Study Guide

Unbroken Analysis

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Unbreakable

    Louie goes through a lot. He's put on a plane even though he suffers airsickness. Almost crash lands once. Does crash land a second time. Survives forty-six days at sea. Gets captured by the Japanese. Shuffles from one POW camp to another. Suffers an injury that ends his running career. Develops a drinking problem. Almost gets divorced.

    We need to take a breath.

    Oh—and through half of that, he's pursued by a cruel sociopath nicknamed the Bird, who is determined to destroy Louie's body and spirit.

    But throughout all of it, Louie perseveres. He says to himself, "[The Bird] cannot break me" (4.30.11). And what is something that will not break? It's Unbroken. Despite suffering intense PTSD after the end of the war, Louie finds strength in faith and realizes that "He was not the worthless, broken, forsaken man that the Bird had striven to make of him. […] He was a new creation" (5.38.46). Way to take charge of your own identity, Louie.

    And although the book focuses on Louie, many people remain unbroken throughout: Phil. Phil's fiancée. Louie's family. World War II was a time of great horror, but it was also a time of great heroism and courage—and those are brought to the forefront in this book. 

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    At the end of Unbroken, WWII ends (spoiler alert), Louie gets to go home (yay), gets married (woo), suffers from pretty intense PTSD (boo), and ultimately realizes how freaking awesome he his (the man punched out a shark for Shmoop's sake) and lives happily ever after, finding religion in a Billy Graham tent and preaching inspirational sermons around the country.

    That's the last chapter of Unbroken. Then there's the epilogue, which has so many twists and turns it feels like The Usual Suspects.The Bird, who once faked his own death, turns out to be alive and goes on 60 Minutes to confess his war crimes. Louie, who's thought the man dead and finally forgiven him, discovers he's still alive and heads to Japan to meet him, but the Bird isn't down. Louie still manages to find it in his newfound faith to forgive everyone who ever harmed him, and he runs the Olympic torch past one of the POW camps he suffered in.

    It's pretty darn inspiring, especially since Louie isn't bitter or angry about all that he's suffered. And the epilogue proves that truth is often stranger than fiction. 

  • Setting

    World War II, Japan and the Pacific Ocean

    World at War

    Unbroken focuses on the conflict in the Pacific during World War II. We don't get many behind the scenes looks at Hitler's machinations or global politics though, and instead the story mostly focuses on Louie's life in the barracks (decorating the walls of his room with pin-ups, for example) and the absolutely harrowing conditions of the POW camps he has to suffer through. These camps are dirty, and the guards are bent on humiliating the prisoners until "their dignity had been obliterated" (5.34.13). Yup—sounds like Word War II to us.

    WWII might be the darkest time in human history. Unbroken briefly touches on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and includes a quote from a POW who believes "the end probably justified the means" (4.33.5). Yikes.

    Like the rest of the world, Louie has to heal from the horrors he suffers during war. They're both mental and physical: "The physical injuries were lasting, debilitating, and sometimes deadly. […] The emotional injuries were much more insidious" (4.35.6, 4.35.7). This is a time period before PTSD was common knowledge, and many of the soldiers are suffering from experiences that most people do not understand.

    But Louie, many of his companions, and even some of the Japanese, manage to recover and move on. One of the most moving images in the book shows us that just because the U.S and Japan were on different sides of the war, doesn't mean that they have to be enemies. When the U.S. soldiers are released, "The POWs' last sight of Naoetsu was a broken line of Japanese, the few civilian guards and camp staffers who had been kind to them, standing along the side of the track. Their hands were raised in salute" (4.32.42). This image gives the world hope. 

  • What's Up With the Epigraph?

    What stays with you latest and deepest? of curious panics,

    Of hard-fought engagement or sieges tremendous what deepest remains?

    -Walt Whitman, "The Wound Dresser" 

    What's up with the epigraph?

    "The Wound Dresser" is a classic poem about taking care of people who are sick and dying. And not just any people, either, but soldiers.

    Like Unbroken, "The Wound Dresser" is about a war (the Civil War in Whitman's case) that happened before the term PTSD became common knowledge. But that doesn't mean it didn't exist, and Whitman almost seems to be alluding to it here, the "curious panics of hard-fought engagements" that seem to stick with veterans.

    In many cases, it's easier to dress the physical wounds that come from battle. But how does a caretaker heal the emotional wounds? In Louie Zamperini's case, it's by telling his story. 

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (3) Base Camp

    Louie often feels like he's on an impossible journey, but reading Unbroken is a leisurely affair, more like relaxing on a beach than storming one. Emotionally, Unbroken can be challenging—Louie suffers for years, and it can be tough to read about—but Hillenbrand doesn't pepper her text with gratuitous details. A book like this doesn't get to the top of the bestsellers' heap by being dense and horrific. It gets there by being accessible.

