“Almost Incapable of Discouragement”: The Purpose of Unbroken
There is never a moment in life when adversity is absent, but the true test of resilience presents itself in times when the adversity seems completely grim and utterly unrelenting. In Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand describes the life experiences of Louis Zamperini, a formerly successful Olympic athlete, who, after surviving a plane crash, is put through the very worst of World War II. Using several interviews between herself and Zamperini as a reference, Hillenbrand explains the global conflict through the eyes of Zamperini, as well as the mental war that consumes him and his family in the months following the war. Hillenbrand recounts Zamperini’s instances of mental toughness with powerful phrasing to compose an emotionally appealing story that demonstrates how the human spirit’s resilient optimism pushes the body through pain and adversity.
Hillenbrand places a heavy emphasis on resilience from the very beginning, often times with intent to trigger an emotional response from the reader. She describes a situation early on in Zamperini’s childhood where he deliberately held his head underwater to increase his total lung capacity, usually for extended periods at a time (Hillenbrand 12). By describing such a moment in Zamperini’s life that required resilience to completely withstand, Hillenbrand convinces the reader that he was pushed through a moment of adversity using that quality, even from such an early age.
After a nearly fatal plane crash, Zamperini in addition to two of his companions are left stranded in the middle of an ocean. By bringing up Zamperini’s ability to maintain a hopeful attitude that could “displace [his] fear” and motivate him to survive (Hillenbrand 212), Hillenbrand demonstrates to the reader that Zamperini’s resilient attitude guided him through a completely dire situation. After his capture by the Japanese, he was sent to multiple prison camps, where the guards sought to dehumanize and destroy each of their captives (Hillenbrand 258). By showing the literal hell that Zamperini was put through, Hillenbrand makes the reader sympathize for the character and acknowledge the importance of remaining resilient through times of extreme adversity. David Margolick of the New York Times adds that while Hillenbrand’s portrayal of Zamperini’s resiliently optimistic attitude seemed mostly accurate and believable, her good friendship with Zamperini, and her tendency to focus heavily on Zamperini’s moments of resilience may have made for a more exaggerated story (Margolick). However, by focusing more on these instances of resilience, Hillenbrand elicits a more powerful response from the reader.
In addition to her emotional appeals, Hillenbrand’s word choice when referring to Zamperini’s resilience helps convince the reader of its overall importance. By using phrases such as “renewal of vigor” to describe the feeling Zamperini received when he made a successful effort in survival (Hillenbrand 211), and words like “paralyzed” to describe the actions of those who lacked mental resilience (Hillenbrand 212), Hillenbrand emphasizes how Zamperini was able to remain optimistic while others simply succumbed to their fears. When describing the atmosphere of the Japanese prison camps, Hillenbrand maintains a cold and dark tone, using negative and dreary words such as “deprived” and “dehumanizing” to give the reader an idea of just how terrible those camps were (Hillenbrand 260), in addition to how difficult it must have been to remain optimistic. Hillenbrand also frequently uses the word “dignity” during the sections of the novel devoted to the Japanese prisoner-of-war camps (Hillenbrand 430), employing its use when the characters were questioning whether or not that quality had been stripped from them, and when they believed they had regained it. Although dignity is not directly related to resilience, it is much easier to lose mental strength if dignity has been taken away
Hillenbrand created an emotionally invigorating story that emphasizes the importance of remaining resilient in life by demonstrating Zamperini’s own moments of mental toughness, even when hope seemed to be dwindling. She appeals to the reader emotionally by giving detailed descriptions of the situations in which resilience, both mental and physical, were crucial factors for Zamperini’s survival, and her word choice clearly shows his ability to remain resiliently optimistic in the face of adversity. Resilience is a quality that takes time to develop, but can ultimately dictate survival.
Hillenbrand, Laura. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. New York: Random House, 2010. print.
Margolick, David. “Zamperini’s War.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 20 Nov. 2010. Web. 5 Jan. 2015.