Critical Review of Man’s Search for Meaning by Laura Beres Introduction In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor E. Frankl tells the very personal story of his experience as a prisoner in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. He presents this story in the form of an essay in which he shares his arguments and analysis as a doctor and psychologist as well as a former prisoner. This paper will review Frankl’s story as well as his main arguments, and will evaluate the quality of Frankl’s writing and focus on any areas of weakness within the story. Summary
This section contains a summary of Man’s Search. Frankl begins his book by stating that his purpose in writing the book is not to present facts and details of the Holocaust, but to provide a personal account of the everyday life of a prisoner living in a concentration camp. He states, “This tale is not concerned with the great horrors, which have already been described often enough (though less often believed), but…it will try to answer this question: How was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner? ” (21).
Frankl then goes on to describe the three stages of a prisoner’s psychological reactions to being held captive in a concentration camp. The first phase, which occurs just after the prisoner is admitted to the camp, is shock. The second phase, occurring once the prisoner has fallen into a routine within the camp, is one of apathy, or “the blunting of the emotions and the feeling that one could not anymore” (42). The third phase, which occurs after the prisoner has been liberated from the camp, is a period of “depersonalization”, in which “everything appears unreal, unlikely, as in a dream” (110).
In this phase, released prisoners also feel a sense of “bitterness and disillusionment” when returning to their former lives (113). Frankl describes each of these phases using psychological theory and provides personal experiences to exemplify each of the stages. Author’s Arguments As described above, Frankl’s main purpose for writing this book is to present and analyze the average prisoner’s psychological reactions to the everyday life of a concentration camp. His three main arguments are his resentation and analysis of each of the psychological stages that the average concentration camp prisoner experiences: shock, apathy and depersonalization. He bases his analyses of each of these stages on the actions of the prisoners and his own personal thoughts and reactions as he experienced life in a concentration camp. For example, Frankl argues that the second phase of apathy forces “the prisoner’s life down to a primitive level” (47) in which “all efforts and all emotions were centered on one task: preserving one’s own life and that of the other fellow” (47).
He bases this theory on events he witnessed while living in the camp himself, and states, “It was natural that the desire for food was the major primitive instinct around which mental life centered. Let us observe the majority of prisoners when they happened to work near each other and were, for once, not closely watched. They would immediately start discussing food” (48). Frankl continuously uses examples from his experiences in the concentration camp to illustrate and strengthen his psychological arguments throughout the text. Evaluation This section contains an evaluation of Frankl’s book.
Firstly, the author is a survivor of the Holocaust and was a prisoner of a concentration camp himself, which gives him the personal insight to be able to comment on the psychological conditions of an average prisoner. However, this also creates a bias and because of his personal experience, he is unable to be entirely objective in writing his analysis. Frankl acknowledges this bias in the beginning of his book, by stating, “Only the man inside knows. His judgments may not be objective, his evaluations may be out of proportion. This is inevitable.
An attempt must be made to avoid any personal bias, and that is the real difficulty of a book of this kind” (24-25). Although he is aware of this bias, it creates a partiality that will sway the readers throughout his story and it serves as a minor weakness in his writing style. A second weakness in Frankl’s writing is in the assumptions he sometimes makes to prove his point. He makes overarching generalizations several times in his book, making statements that, although may have been true for himself and those around him, might not have been true for every prisoner in every concentration camp during the Holocaust.
For example, in one instance, he says, “The prisoner of Auschwitz , in the first phase of shock, did not fear death” (37). It is very bold to say that no prisoner of Auschwitz, one of the most well-known and deadly concentration camps of the Holocaust, did not fear death, as death was all around them and was a very real threat in their daily lives. Although he might have not feared death during his phase of shock, it is impossible for him to guarantee that no prisoner was at all fearful of death in this first psychological phase, and for him to make overarching assumptions like this is a weakness to the overall quality of his book.
Finally, Frankl sometimes becomes too technical and verbose in his writing style, which makes it very hard for the average reader to understand. One example of this is as follows. Frankl states, “I remember an incident when there was an occasion for psychotherapeutic work on the inmates of a whole hut, due to an intensification of their receptiveness because of a certain external situation” (102). This sentence, which is overly wordy and complicated, makes it difficult for the average reader to understand exactly what he is saying.
A reader can easily get frustrated when trying to decipher the author’s meaning due to overly complicated language, and this is a third weakness of Frankl’s writing. Conclusion This critical review has evaluated the book Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl. The psychological theories that Frankl presents are very interesting and he does a good job of illustrating these theories with his own personal experiences. However, his writing is weakened by the presence of bias, the overarching assumptions he occasionally makes, and his sometimes overly technical and verbose language.