    Support America (or at least Laura Hillenbrand)! Read Unbroken! It's easier than buying war bonds. 

  • The Graf Zeppelin

    The Bad Year Blimp

    This giant blimp is one of the first powerful images we see in the novel. In the very first chapter, we follow the Zeppelin as it flies over France, Switzerland, Germany, Tokyo, and the United States.

    It makes quite an impression on young Louie, and he finds it's "fearfully beautiful" (1.1.8). One of the things he doesn't realize at the time though, is how much the blimp is like the peace the world is living in at the time: it isn't meant to last. The blimp was retired in 1937. Before it did, though, it heralded Hitler's arrival on more than one occasion—and nothing says goodbye peace like hello, Hitler.

    In short, the graf zeppelin is a symbol of what's to come—an era of terrible, and terribly destructive, war.

  • Sharks

    Like You Gave a Little Speed to a Great White Shark on Shark Week 

    Shark Week? Try Shark Month. Louie, Phil, and Mac are adrift at sea, surrounded by sharks, for forty-six days. That's six-and-a-half consecutive Shark Weeks.

    While stationed on various Hawaiian islands, the men often pass their time by shooting at and blowing up the sharks nearby. Later "they felt guilty" (2.9.9), but the sharks don't get that memo, and sometimes it seems like the sharks are holding a personal vendetta against the men.

    Seriously, Shmoopers, these sharks are insane. They're patient, "waiting for the men to come to them" (3.12.21)—and when the men don't just jump down into the water for a dip, they sharks leap out of the water at them. We are surprised they don't come after the men with frickin' lasers attached to their heads.

    These sharks give us some harrowing man versus nature moments you rarely find outside a Jack London novel. They represent the danger that lurks for Louie and his cohorts, and are also a means for understanding each of the men based on how they handle their presence. Louie punches a shark in the face at one point, and even manages to wrestle one out of the water, kill it, and devour its liver. Man: 1, Sharks: 0.

  • Planes

    Injustice League

    The two planes Louie flies on are both named after famous comic book characters. Like Superman, the Super Man is kinda awesome, and like the Green Hornet, the Green Hornet kinda isn't awesome.

    The Super Man becomes a "dear friend" (2.10.25) to the men, especially after it gets riddled with 594 bullet holes and somehow manages to hold together. Of course, Phil deserves a lot of credit for landing the machine, but the plane seems to take on a personality of its own.

    The Green Hornet has a personality too, but not a good one. It's known as "the craziest plane" (2.10.31) and all the men are scared of it. Can't say we blame them.

    The real injustice here isn't the fact that one plane is of shoddier construction than the other, it's that the U.S. military put these men in the Green Hornet even though it was a "faltering plane" (2.10.31) that wasn't nearly well equipped enough to survive a crash landing. Louie, Phil, and Mac might survive partly because of the Super Man's construction, but when it comes to the Green Hornet, they survive in spite of what a winged disaster it is.

    The planes are reminders of how unpredictable war is, and how many variables are at play at any given moment. They also make it explicitly clear that the men fighting are forced to make do with whatever equipment they're given—for better and for worse.

  • Albatross

    Through the Fog it Came

    An actual albatross lands on Louie's raft while he, Phil, and Mac are adrift at sea. Ignoring the warning from Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," Louie strangles the bird. They try to eat it, but its meat is too stinky to consume—the good news though, is that they make it into fish bait. Phew. Louie considers the whole "bad luck to kill an Albatross" thing, but tells himself "what more bad luck could they have?" (3.14.16)

    We're not superstitious enough to attribute the terrible things that happen to Louie and Phil to the unlucky strangling of a bird, but their luck goes from bad to OMG worse. As they're shuffled from POW camp to POW camp, Louie is haunted by an albatross of his own: the guard they call the Bird. Evil Albatross would be a more appropriate nickname for this cruel man whom Louie can't get off his neck. It's a twist on the symbolism from Coleridge's poem, but it's about as dark a reference as they come.

      • Allusions

        Literary and Philosophical References

        Historical References

        Pop Culture References

        • "White Christmas" (Prologue.2; 3.14.24)
        • Lou Gehrig (1.1.4)
        • Babe Ruth (1.1.4)
        • Jesse Owens (referenced throughout Chapter 4)
        • They Died with Their Boots On (1.5.23) (2.10.28)
        • Errol Flynn (1.5.23) (5.33.34)
        • Olivia de Havilland (1.5.23)
        • Esther Williams (3.13.40)
        • Marlene Dietrich (4.22.8)
        • Cinderella (4.26.37)
        • Al Jolson, "California Here I Come" (4.33.34)
        • Robin Hood (5.33.35)
        • Laurence Olivier (5.33.37)
        • This is Your Life (Epilogue.10)