When Breath Becomes Air


Paul Kalanithi

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When Breath Becomes Air Themes

Themes and Colors
Time Theme Icon
Science and Literature Theme Icon
Knowledge, Experience, and Judgment Theme Icon
Human Mortality, Strength, and Support Theme Icon
Legacy Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in When Breath Becomes Air, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.


When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi’s posthumously-published memoir of his battle with terminal lung cancer, details Paul’s post-diagnosis grappling with how much time he has left. Paul has spent a third of his life working toward a career in neurosurgery, only to have the future for which he has worked so hard abruptly taken from him. In the face of this, Paul demonstrates that even though time is a fixed entity (one only has…

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Science and Literature

Throughout high school and college, Paul believes that literature and language are the best way to understand the life of the mind, but eventually he comes to realize that biology and neuroscience determine the rules of the brain and are therefore vital to comprehending human existence. At various stages of his life, Paul turns from literature to science and back to literature in order to fully grapple with death, as he realizes that the two…

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Knowledge, Experience, and Judgment

Because Paul is a neurosurgeon, he spends much of his memoir writing about the brain: how it functions, how it fails, and the information it can store. However, Paul also understands that being a doctor does not solely boil down to the technical knowledge or skill that one has—a successful doctor must also have experience, which is much more challenging to acquire. Paul’s journey through residency leads him to discover that textbook knowledge is important…

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Human Mortality, Strength, and Support

Paul relays his and others’ struggles with confronting premature death. While facing mortality is a one-time occurrence for most patients, doctors encounter death constantly. Beyond providing physical care for their patients, Paul argues that two of the most crucial responsibilities of a doctor lie in having mental fortitude and being able to provide emotional support. These two types of strength allow doctors to alleviate suffering and distress, even when people are facing the inevitability of…

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Paul’s attempts to live a meaningful life in the face of terminal cancer make him intent on living in the present, but his reckoning with death also makes him consider how to leave behind a legacy through which he can positively impact the world once he is gone. As such, Paul spends the majority of his remaining time nurturing a new daughter and writing When Breath Becomes Air. He chooses to put his time…

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When Breath Becomes Air centers primarily on Paul’s career as a neurosurgeon and his battle with lung cancer. But on the periphery of these two narratives, Paul relays stories of his childhood and the importance of his family. In the memoir, Paul demonstrates that family helps him determine his values in his youth and keep him grounded throughout his early career, but eventually family itself becomes one of his most important values, as he chooses…

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