Summary

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on August 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 610

Illustration of PDF document

Download If This Is a Man Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Primo Levi's If This Is a Man is a text occupying several categories. On a literal level, it is an autobiographical account of his time as an Italian Jew during WW2, including his time in Auschwitz. More than a historical narrative, this memoir bears witness to the dehumanizing work of the Nazis. Stripped of nearly everything, Levi seeks to identify what remains of the human when all the recognizable scaffolding is taken. Levi also uses his meditation as a counterpoint to Dante's Inferno, a fictional account of a similar journey that bears witness to dehumanization.

Levi begins this dark journey with an opening poem:

Consider if this is a man
Who works in the mud
Who does not know peace
Who fights for a scrap of bread
Who dies because of a yes or a no.
Consider if this is a woman,
Without hair and without name
With no more strength to remember,
Her eyes empty and her womb cold
Like a frog in winter.

This appeal to common humanity challenges the reader to enter the text with a compassion that, like Dante demands, insists on an experiential recognition rather than a merely observatory one.

Of the 650 with whom he was arrested in Italy, only three make it back after the war. Written shortly after his return, the work does not attempt to portray a story of heroism. Rather, Levi suggests that the days in the camp are governed by grinding suffering and chance. The Germans devised a series of demeaning activities and contexts in which to destroy the spirit of the prisoners whose bodies miraculously did not succumb to famine or disease of hard labor. For the prisoners, the distinction was not only life or death, but human or dehumanized. The keenness of the distinction between prisoner and guard or townspeople is also felt as a reality outside the moral universe. To live might be to confront the amount of one's customary humanity one had abandoned in order to stay alive. Concepts of good and evil take on a merely theoretical and abstract quality in this context, replaced more often by chance or luck.

Throughout the chapters, Levi alludes or quotes from Dante, drawing parallels between the Holocaust and Dante's allegorical journey through Hell, also a story that bears witness to the dehumanizing effects of sin and suffering. At one point, Levi attempts to teach a French prisoner about The Commedia by reciting the Inferno's canto of Ulysses. Dante's work is a repository of cultural memory, invoking Memory as a muse and creating a Memory Palace within the poem. It is not just a way to use the past within the present but to keep the past present. In the same way, Levi insists that his text bears witness not only for those who died but also to them.

If This Is a Man is organized chronologically but also thematically, based on a progression of themes paralleling Dante's journey, in which Levi and others become increasingly alienated from their individual sense of identity. The last five chapters especially present Levi's movement toward almost certain death and the chance events that enable him to continue living. In the end, a broken body contracts scarlet fever and Levi is in the camp infirmary with the guards evacuate with the prisoners, nearly all of whom die on the march. Levi survives through the opportune arrival of the Russian Army.

Rather than indicting the Nazis, celebrating the tenacity of the survivors, or calling on God for blessings, Levi's account is a stylistically subdued text that, as said above, merely witnesses the horrific events of the camps and implores the reader to answer the question "if this is a man."

Summary

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 727

The passage of time, the context of history, and even a familiarity with the awful facts of the Holocaust cannot shield the reader from or lessen the impact of Levi’s incarceration in what he called Il buco neri—The Black Hole—of Auschwitz. As he told writer Philip Roth in a revealing interview the year before his death, he wrote If This Is a Man, “struggling to explain to others, and to myself, the events I had been involved in.”

The gripping, heartbreaking intensity of his re-creation of the human-fashioned hell that Levi, using a purposely paradoxical term, said he was “lucky” enough to enter, has the force of Walt Whitman’s proclamation about living through a world of degradation and death: “I was the man; I suffered; I was there.” Levi’s “luck” was part of the random process that enabled him to survive, not dependent on individual virtue or merit. “I have seen the survival of shrewd people and silly people, the brave and the cowardly, ’thinkers’ and madmen,” Levi maintained. In addition, he described his time in Auschwitz as “in technicolor,” the remainder of his life in “black and white,” declaring that “I remember having lived my Auschwitz year in a condition of exceptional spiritness” as he strove to understand “an environment that is monstrous but new, monstrously new.”

The title chosen by Collier Books, the American publisher, Survival in Auschwitz, was an understandably commercial attempt to reach an audience, but it completely missed the point of Levi’s choice. What he wanted to express was his naturalist’s curiosity about the human beings who had built the death camp, who operated it, and who lived and died there. When he arrived, Levi was stunned by the nightmare world; in keeping with his scientist’s orientation, after his identity has been reduced to a number inscribed on his arm, he begins a search for meaning, persisting in asking “Why?” even after a guard replies, “Hier ist kein warum, which Levi understands as “There is no why here.” For a rational scientist, there is always an explanation, so amid the absurd and initially incomprehensible brutality of the concentration camp, Levi continues to try to understand why some live, some die, and why people behave and react as they do.

Amid the fear and pain, Levi’s mind is keenly alert, to the point that he can analyze and reflect on himself as a specimen in a hideous experiment, noting physical signs of deterioration or recovery like indices on a laboratory chart. Similarly, conventional measures of time become pointless. Events like the beginning of air raids, the approach of the Russian army, and the incredible good fortune of being selected to work in a laboratory are not taken as signs of progress toward survival but as things in themselves, “the gift of good fortune to be enjoyed as intensely as possible and at once.”

When Levi was released as the Germans fled from the Russian advance, he was as stunned by his survival as he had been by the staggering events of his arrival. “It is a miracle that I am alive,” he wrote, but added, “It is not that I thank Providence, because if there really was a Providence, Auschwitz and Birkenau would never have existed.” As Levi’s biographer, Myriam Anissimov, explains, “With scrupulous honesty, he always spoke solely about what he himself had seen, but his voice was raised in the name of all of those—he called them ’the true witnesses’—whom the Lager [concentration camp] submerged.” His mentor, Professor Dallaporta, told him he “must write all this down,” confirming his own feeling that he “returned from the camps with an absolute, pathological narrative charge.”

It was all the more impressive, then, that his narrative is marked by composure without lessening its impact. The always sharp, observant eye of the scientist recorded the physical phenomena that the writer brought to vivid life in the evocative detail of a masterful stylist. The shy, decent man, who understood that an individual’s personal survival always took precedence, never lost a sense of other people. The last sentence of the book contains the hope and humanity that was not crushed by the Holocaust. Referring to his friend Charles, he says, “We have exchanged long letters and I hope to see him again one day.”

Next

Critical Essays