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The Periodic Table, by Primo Levi

Discussion Guide

Biographical Notes 

Primo Levi (1919-1987) was born into an assimilated middle-class family in Turin, Italy. His studies were interrupted by the realities of being Jewish in wartime Europe. He left the university where he was studying chemistry to join the Italian Resistance against the Mussolini's fascist government. He was quickly captured by Fascist militia while hiding in the Alps and eventually deported to Auschwitz, where he worked as a slave laborer in a chemical laboratory. Liberated by Soviet troops, he returned to Italy. Levi became the manager of a chemical factory. He also began to write about his experiences.. Many of his books (The Drowned and the Saved, If This Is a Man, The Truce, Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity) have become classics. Primo Levi committed suicide in 1987, after a long illness.

Reading The Periodic Table 

The Periodic Table chronicles the author's life in relationship to the elements of the periodic table. These elements, the tools of his profession, form the nexus of Levi's personal and professional life for it is his work as a chemist in an Auschwitz laboratory that keeps him alive. So while Levi's passion for chemistry can be understood as a person's love for his chosen profession, it is also his salvation.

In The Periodic Table Auschwitz survivor and chemist Primo Levi tells a series of loosely connected tales that are part autobiography and part allegory. Elements of the periodic table inspire Levi's recollections and lead to his revelations.

Each chapter can stand alone, but there is clearly an overall flow to the book, which follows a historical timeline connecting the chapters. This book can be read and discussed chapter by chapter or by grouping. The main themes-purity, religion versus science, science as religion, truth, being an outsider, nature, knowledge, control over nature, freedom, innocence, guilt-run throughout the book. Chapters may be contrasted to one another, and specific themes can be followed from chapter to chapter. The discussion questions that follow are organized by chapter, but many of the questions apply equally to other chapters.

Chapter 1: Argon 

Levi's description of the Jews as a people inert and harmless yet "alien" foretells what is to become of the Jews. He describes the element argon as a rare gas, part of the air we breathe and need to survive but not always noticed or appreciated. In what way does Levi identify with argon? What does the element symbolize about his background?

Chapter 2: Hydrogen 

Levi writes, "If man is a maker, we were not men: We knew this and suffered from it." (p. 24) What do you think he means by this statement? What do you think is the significance of working or not working with one's hands? Why might not working with one's hands be a source of embarrassment?

What was it about chemistry that Levi found so attractive when he was young? What qualities does a person need to possess in order to be a chemist? Is there a connection between Levi's attraction to chemistry and the fact that he is Jewish?

In what way is hydrogen a fitting element for the tale of a young boy?

In this chapter Levi introduces a theme that will continue to run throughout the book-that of man's attempt to control nature. Is this a futile or fruitful attempt? What are the dangers of trying to control nature?

Chapter 3: Zinc 

Levi writes, "These people, to a greater or lesser degree, tend to transfuse the human substance of their chief into their own mold, as occurs with pseudomorphic crystals: sometimes they suffer from it, often they enjoy it, and they possess two distinct patterns of behavior, depending on whether they act on their own or 'in the exercise of their function.'" (p. 32) How does this statement shed light on Levi's way of looking at people?

While describing his work with zinc, Levi writes, "I am the impurity that makes the zinc react...." (p. 35) Why does he call himself an impurity? What is the relationship between purity and impurity that Levi sees in chemistry? From a scientific point of view, what is good about impurity?

How does Levi address the issue of his Jewish identity in this chapter? How does he describe what it means to be Jewish?

Chapter 4: Iron 

What kind of metaphor does Levi use to describe the laboratory? What meaning do you make of that metaphor? What does the metaphor reveal about Levi and about his belief in science?

Levi writes, "The Institute's rough and ready morality counted on the process of natural selection to pick out those among us most qualified for physical and professional survival." (p. 39) Why does Levi use this kind of language here? What might his intent be?

How does Levi describe science, or specifically chemistry and physics, in this chapter? What is he saying about the world in which he lived? In what way are the study of chemistry and physics antidotes to Fascism?

Levi writes about wanting to remain faithful to the "nobility of man." (p. 41) What does being a "conqueror of matter" mean?

