Study Guide

Unbroken Themes

  • Perseverance

    When Winston Churchill said "If you're going through hell, keep going," he might as well have been talking about Louie Zamperini, whose picture should come up every time someone Googles perseverance. If Laura Hillenbrand wrote "Louie went through hell," she would have been glossing over a lot, but she still would have been accurate.

    In Unbroken, we see Louie survive crash landings, shark attacks, Japanese POW camps, and PTSD with a little luck and a heck of a lot of personal strength and tenacious determination. 

    Questions About Perseverance

    1. What inspires Louie to keep going and push through impossible odds?
    2. Do you think you would have the strength to persevere through the same trials that Louie does?
    3. Does everyone have the same drive Louie has? Do people around him ever give up?
    4. What trials does Louie have to persevere through after the war?

    Chew on This

    Louie grows up in a time when perseverance was the natural fact of life. His parents persevered, living in a one-room shack with an outhouse, and they passed that tenacity onto their son.

    Running requires a certain mentality, one that allows the runner to push himself for miles and miles. Without that runners' mentality, Louie probably would not have survived everything he had to suffer through during the war. 

  • Suffering

    You probably don't need Unbroken to tell you this, but crash landing in the Pacific is not fun. Fending off shark attacks? Nope, not fun either. And neither is being forced to clean up a pig sty with your bare hands in a Japanese POW camp, or chronic alcoholism. Louie Zamperini's life sees a whole lot of suffering over the course of a few very long years. However, the book is called Unbroken, not Brokenso though Louie suffers, he doesn't let it keep him down. 

    Questions About Suffering

    1. How does the pain Louie suffers through during his running career help prepare him for the pain experiences during war?
    2. How does Louie's family suffer while Louie is away? How do they cope with it?
    3. What do you think is the worst event Louie has to suffer through? Would you be able to deal with it?
    4. Why does the Bird get pleasure from inflicting suffering on others?

    Chew on This

    The things Louie suffers through would be enough to break most people, but you read the title: Louie remains <em>Unbroken. </em>

    The physical pain is terrible, but the emotional pain inflicts the most long-lasting damage on Louie. Telling his story is a way to alleviate that pain, and help others who are suffering through emotional strife of their own. 

  • Friendship

    One of the most misguided ad campaigns in recent history is the U.S. Army's creation of the slogan "Army of One." Because do you know what happens to an army of one? He dies.

    The people who survive at war are the ones who work together, the teams that manage to communicate with each other almost telepathically and who are teammates on the battlefield and friends in the barracks. In Unbroken, Louie's friendships aren't just fun—they keep him alive. 

    Questions About Friendship

    1. Who are Louie's closest friends?
    2. How does Louie's friendship with his crewmates grow during the war? How does it change after the war?
    3. Could the crew of the Super Man be as effective if they weren't friends? Is it possible to have a strong team without friendship?
    4. Would Louie have been able to survive if he hadn't made friends along the way?

    Chew on This

    Although it may have been easier to deal with loss if Louie <em>didn't </em>form friendships with his crewmates, they likely wouldn't have survived without their close bonds.

    Having friends enables Louie to keep his memories alive, both good and bad. They share common good memories, and are able to cope with the bad ones together. 

  • War

    Take a look at the cover of Unbroken.

    Oops. Wrong Unbroken. Take a look at this cover. "Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption"—it's right there on the cover: World War II. So of course war is a theme.

    Unbroken is less about the politics of war, however, and more about the horrors of war. Atrocities weren't just committed by the Japanese, and Louie often falls victim to mishaps caused by his very own country, the one he's sworn to protect. It feels like all is un-fair when it comes to war. 

    Questions About War

    1. Imagine Louie's life if WWII hadn't happened. How would it have been different? Would he have been a track star? Would he have met Sylvia?
    2. Do you wish Unbroken had gone into more information about the world politics around WWII, or are you glad it focused mostly on Louie's story?
    3. Why were some of the Japanese guards nice to the POWs? Does war turn good people bad, or does it only bring out the bad in people who already have it in them?

    Chew on This

    Some of the greatest atrocities of war are inflicted on Louie by his own country. He's forced to fly constantly, in planes that are shoddily constructed and lack proper emergency supplies. It's amazing his own country's shortcomings don't kill him.

    Not everyone agrees with the war. Louie is befriended by some Japanese who put people before politics. 

