it is and what it is not. He does so through an account of the activities of himself and his group of friends.

These young people are careless at the beginning of the chapter. They think they are free, for they go to concerts and the theater and practice their professions and studies with little regard to the war going on around them. They are rather limp and indifferent, focused on themselves and only marginally in touch with the realities of the world. They are not, then, actually free. They are mostly shackled by their own ideas and interests—by their own selfishness.

Then Italy comes under Nazi control, and the lives of these young people change drastically as they join the resistance movement. They are finally moving out from their own lives and concerns to think of a broader picture. Even though they end up hiding in the Piedmont, they are, perhaps, more free than they were before, for they have a purpose in life.

Then Levi and two of his companions are captured by the Nazis, and Levi experiences what it is like to lose his physical freedom. He endures interrogations and harsh conditions. Freedom suddenly becomes a prime concern for him as he considers how he might escape and then realizes that it is impossible. Yet even though he might have obtained his freedom by providing information, he will not do so. He keeps what he knows to himself, remaining loyal to the resistance movement.

In the days of harshest cold, the guards allow Levi to sit for a while in the boiler room to warm up. Here, he meets another prisoner, a gold prospector who has been caught smuggling contraband. Even as the two men sit in prison, Levi admires this prospector for his freedom. The man has a little piece of property, and he gets a little gold from the Dora river. He gets enough to keep him going, and he even saves a bit of gold just to look at and play with. It is a symbol of the man's freedom. "I'm not interested in getting rich," the man tells Levi, "what counts for me is to live free, not to have a collar like a dog, to work like this, when I wish ..." No one can tell him what to do and when to do it. This is a life that is truly "gold."

We can see, then, that the author has certainly achieved his purpose of presenting the theme of true freedom through his plot, characters, setting, and even title.

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