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Survival and Resilience Theme Analysis

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.
Survival and Resilience  Theme Icon

Hillenbrand identifies a thread of adversity and resilience in Louie’s pre-war life. As a child, Louie grew up poor but his defiance pushed him to rebel against the limitations he saw around him. At the time he expressed this defiance in inappropriate and destructive ways, acting delinquently and stealing from neighbors and local businesses. His beloved older brother, Pete, eventually helped straighten Louie out by giving him a new challenge: running. Louie poured his determination into training—which by definition is the continued act of giving one’s all and overcoming adversity through physical and mental resilience—eventually emerging as an Olympian who competed at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Hillenbrand speculates that this experience with adversity and the resilience such experiences helped to build up allowed Louie to survive the war. Getting stranded in a life-raft for forty-seven days was just another limitation or obstacle to overcome. Similarly, after being captured by the Japanese and subjected to the daily cruelties and humiliations of the Japanese labor camp, Louie never gave in to despair or hopelessness.

Louie’s resilience made him able to withstand the war but, perhaps, made him less able to handle reintegration into normal civilian life after the war. Before and during the war, Louie’s resilience had always been defined against the very concrete obstacles he faced, whether that was training for the Olympics or surviving on the raft or in the Japanese camps. After the war, Louie was faced instead with the threat of his own mind: psychological wounds like night terrors and flashbacks. He fought against these obstacles much as he did against external obstacles, in this case repressing them with the use of alcohol. But that combative resilience had destructive effects in peacetime, both to himself and his family. It was only when Louie found a new kind of resilience, a belief in God founded on acceptance rather than defiance, that he could heal and remake his civilian life.

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Survival and Resilience Quotes in Unbroken

Below you will find the important quotes in Unbroken related to the theme of Survival and Resilience .
Preface Quotes

A month earlier, twenty-six-year-old Zamperini had been one of the greatest runners in the world, expected by many to be the first to break the four-minute mile, one of the most celebrated barriers in sport. Now his Olympian’s body had wasted to less than one hundred pounds and his famous legs could no longer lift him. Almost everyone outside of his family had given him up for dead.

Related Characters: Louis “Louie” Zamperini
Page Number: xvii-xviii
Explanation and Analysis:

In the prologue to the book, we see Louis, the protagonist of the story, in a life raft in the middle of the ocean, a victim of the brutality of World War II. Hillenbrand builds suspense by describing how a great Olympian ended up in a life raft, barely able to survive. We're forced to wonder what could have driven Louis to such a state--and we want to continue reading to figure out the answer. the passage is typical, then, of Hillenbrand's book: although we're reading a work of nonfiction, it's plotted with a suspenseful, almost novelistic style more characteristic of nonfiction. The implicit message is that the truth is at least as strange, exciting, and interesting as fiction.


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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.

Chapter 2 Quotes

By 1932, the modest, mild-tempered Cunningham, whose legs and back were covered in a twisting mesh of scars, was becoming a national sensation, soon to be acclaimed as the greatest miler in American history. Louie had his hero.

Related Characters: Louis “Louie” Zamperini , Glenn Cunningham
Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we're introduced to one of Louis's heroes, Glenn Cunningham. Glenn is a fast runner, just like Louis. But he's also a symbol of willpower and drive: Glenn was disabled for much of his childhood (he was badly burned in an accident), and couldn't even walk for a while. Yet he used his willpower and determination to re-teach himself to walk, and later to run, eventually becoming one of the fastest runners in the country.

It's very telling that Louis chooses to worship a runner who's not just fast but also highly motivated--a sign, perhaps, that Louis recognizes the psychological side of athleticism, not just the physical achievements themselves. Louis learns how to train his mind to ignore pain and push for success at all times--and he seems to learn it from people like Glenn.

Chapter 4 Quotes

He found himself thinking of Pete, and of something that he had said as they had sat on their bed years earlier: A lifetime of glory is worth a moment of pain. Louie thought: Let go.

Related Characters: Louis “Louie” Zamperini , Pete Zamperini
Page Number: 35
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Louie gets a surge of confidence just before he competes in the Olympic Games. Louie is worried that he'll do poorly in the games because he's gained weight and because he has little experience with international athletics. Still, he remembers the advice his brother gave him: in essence, it's worthwhile to sacrifice one's happiness in the short term if the payoff is big enough. Louie is talented at "playing through pain" in order to ensure a victory.

The passage is a good example of the way that Louie finds encouragement in the most unlikely of places. Like so many successful people, Louie is an optimist at heart, someone who finds the courage to be great even when others don't think he'll succeed. The passage also foreshadows the way Louie will sacrifice his own happiness for a greater good during World War II.

Hitler said something in German. An interpreter translated. “Ah, you’re the boy with the fast finish.”

Related Characters: Adolf Hitler (speaker), Louis “Louie” Zamperini
Page Number: 36
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage Louie, having just run the fastest final lap of a race in history, meets Adolf Hitler. Hitler praises Louie for his excellent performance. The scene is so strange that a fiction writer wouldn't dare to dream it up: but it really happened. Hillenbrand notes the irony here: Louis is shaking hands with Hitler, the man who started the war in which Louie would one day fight, on the other side.

Thus, the passage foreshadows some of the tragedies of the second part of the book. Louie is basically just an innocent kid for now, but we the readers recognize that he'll become involved in a horrible war in the near future. Similarly, at this point Hitler was seemingly just another world leader (albeit a racist and power-hungry one), not yet recognized as the architect of one the world's greatest atrocities.

Chapter 6 Quotes

From this day forward, until victory or defeat, transfer, discharge, capture, or death took them from it, the vast Pacific would be beneath and around them. Its bottom was already littered with downed warplanes and the ghosts of lost airmen. Every day of this long and ferocious war, more would join them.