  • Competition

    War is kind of a competition. Different teams fight each other for a variety of reasons, whether it's to claim resources, earn new territories, or resolve political differences. Louie is well equipped for war because of his innate competitive spirit (that's part of why the book is called Unbroken...a less equipped person's story would've required a different title). The same drive that pushes him across the finish line in his track days helps him stay in the race, so to speak, during the war. Like Buzz Lightyear, real competitors never give up, never surrender

    Questions About Competition

    1. When Louie is a runner—before the war—what motivates him to compete so hard?
    2. How is Louie able to utilize his running skills and competitive nature during the war?
    3. Is Louie still competitive after the war, and after the end of his running career?

    Chew on This

    Louie's competitive drive goes hand-in-hand with his perseverance. It helps that he mainly competes with <em>himself, </em>to be the best he can be, rather than trying to be better than others.

    To boost morale, the POWs subtly compete with each other to find out the craziest ways to rebel against their captors. Their competitive nature keeps them alive. 

  • Admiration

    Even if it isn't Memorial Day (remembering men and women who died while serving) or Veterans Day (remembering all veterans), people almost always admire and respect war heroes. It's the least we can do for people who sacrifice so much for their country, and for causes they may or may not believe in.

    In Unbroken, Louie spends a lot of his life searching for admiration, so all the accolades he receives after his miraculous survival must be rewarding indeed. 

    Questions About Admiration

    1. What are Louie's most admirable qualities?
    2. Is there anything Louie does that lessens your admiration of him?
    3. Who looks up to Louie? Who does Louie admire?
    4. How does the men's admiration of each other help them stay strong and survive during the war?

    Chew on This

    The accolades and awards Louie receives after the war help him recover the dignity he loses in the POW camps.

    Even though Pete is relegated to BFF status, he deserves just as many awards and recognitions that Louie does, since he suffers through everything right alongside him. 

  • Language and Communication

    War is pretty much a failure to communicate on a global scale. Men in power fail to make a peaceful compromise, and instead decide to sentence thousands of others to death to get they want. Miscommunication trickles down to the soldiers too. In Unbroken, English-speaking men are taken prisoner by Japanese-speaking soldiers, and their inability to talk to one another only builds tension that is already thick enough to cut with a butter knife.

    It's difficult to have peace when the world doesn't speak a common language. 

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. How do the nicer Japanese guards make efforts to communicate with their prisoners?
    2. In what ways to the POWs use the language barrier in order to rebel against their captors?
    3. Would the POW camps have been a different place if the guards shared the same language as their prisoners?
    4. How does miscommunication cause a delay in information being transmitted around the world at this time?

    Chew on This

    In the POW camps, the language gap is a double-edged sword. It serves as both a source of frustration and a method of rebellion.

    Louie is often forbidden from speaking in the POW camps, so it's no wonder that he wants to tell his story when he gets out—he's making up for a couple years' lost time. 

  • Family

    On television, from The Brady Bunch to Modern Family we often see families that all live together (and don't even have a toilet) or live in the same town. But the powerful thing about families is how they stay strong even when separated—and in Unbroken, the Zamperinis show incredible strength. They're able to survive a couple of troublemaking teenage boys, distance, death, and even war. Just like Louie, his family remains unbroken.

    Questions About Family

    1. How does Louie's family come together to support each other when Louie disappears?
    2. Would Louie have been as determined to survive at war if he didn't have such strong family bonds?
    3. Why does Louie's family, especially Pete, have a harder time coping with what Louie suffers during the war than Louie does?

    Chew on This

    Louie's brother, Pete, is his biggest champion, and without Pete, Louie would never have grown into the man he becomes.

    Louie creates his own family after returning from the war, which ends up being another wonderful support system for him as he recovers from his PTSD. 

  • Drugs and Alcohol

    Liquor and war go together like, well, something kind of dangerous. Like cigarettes and chocolate milk or Double Stuf Oreos and anything.

    Like any addiction, it starts out fun—just a little here and there to forget the pain. But eventually it becomes a way of life, and for Louie, his alcoholism is almost as damaging and dangerous as the things he experiences in the war that he's drinking in an effort to forget. Though he ultimately rallies himself to the straight and narrow, his alcoholism almost sees to it that this book get called Broken instead of Unbroken.

    Questions About Drugs and Alcohol

    1. How does Louie's relationship with alcohol before the war compare to his relationship with alcohol after the war?
    2. Why is alcohol such a treasured possession to the soldiers?
    3. How does Louie's alcoholism affect his life and his relationships after he returns from war? In what ways does it help Louie? In what ways is it damaging?
    4. Why does Louie quit drinking?

    Chew on This

    Louie often drinks to forget, but he's able to quit by <em>remembering</em>—remembering how strong and amazing he is, despite the bad things he went through.

    Louie has to rely on alcohol because the military doesn't provide adequate mental health care to its veterans.