51 pages 1 hour read

Victor Frankl

Man's Search for Meaning

Nonfiction | Autobiography / Memoir | Adult | Published in 1946

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Summary and Study Guide


Man’s Search for Meaning details the author, Victor Frankl’s experience in a concentration camp and his attempts to overcome and understand the trauma of that experience. The book is in three parts: I. Experiences in a Concentration Camp; II. Logotherapy in a Nutshell; and III. Postscript 1984: The Case for Tragic Optimism.

Victor Frankl was born in 1905 and later became a psychiatrist in Vienna. Although he was Jewish, Frankl was protected from arrest by the Nazis for a time because of his work as a doctor. When he was offered the opportunity to obtain a visa and escape to America, he chose to stay in Nazi-occupied Austria to be near his aging parents. Inevitably, he and his family were arrested and taken to the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz. The author was fortunate to be considered young and strong enough to be given work as a slave laborer rather than being killed in the gas chamber.

The first half of the book is a description and interpretation of the concentration camp experiences that Frankl underwent during the war. He survived against formidable odds, demonstrating both remarkable good fortune and a fierce will to live.

After the war, Frankl returned to his work in psychotherapy profoundly influenced by the question: How had he and others he knew in the camps managed to maintain their will to live? What kept them alive and sane in conditions in which literally millions died in hopeless despair?

This examination of the ultimate questions of life and death led Frankl to develop a whole new branch of psychotherapy that went beyond the pioneering work of Sigmund Freud—which is rooted in the idea that man is motivated by the drive for pleasure—and Alfred Adler—which is rooted in the idea that man is driven to seek power.  The author describes his methods of “logotherapy” in great detail in the second part of the book.

The title of the book encapsulates what Frankl learned from being in a concentration camp, starved, beaten, overworked, and constantly threatened with death. Frankl came to realize that man can and will survive even the most extreme conditions if he or she has a strong reason to live: a purpose or meaning in life that motivates him or her.

The author describes three versions of the meaning of life throughout the book: first, is the effort to achieve; second, is the motivation provided by love; third, is the courage and dignity of the human spirit in the face of suffering.

In Frankl’s own case, he found meaning in his work. Specifically, when he was arrested he had a draft manuscript of his theory on psychotherapy with him. The papers were confiscated, but he thought about his writing often and made efforts to preserve it by taking shorthand notes on scraps of paper. Second, Frankl often thought about his deep love for his wife and hoped to see her again after the war. Third, Frankl witnessed many acts of heroism and sacrifice in the camp.