Related Characters: Louis “Louie” Zamperini , Russell Allen “Phil” Phillips
Page Number: 70
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Louie and his new friend, Phil, prepare for a career in the military. They're being sent to Japan, where some of the most brutal fighting of World War Two took place. Hillebrand depicts their journey across the Pacific Ocean as a dangerous trek, in which they're surrounded by death in one form or another ("the ghosts of lost airmen"). As the war goes on, we're told, more and more soldiers will be killed. The passage is important because it conveys the extent of the danger Louie is about to face. He's dealt with adversity before, but it's not until now that he'll truly risk his life.

Chapter 8 Quotes

And like everyone else, Louie and Phil drank. After a few beers, Louie said, it was possible to briefly forget dead friends.

Related Characters: Louis “Louie” Zamperini , Russell Allen “Phil” Phillips
Page Number: 93
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Louie begins to develop a love for drinking. Alcohol isn't very good for a professional athlete, but when Louie is in the midst of World War Two--i.e., when he's surrounded by death and destruction--alcohol is a convenient way to forget about the horrors of his reality. Louie's alcohol consumption will later get him in big trouble, but for now it seems completely defensible: it would take a superhuman to survive World War II while acknowledging, head-on, the brutality of the conflict, and not seeking some kind of relief or escape. Louie is strong enough to run the fastest lap in Olympic history, but he's not strong enough to face the realities of World War Two.

Chapter 9 Quotes

When they arrived at the crash site, the men were astonished by what they saw. Two life rafts, holding the entire five-man B-25 crew, floated amid plane debris. Around them, the ocean was churning with hundreds of sharks, some of which looked twenty feet long. Knifing agitated circles in the water, the creatures seemed on the verge of overturning the rafts.

Related Characters: Louis “Louie” Zamperini , Russell Allen “Phil” Phillips
Related Symbols: Sharks
Page Number: 96
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Louie's crew rescues a group of men from shark-infested waters. The men are swimming in the ocean, trying to escape the sharks, which threaten to eat them alive. Louie and his friends are shocked and terrified by the sight of so many bloodthirsty animals. The passage reiterates the presence of death and danger in Louie's life now: as a soldier, he has to contend with the dangers of the natural world, not just of the Japanese army. Next to the sharks, the sailors and their life rafts seem incredibly fragile, barely capable of withstanding the sharks' attacks. At the same time, the sharks are just following their nature--they aren't any more bloodthirsty or vicious than any other animal trying to eat. It's only humans who are capable of real cruelty--it's a human war that has brought the sailors to this conflict with nature. The passage also foreshadows some of the dangers that Louie will experience personally when he's sent adrift in the ocean.

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 14 Quotes

For Louie and Phil, the conversations were healing, pulling them out of their suffering and setting the future before them as a concrete thing. As they imagined themselves back in the world again, they willed a happy ending onto their ordeal and made it their expectation. With these talks, they created something to live for.

Related Characters: Louis “Louie” Zamperini , Russell Allen “Phil” Phillips
Page Number: 153
Explanation and Analysis:

Back in the lifeboat, Louie, Phil, and Mac try their best to survive in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Mac is currently slipping into despair, but Louie and Phil try to keep their hopes up. The two were already friends before the accident, so they have an easy time bonding with each other, and here they try to keep up their optimism and mental acuity by quizzing each other, recalling memories, and telling stories.

What's the point of having chats like these on a life raft--what purpose could they possibly serve? One of Louie's key insights, both here and later in the book, is that adversity is mental as much as it is physical. In other words, Louie doesn't just have to deal with the challenges of having no food--he has to keep his sanity during the ordeal (by the same token, he had to focus his mind in winning the race, not just focus his body in running). Louie is a great athlete and a great human being because he understands the psychological component of danger--he has incredible willpower, which helps him survive.

Mac had never seen combat, didn’t know these officers, and was largely an unknown quantity to himself. All he knew about his ability to cope with this crisis was that on the first night, he had panicked and eaten the only food they had. As time passed and starvation loomed, this act took on greater and greater importance, and it may have fed Mac’s sense of futility.

Related Characters: Francis “Mac” McNamara
Page Number: 154
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Hillenbrand contrasts the experience of Mac, a new recruit to the military, with that of Phil and Louie on the life raft. Mac is young and unused to crises, and he feels devastatingly guilty about having stolen all the chocolate on the first night in the raft. As a result, Mac becomes depressed and anxious during his time at sea--he can't force himself to envision a future in which he survives the danger and goes back home.

The passage reminds us how extraordinary Louie's willpower is. Not just anybody can focus so single-mindedly on a bright future--many of us are more like Mac, focusing on the worst possible outcome and allowing our guilt and self-doubt to consume us.

They bowed their heads together as Louie prayed. If God would quench their thirst, he vowed, he’d dedicate his life to him. The next day, by divine intervention or the fickle humors of the tropics, the sky broke open and rain poured down. Twice more the water ran out, twice more they prayed, and twice more the rain came.

Related Characters: Louis “Louie” Zamperini , Russell Allen “Phil” Phillips
Page Number: 159
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Louie prays to God, and his prayers are seemingly answered. Louie is getting desperate--he's going to die of thirst if he's not rescued soon. In his desperation, Louie takes solace in prayer and faith--he even promises God to devote his life to religion if there's rain. Almost miraculously, it rains shortly afterwards, saving Louie's life.

Hillenbrand isn't saying outright that God saved Louie's life--she leaves it up to readers to decide if the event was a coincidence or fate. And yet the broader point seems to be that Louie finds the courage to take a "leap of faith" in his time of need. In other words, Louie turns to God out of desperation, once again hanging onto his sense of optimism in the midst of a crisis.

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 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

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.