Levi describes his friend Sandro on pages 43-45. Why does he use iron as the element that best fits Sandro? In the end, is iron in fact an appropriate element for this friend? Levi writes about needing to prepare themselves for an "iron future." What does he mean by an "iron future"?

Chapter 5: Potassium 

The idea of purity is a central theme in this chapter. In what sense does Levi use purity here?

The idea of religion vis-a-vis science is also central to this chapter. Part of what Levi describes in this chapter is a spiritual crisis, a crisis of faith that gets played out in mainly scientific terms as he searches for what he calls "sources of certainty." What else might this crisis be about? How are the spiritual and the scientific intertwined in this chapter? How is Levi's ongoing search for Truth impacted by his spiritual/scientific crisis?

How does Levi use irony in this chapter, particularly in regard to the issue of purity? In what way does potassium, especially as it is described in the end of the chapter as the mistrustful "almost-the-same," come to be a metaphor for Levi himself in the face of what is happening in Europe?

Chapter 6: Nickel 

In the beginning of this chapter, Levi writes about himself as an outcast. In what ways does that self-perception motivate the work with nickel that he does at the mine? What role does it play in his brief moment of triumph and then in his more sober realization afterward?

What new kinds of truths about science does Levi discover in his early adult years?

This chapter is unusual in the book as a whole for its retelling of the stories about other people. What new truths about people does Levi learn while he is at the mine? The ongoing theme of nature is more dominant in this chapter. Describe Levi's relationship to nature and the natural world.

Chapter 7: Lead 

As Levi himself points out, this chapter is written in a markedly different style. What purpose did this kind of a chapter serve for Levi? As readers, do you find this chapter disruptive to the flow of the book? An interesting diversion? What role does it play in the narrative as a whole?

What is the relationship among magic, knowledge, and science in this chapter?

Levi calls lead the metal of death. What does he mean by this? Why lead, when many of the other elements are lethal? Why death, when for the narrator lead is life-giving and provides him with a good living? Perhaps Levi is making a statement here about people's free choice in using what the earth has to offer. Do you agree?

In the previous chapter Levi explains that he wrote this story during the period he spent at the mine. How is his ever-increasing sense of being an outsider expressed here?

Chapter 8: Mercury 

What does this tale say about the rules of nature versus the rules of society? Is there an convergence in this story of science and morality? Is there a conflict or tension between the two?

In the previous story Levi deals with the issue of people's use of the elements, which are in and of themselves neutral but can become agents of death or givers of life, depending on how they are used. In this story how is the issue of control over an element played out?

What other issues might this story be addressing in the form of allegory or metaphor?

Chapter 9: Phosphorous 

This chapter deals with contrasts-precision, order, and efficiency versus sloppiness and lack of order; rules versus breaking rules; the rational versus the emotional; and male versus female. What other contrasts do you find?

How has Levi's sense of himself as a Jew changed as the war escalates? In what ways are these changes expressed in this chapter?

Levi writes that phosphorous "is not an emotionally neutral element: it was understandable that a Professor Kerrn, half biochemist and half witch doctor, in the environment impregnated with black magic of the Nazi court, had designated it as a medicament." (p. 120) What do you think this passage means?

Chapter 10: Gold 

What does Levi mean when he says that they were all writing poetry? (p. 128)

How does Levi relate to the war in this chapter? In what ways does it reflect his relationship to war in previous chapters? In what ways does it mark a turning point?

At the beginning of the chapter, Levi writes, " Each of us did his or her work day by day, slackly, without believing in it, as happens to someone who knows he is not working for his own future." (pp. 128-129) What do you think Levi means by this? Contrast this description with the description of the gold collector whom Levi meets in prison. What does this prisoner represent to Levi?

Chapter 11: Serium 

Levi writes, "We were not normal because we were hungry." What else might he mean by saying that those who stayed alive in the camps were not normal?

Levi refers to his friend Alberto as someone who is free. What does he mean by the use of the word "free" here?

As Levi himself indicates, he has written extensively on his Auschwitz experience. This chapter does not sum up that period in his life, but rather provides the transition from "before" to "after." Which words does he use to summarize that experience? are repeated in this chapter? To whom or what does Levi credit for his survival?

