The True Nature Of Unbroken: Journey Through Delinquency

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There is never a moment in life when adversity is absent, but the true test of resilience presents itself in times when the misfortune seems completely grim and utterly unrelenting. In the novel Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand describes the tumultuous life of one man through his journey from juvenile delinquency, to an acclaimed Olympian, to a soldier and prisoner of war during World War II. Through retelling the unique story of former world-class runner Louie Zamperini, revealed is a powerful testament to the role of resilience, holding onto identity, and the power of forgiveness as important coping mechanisms to emerge stronger from the most callous situations.

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Hillenbrand distinguishes a theme of difficulty and resilience in Louie’s pre-war life. As a child, Louie grew up poor but his defiance drove him to rebel against the constraints he saw around him. At the time he expressed this resistance in inappropriate and destructive ways, acting delinquently and stealing from neighbors and local businesses. His admired older brother, Pete, eventually helped Louie mature by giving him a new challenge: running. Louie poured his determination into training, eventually surfacing as an Olympian who competed at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Hillenbrand speculates that this experience with hardship and rigor allowed Louie to survive the war, even in the most trying circumstances. Getting stranded in a liferaft for forty-seven days after a devastating plane crash—despite the starvation, swollen limbs, and the constant threat of death—was just another limitation for Louie to prevail over. By bringing up Louie’s ability to maintain a hopeful attitude that could “displace [his] fear” and motivate him to survive, Hillenbrand demonstrates that his resilient outlook guided him through a dire situation. By focusing more on these instances of strength, Hillenbrand elicits a more powerful response from the reader. In addition to her emotional appeals, Hillenbrand’s word choice when referring to Louie’s resilience helps convince the reader of its overall importance. By using phrases such as “renewal of vigor” to describe the feeling Louie received when he made a prosperous effort in survival and words like “paralyzed” to describe the actions of those who lacked mental resilience, Hillenbrand emphasizes how Louie was able to remain optimistic while others simply succumbed to defeat. Similarly, after being captured by the Japanese and subjected to the daily brutalities and humiliations of the Japanese labor camp, Louie never gave into despair, regardless of the guards’ attempts to dehumanize and destroy each of their captives. 

By painting a vivid picture of the agony that Louie lived through, Hillenbrand makes the reader sympathize for the character and acknowledge the importance of remaining resilient through times of extreme adversity. Louie’s resilience made him able to withstand the trials of war but, conversely, made him less able to handle reintegration into normal civilian life afterwards. Before and during the war, Louie’s strength had always been defined against the very concrete barriers he faced, whether that was training for the Olympics, surviving on the raft, or enduring the Japanese POW camps. After the war, Louie was faced instead with the threat of his own mind: psychological wounds like night terrors and flashbacks which consumed him endlessly. He fought against these internal hurdles much as he did against external obstacles, in this case repressing them with the abuse of alcohol. However, that combative resilience had destructive effects in peacetime, both to himself and his family. It was only when Louie discovered a new form of strength, a belief in God founded on acceptance rather than defiance, that he could heal his mind and remake his civilian life.

War is shrouded in anguish and cruelty, but Unbroken demonstrates that even in its woeful moments, individuals uncover their true natures. Louie, as an example, persisted through the war with greater self-knowledge. Stranded on the raft, Louie comes to know the full strength of his resolve and resourcefulness, surviving for over forty-seven grueling days. Likewise, in the POW camps, Louie discovers just how indestructible his sense of self is.

Although the Japanese prison guards try to erase his identity by making him feel less than a mere brute. Louie never loses his altruistic and hopeful nature. But the war also reveals the depths of human depravity. Hillenbrand compares Watanabe’s ‘the Bird’s’ cruelty to that of the other Japanese guards in order to show the different ways war brings out the darkest aspects of humanity. Hillenbrand claims that many Japanese prison guards were unable to confront the ferocity of demeaning the POWs. So, in response, these Japanese guards refused to view the POWs as human so that they could carry out the savageries that their superiors demanded of them. If they saw the POWs as beasts rather than men, then it would be easier for them to beat and starve them. In this way, the war turned moral men into unsparing fiends. In contrast to these soldiers, Hillenbrand speculates that the war did not make the Bird diabolic. Instead, she argues that he always had sadistic impulses, but that the war gave him the power to enact his violent fantasies on the helpless POWs. His case displays how war gives evil men the freedom to express the full extent of their wickedness. War also has the capability of destroying the core traits of one’s character. The psychological toll of the war changes Louie in dire ways. When Louie arrives home from the war, he was no longer the lighthearted, resilient, and optimistic Olympic runner he had once been, but instead a reclusive, unstable veteran. Yet Louie’s religious salvation—which comes as the result of a last gasp effort by his wife—gave him the feeling of being reborn as a “new creation.” Religion helped Louie put the atrocities of war behind him by providing him with a blank slate on which to reshape his identity anew.

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