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Themes and Colors
Survival and Resilience  Theme Icon
Dignity Theme Icon
Redemption and Forgiveness  Theme Icon
War and Identity  Theme Icon
Belief and Faith Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Unbroken, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Dignity Theme Icon

One of the central conflicts of the novel centers on Louie’s struggle to preserve his dignity, which Hillenbrand argues is as important to survival as food and shelter, in the face of the dehumanizing conditions of the Japanese prison camps. Even before Louie arrives at the camps, Hillenbrand establishes the importance of dignity when Francis “Mac” McNamara succumbs to selfish desire and eats all the rations on the raft, a betrayal that made him lose his self-respect. Without his dignity intact, despair consumed Mac, weakening his will to live and making survival impossible.

The issue of dignity took on greater weight after Louie and Phil were captured and brought to the Japanese prison camps. The Japanese considered being captured by the enemy as being without dignity. Since they saw the POWs as having no dignity, the Japanese guards treated the POWs as subhuman. In this context, preserving one’s dignity was akin to insisting on one’s humanity. Louie and the other prisoners preserved their dignity with small acts of resistance against their captors: they stole, mocked the guards behind their backs, and planned escape attempts. By rebelling against the guards, the men asserted their independence and individuality, reclaiming the self-respect that the guards tried to take from them.

While Louie preserved his dignity during the war, after the war his inability to cope with the psychological wounds left by the war threatened his self-respect, which led to a cycle of drinking heavily, abusing his wife, and squandering his family’s money, that in turn led to even more loss of dignity. Louie’s postwar loss of dignity causes him to lose his sense of morality, becoming almost as violent as the guards who tried to deny him his dignity in the first place, and leads him to the false idea that the only hope for restoring his self-respect was to kill Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe.

In the end, Louie countered the dehumanizing effects of war with a faith in God. Since the Japanese guards tried to deprive him of his dignity by making him feel insignificant, Louie’s faith that a higher power singled him out for protection restored his dignity and self-worth.

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Dignity Quotes in Unbroken

Below you will find the important quotes in Unbroken related to the theme of Dignity.
Chapter 1 Quotes

He could have ended the beatings by running away or succumbing to tears, but he refused to do either. “You could beat him to death,” said Sylvia, “and he wouldn’t say ‘ouch’ or cry.” He just put his hands in front of his face and took it.

Related Characters: Sylvia Zamperini (speaker), Louis “Louie” Zamperini
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:

As a child, Louis endured a lot of bullying from his peers for being Italian. Italians were a persecuted minority in parts of America at the time: they were seen as dangerous, unclean, and criminal people--not real Americans at all. Louis grew up being beaten and punched for his ethnicity--and whenever he was attacked, he accepted his punishment, preferring to be hit than to cry or beg for mercy.

Clearly, Louis is a tough, self-controlled person--and when he's an adult, his toughness will help him survive in a lifeboat and in Japanese POW camps. As we'll see, Louis's fortitude also helps him as an athlete: he's capable of turning off the pain signals in his body through sheer willpower.


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Chapter 13 Quotes

The realization that Mac had eaten all of the chocolate rolled hard over Louie. In the brief time that Louie had known Mac, the tail gunner had struck him as a decent, friendly guy, although a bit of a reveler, confident to the point of flippancy. The crash had undone him. Louie knew that they couldn’t survive for long without food, but he quelled the thought. A rescue search was surely under way.

Related Characters: Louis “Louie” Zamperini , Francis “Mac” McNamara
Page Number: 138
Explanation and Analysis:

At this point in the story, Louie is trapped on a life raft with his fellow soldiers Phil and Mac. Mac is a good man, but he panics in the face of such sudden danger--here, for instance, he sneaks into the rations and eats all the chocolate. Louie is understandably angry with Mac for stealing the food that will keep them alive, and yet Louie remains calm and collected. He looks ahead to the future, optimistically. The same qualities that made Louie such a talented runner--his drive, his optimism, etc.--make him good in a crisis, too. He doesn't wallow in his own anger and frustration; instead, he remains singularly focused on the goal, rescue--the rest is details.

Chapter 18 Quotes

This self-respect and sense of self-worth, the innermost armament of the soul, lies at the heart of humanness; to be deprived of it is to be dehumanized, to be cleaved from, and cast below, mankind. Men subjected to dehumanizing treatment experience profound wretchedness and loneliness and find that hope is almost impossible to retain.

Related Characters: Louis “Louie” Zamperini , Russell Allen “Phil” Phillips
Page Number: 188
Explanation and Analysis:

In his next ordeal, Louie's faith and optimism are tested even more rigorously. During his time as a prisoner of war, Louie isn't just tortured and deprived of food and water--he's humiliated and dehumanized by his Japanese captors. The Japanese soldiers force Louie to perform humiliating actions, and they laugh at him, treating him like an animal. Hillenbrand notes that Louie's dehumanization at the hands of the enemy soldiers is more damaging than his physical torture. Louie is an optimist--he can always look ahead to the future because he sees the bright side of everything. But because his captors treat him like an animal, Louie finds his optimism fading away--he begins to despise himself, falling in line with the way his guards treat him. The passage reconfirms one of the book's key ideas: psychological strength is just as or more important than physical strength for attaining success.