Chapter 12: Chromium 

Discuss the contrast in this chapter between science-that which is logical and comprehensible-and magic-that which is mysterious.

This is the first chapter in which Levi writes self-consciously about the act of writing. What motivates him to write? How does writing help Levi deal with his wartime experiences? How does love affect his writing and why? Levi refers to the book that he wrote during this period as a "liberating book." (p. 159) What makes writing an act of liberation for Levi?

In what way does Levi's professional quest-to find out what went wrong with the livered paint-parallel his personal quest as a writer and survivor? In what important ways do the two quests diverge?

Chapter 13: Sulfur and Chapter 14: Titanium 

How do these chapters address the issue of human control over nature?

Anger is an important theme in these chapters, as it is elsewhere in the book. What does Levi say about anger? In desperate situations, is anger positive or negative, helpful or harmful? Why?

Chapter 15: Arsenic 

What does this chapter say about forgiveness?

What role does anger play in this tale? What role does humor play?

Chapter 16: Nitrogen 

What is beauty for this rational chemist? How is beauty determined? What is the source of beauty? What is the role of nature in beauty?

Levi writes, "The trade of chemist (fortified, in my case, by the experience of Auschwitz) teaches you to overcome, indeed to ignore, certain revulsions that are neither necessary or congenital: matter is matter, neither noble nor vile, infinitely transformable, and its proximate origin is of no importance whatsoever." (pp. 180-181) How would you interpret this statement? What connection is Levi making between his experience as a chemist and his experience as a survivor of Auschwitz? What role can morality and ethics play in such a system?

Chapter 17: Tin 

In this chapter Levi writes, "So fly now: you wanted to be free and you are free you wanted to be a chemist and you are one." After his experiences in Auschwitz, freedom would seem to be a positive thing. Yet the tone here is almost self-mocking. What is the downside to freedom? What is the opposite of freedom? Is "freedom" the same as "safety."

As Levi watches the ventilation hood drop and disintegrate, what else is he seeing? What else is being destroyed?

Chapter 18: Uranium 

In this chapter in particular, Levi addresses the issue of integrating different facets of his personality. Why is this difficult for him?

The metal that Bonino gives Levi turns out not to be uranium but rather cadmium. Why would Bonino have fabricated such a story? Why would he have tried to fool a chemist, who could easily test the metal? Yet despite the deception, Levi seems to admire Bonino. What does he admire about him and why?

Chapter 19: Silver 

For Levi what is trust? Can someone who has not previously been trustworthy be trusted? Why or why not?

Why does Levi want the world to know about the work of chemists? Does his explanation ring true to you, or do you think something else is motivating him?

In what way are chemistry and the material world anthropomorphized in this chapter? What attributes does Levi assign to matter?

How does Levi describe guilt and innocence? What is the relationship between guilt, sin, and innocence?

Chapter 20: Vanadium 

In the midst of business negotiations and technical jargon in a letter at work, Levi was able to identify the writing as that of a German with a very common last name as an inspector who oversaw the work he did as a skilled prisoner at Auschwitz. In this account, Levi allows for basic humanity to overcome numbers and jargon. Where else in this work can this be seen?

Levi writes, "Duty first." Why does he choose to take care of business right away and wait to reveal himself to his previous captor until another time?

Levi and Dr. Muller are conducting two simultaneous dialogues on two different levels. Why was it necessary for them to act in this way? What purpose did their behavior serve?

How you understand the line, "reality is always more complex than invention." (p. 218)

How does Levi deal with the issues of forgiveness and repentance in this chapter? What does being a hero mean? Is his response to Muller surprising? Is it understandable?

How does Levi feel about Muller and why? This episode in which Levi interacts with Muller ends abruptly when Levi is informed that Muller has committed suicide. What do you think is not being said here? Why do you think that Levi ends the chapter the way he does?

Chapter 21: Carbon 

What does Levi mean when he writes that carbon is not specific?

Discuss the meaning of this story of carbon as an allegory. What does it say about human existence? About people's control or lack thereof over nature? About our ability as humans to make a difference in the world? About Jewish history? About fate versus free choice?

Is this chapter a fitting end to The Periodic Table? Why or why not?