Themes

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 339

The primary theme that Primo Levi includes is the arbitrary nature of the universe. He attributes his survival from Auschwitz largely to luck. This includes the randomness of his having been captured and sent to a concentration camp, and to the good fortune of his being one of the few who made it out alive. In contrast, Levi pursues the theme of rationality in an irrational world. As a professional scientist, Levi found that he could not abandon the search for logical reasons that he and others were incarcerated in a truly terrible place. Although he was discouraged from asking “why,” he continued to do so. This general attitude toward a scientific approach extends to the more general theme of the importance of human curiosity. Even if we cannot find all the answers to life’s most difficult questions, if we cease to ask them, then we give up a key component of our own humanity.

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Levi’s quest for knowledge was an important element of his own survival. There were many practical things he had to understand in order to endure the horrors all around him and, he hoped, not to descend into brutality himself. Paradoxically, one thing he had to understand was the fundamentally irrational bases of the entire apparatus. The workers who committed atrocities could not, or would not, try to make sense of their reason for being there. Although hatred often fueled their treatment of the prisoners, most of whom were Jews, that was not always the case.

Although he was a chemist, and the laboratory work occupied him while incarcerated, Levi began to function more as a psychologist. Analyzing the behavior of individuals and groups, he developed strategies and tactics that would aid in continuing his day-to-day existence. Setting aside a larger goal of release and concentrating on those daily matters, he adjusted his expectations. Extending himself through kindness to others whenever possible was a crucial part of retaining his own sense of self as well as making life slightly more bearable for others.

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Characters