Dignity is as essential to human life as water, food, and oxygen. The stubborn retention of it, even in the face of extreme physical hardship, can hold a man’s soul in his body long past the point at which the body should have surrendered it. The loss of it can carry a man off as surely as thirst, hunger, exposure, and asphyxiation, and with greater cruelty. In places like Kwajalein, degradation could be as lethal as a bullet.

Related Characters: Louis “Louie” Zamperini , Russell Allen “Phil” Phillips
Page Number: 189
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Louie is finally treated with kindness and respect by one of his prison guards, a man named Kawamura. Kawamura doesn't go along with his fellow soldiers in humiliating Louie; instead, he regards Louie as a human being, and therefore worthy of kindness. Hillenbrand notes that Kawamura's kindness might have saved Louie's life, because optimism and basic dignity is a key force for survival. When people learn to respect themselves, they find new courage, which helps them succeed. Optimism can be an almost physical feeling, just as despair can cause concrete problems with a person's breathing, circulation, and general health. We've already seen evidence for such an idea, but here Hillenbrand makes her point especially clearly: psychological strength is more important than physical strength, at least for survival.

Chapter 26 Quotes

Finally, Louie was introduced to a group of men, Australians and Americans. These men, the producers said, were helping them make broadcasts. As Louie held out his hand, the propaganda prisoners dropped their eyes to the floor. Their faces said it all; if Louie agreed to make this broadcast, he would be forced into a life as his enemy’s propagandist.

Related Characters: Louis “Louie” Zamperini
Page Number: 267
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Louie, still in captivity, is sent to be a propagandist for the Japanese nation. Louie is a well-known figure (at least relative to the other POWS), and therefore his presence on the propaganda team would be of great use to Japan. If Louie were to read pro-Japanese statements, the Japanese think, then he could influence American soldiers to turn against their commanders, or at least deal a general blow to American morale.

In short, Louie is being offered an easy way out: he can work with the Japanese and get better conditions during his time in a Japanese prison, or he can refuse and go back to being tortured. The passage, then, poses a moral challenge to Louie—he’d be sacrificing his psychological dignity by working with the Japanese, yet gaining a better physical life.

Chapter 28 Quotes

Now he was condemned to crawl through the filth of a pig’s sty, picking up feces with his bare hands and cramming handfuls of the animal’s feed into his mouth to save himself from starving to death. Of all of the violent and vile abuses that the Bird had inflicted upon Louie, none had horrified and demoralized him as did this. If anything is going to shatter me, Louie thought, this is it.

Related Characters: Louis “Louie” Zamperini , Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe
Related Symbols: The Bird
Page Number: 291
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Louie is forced to endure an especially awful punishment at the hands of the sadistic "Bird": he’s forced to crawl on the floor of a pig sty, picking up pig feces with his bare hands. Furthermore, Louie has to eat the feces just to survive. This torture is not only disgusting and horrific, it's also entirely dehumanizing--Louie is made to act like an animal, or something even lower than an animal. The Bird is trying to break Louie’s spirit, and this kind of torture tries to get him to think of himself as a mere beast.

The passage shows Louie coming close to giving up entirely. And yet even here, at the nadir of his time in captivity, Louie maintains his sanity and his confidence (barely). The one Japanese soldier who treated him with kindness and support has inspired him to be strong. Thus, even while Louie is thinking about being “shattered,” he continues to maintain some distance from his own punishment—it’s as if he’s just closing his eyes and waiting for it to be over.

Chapter 34 Quotes

A flask became his constant companion, making furtive appearances in parking lots and corridors outside speaking halls. When the harsh push of memory ran through Louie, reaching for his flask became as easy as slapping a swatter on a fly.

Related Characters: Louis “Louie” Zamperini
Page Number: 347
Explanation and Analysis:

After Louie returns from the war, he becomes an alcoholic. He finds it impossible to cope with the traumatic memories of his time on the lifeboat and in the POW camp—it’s easier to blur things over with the help of liquor. Louie’s descent into alcoholism is especially hard to watch because he’s always been an incredibly self-controlled person—his self-control helped him survive the lifeboat and the POW camp, after all. And yet in the end, Louie’s trauma becomes too much for him (or any other man, for that matter) to bear: he can’t face the memories of being starved, beaten, and humiliated, and so he tries to escape them altogether.

Chapter 35 Quotes

For these men, the central struggle of postwar life was to restore their dignity and find a way to see the world as something other than menacing blackness. There was no one right way to peace; every man had to find his own path, according to his own history. Some succeeded. For others, the war would never really end.

