‘The Survivor’ was written by Primo Levi, a well-known Holocaust survivor best-remembered for his collection of short stories, The Periodic Table. Levi was part of the Italian resistance movement and he was arrested with a few of his comrades. He was sent to the internment camp, Fossoli, and then later deported to Auschwitz. It was there that he spent the next eleven months before the camp was liberated in January of 1945.
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Summary of The Survivor
The poem presents the reader with a haunting image of faces from the past. These come up in the unnamed man’s mind, reminding him of all those who are lost and what they all experienced together. Despite having survived, his life is troubled and unrestful. These ghost-like images are one of the reasons that this is the case. He asks that they find peace, goes away, and leave him to move on with the mundanities of day-to-day existence. It is not his fault, he says, that he lived and they did not.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure of The Survivor
‘The Survivor’ by Primo Levi is a fifteen line poem that is contained within a single stanza of text. The lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern but there are several examples of half-rhyme within the text (known as internal rhyme) and at the ends of lines.
Half-rhyme, also known as slant or partial rhyme, is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line, or multiple lines of verse. For example, the repeated “s” sound in “dust / Nebulous in the mist” in lines three and four as well as “died,” “my,” and “I” in lines twelve, thirteen, and fourteen.
Additionally, there is one example of an identical rhyme. This occurs when the same exact word is used at the ends of multiple lines, in this case, “mist” at the ends of lines four and thirteen.
Poetic Techniques in The Survivor
Levi makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘The Survivor’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, enjambment, symbolism, and allusion. The latter is one of the most powerful techniques at work in the poem. It is only from context clues and historical information about the poet’s life that a reader can fully understand the speaker’s guilt and what the title ‘The Survivor’ refers to. See the introduction to this article for more.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “dust” and “death” in lines three and five as well as “dispossessed” and “died” in lines ten and twelve. Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between lines one and two as well as that between lines six and seven.
Symbolism appears in a poem when a poet uses objects, colors, sounds, or places to represent something else. In this case, there are several examples. One occurs at the end of the poem with the use of “bread”. It stands in for life, possessions, hope, and the possibilities of the future. The speaker says that he has not “usurped anyone’s bread”. His survival has not meant that anyone else’s survival was put in jeopardy or terminated.
Analysis of The Survivor
Once more he sees his companions’ faces
Livid in the first faint light,
Tinged with death in their uneasy sleep.
In the first lines of ‘The Survivor’ the speaker, using the third person, describes how “he” (likely the poet himself) can see “Once more” his “companions’ faces”. These faces haunt him like ghosts and bring back all the memories of the past with which they are associated. They are white-faced and made to seem even more so due to the “cement dust” that’s in the air. The faces float through his mind “Nebulous in the mist,” hard to pin down and therefore even harder to shake off.
The imagery in these first lines is powerful, starting the poem out with a clear tone and mood, setting the scene or the images which follow.
At night, under the heavy burden
Of their dreams, their jaws move,
Go away. I haven’t dispossessed anyone,
Haven’t usurped anyone’s bread.
In the next six lines of ‘The Survivor,’ the speaker describes how “At night” the faces are burdened by their dreams. Their jaws move as if they’re eating and the main character in this poem, the unnamed man, watches on. The man knows them, either by name or by circumstances. He recognizes their plight as fellow prisoners of Nazi concentration camps. He asks that they, the “submerged people” of time and memory, leave him alone.
The speaker uses the symbol of bread in the eleventh line to state that he has done nothing to deserve this haunting. His survival has not come at the cost of someone else’s. These images, which are a clear symbol in themselves of the guilt that the man experiences are not easily dismissed.
No one died in my place. No one.
It’s not my fault if I live and breathe,
Eat, drink, sleep and put on clothes.’
In the last lines of ‘The Survivor,’ he reemphasizes that there was “No one” who died in his place. He did nothing to put anyone’s life at risk or ruin someone else’s chances of survival. He asks that they disappear “back into” the mist where they came from. The poem concludes with the speaker referring to the mundane tasks of life, drinking, sleeping, and putting on clothes.
It is not his fault, he says, that he gets to continue on and do these basic things. A reader should note that the speaker did not say that he gets to experience joy, love, have great experiences, or live a full life. It would appear from the last lines that his life is far from joyful.