Related Characters: Louis “Louie” Zamperini , Russell Allen “Phil” Phillips , Fred Garret
Page Number: 357
Explanation and Analysis:

In the final third of the book, Hillenbrand changes her focus from war and athleticism to psychology. The book has been psychological all along, of course—we’ve seen what’s going on in Louie’s mind while he’s running or surviving the lifeboat—but now, Louie’s mind becomes the true “battleground.” As Hillenbrand says here, many soldiers returned from World War Two without ever really recovering their old lives: the experience of so much bloodshed and trauma was too much for them to bear. Each soldier had suffered in a different way—as a result, there was no easy fix for the trauma of warfare.

In effect, the final third of the book is about whether or not Louie can regain control of his own mind, or if he’ll plummet into guilt, despair, and resentment.

Louie had no idea what had become of the Bird, but he felt sure that if he could get back to Japan, he could hunt him down. This would be his emphatic reply to the Bird’s unremitting effort to extinguish his humanity: I am still a man. He could conceive of no other way to save himself. Louie had found a quest to replace his lost Olympics. He was going to kill the Bird.

Related Characters: Louis “Louie” Zamperini , Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe
Related Symbols: The Bird
Page Number: 361
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Hillenbrand shows us how low Louie has sunk after coming home from World War Two. Louie endured incredibly harsh conditions in his POW camp—most of it at the hands of a Japanese soldier nicknamed “The Bird." The result is that Louie, despite having survived the war, feels a continued hatred for the Bird. He’s been so traumatized by his violent torture that he thinks the only solution is more violence. Thus, Louie plans to return to Japan and kill his old tormenter. He feels helpless and lost in America, and feels that he can only take meaningly action and reclaim his human dignity by taking the life of his enemy.

Louie’s attempts to find justice and peace after World War Two are especially poignant because they suggest that the remainder of his life will be dominated by his memories of the past. Louie has always been an optimistic person who focuses on the future; now, he can think of no future other than one in which he settles his past scores.

Chapter 37 Quotes

No one could reach Louie, because he had never really come home. In prison camp, he’d been beaten into dehumanized obedience to a world order in which the Bird was absolute sovereign, and it was under this world order that he still lived. The Bird had taken his dignity and left him feeling humiliated, ashamed, and powerless, and Louie believed that only the Bird could restore him, by suffering and dying in the grip of his hands. A once singularly hopeful man now believed that his only hope lay in murder.

Related Characters: Louis “Louie” Zamperini , Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe
Related Symbols: The Bird
Page Number: 373
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Hillenbrand sums up Louie’s state of being after World War Two and before his religious conversion. He’s always been optimistic, and yet he’s now singularly fixated on the past rather than the future. Furthermore, Louie feels the need to struggle for his humanity and assert himself through violence. He spent so long being treated like an animal that he internalized some of the feelings of inferiority that the Bird was trying to make him feel. Louie rationally knows that he’s a human being, but he can’t help but hate himself as a result of the humiliating exercises he was forced to endure in Japan.

What Hillenbrand is describing, of course, is post-traumatic stress disorder, though the term hadn’t yet been popularized at the time. Louie doesn’t know that he’s suffering from a serious psychological affliction—as far as he’s concerned, his problem is his and his alone. Thus, instead of seeking help from doctors or counselors, Louie tries to solve his problems with violence—i.e., by killing the Bird.

Chapter 39 Quotes

In Sugamo Prison, as he was told of Watanabe’s fate, all Louie saw was a lost person, a life now beyond redemption. He felt something that he had never felt for his captor before. With a shiver of amazement, he realized that it was compassion. At that moment, something shifted sweetly inside him. It was forgiveness, beautiful and effortless and complete. For Louie Zamperini, the war was over.

Related Characters: Louis “Louie” Zamperini , Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe
Explanation and Analysis:

Louie was unbroken during the war because he faced the terrible traumas of the war, of the Japanese camps, and of the Bird with a refusal to give in or give up. He faced all these obstacles as enemies to be beaten, and he beat them. And yet after the war he found that the skills that allowed him to beat those obstacles -- rage, refusal to give in -- were essentially eating him alive. He survived the war; it did not break him physically. But it broke him emotionally.

As this quote shows, though, through religion Louie finds a way to mend himself, to un-break himself. Religion gives him a way to escape the mindset of war -- victory or death, defeat or be defeated -- and find instead compassion and forgiveness. Here he finds compassion, even, for the most hateful, vengeful enemy he faced: the Bird. And it is only when he feels that compassion for the Bird, when his faith allows him to be  able to recognize a kind of fundamental dignity in the Bird despite all that the bird did, that Louie is able to feel that dignity in himself as well and to leave the war behind, that he is able to truly be unbroken.