Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Anne Frank’s perpetual feeling of being lonely and misunderstood provides the impetus for her dedicated diary writing and colors many of the experiences she recounts. Even in her early diary entries, in which she writes about her many friends and her lively social life, Anne expresses gratitude that the diary can act as a confidant with whom she can share her innermost thoughts. This might seem an odd sentiment from such a playful, amusing, and social young girl, but Anne explains that she is never comfortable discussing her inner emotions, even around close friends. Despite her excitement over developing into a woman, and despite the specter of war surrounding her, Anne nonetheless finds that she and her friends talk only about trivial topics.
We learn later in the diary that neither Mrs. Frank nor Margot offers much to Anne in the way of emotional support. Though Anne feels very connected to her father and derives strength and encouragement from him, he is not a fitting confidant for a thirteen-year-old girl. Near the end of her diary, Anne shares a quotation she once read with which she strongly agrees: “Deep down, the young are lonelier than the old.” Because young people are less able than adults to define or express their needs clearly, they are more likely to feel lonely, isolated, and misunderstood. Living as a Jew in an increasingly anti-Jewish society, in cramped and deprived circumstances, heightens the isolation Anne feels and complicates her struggle for identity.
Anne occasionally turns to the cats that live in the annex for affection. Noticing that Peter van Daan also plays with the cats, Anne speculates that he must also suffer from a lack of affection. Anne’s observation softens her view of Peter, whom she once considered obnoxious and lazy, and these thoughts cause her to think that they might have something in common. Their ensuing friendship and budding romance stave off their feelings of loneliness. Margot, who like the other members of the annex witnesses the changing nature of Anne and Peter’s relationship, expresses her jealousy that Anne has found a confidant. Evidently, Anne is not the only one in the annex suffering from the deprivation of friends.
Feelings of loneliness and isolation also play out in the larger scheme of the annex. All the inhabitants feel anxious, fearful, and stressed because of their circumstances, yet no one wants to burden the others with such depressing feelings. As a result, the residents become impatient with one another over trivial matters and never address their deeper fears or worries. This constant masking and repression of serious emotions creates isolation and misunderstanding between all the residents of the annex.
Anne frequently expresses her conviction that there are “two Annes”: the lively, jovial, public Anne whom people find amusing or exasperating; and the sentimental, private Anne whom only she truly knows. As she comes to understand her actions and motivations better over the course of her writing, Anne continually refers to this aggravating split between her inward and outward character.
Anne is aware of this dichotomy from a young age. In her early diary entries she explains that though she has many friends and acquaintances, she feels she does not have one person to whom she can really open up. She regrets that she does not share her true self with her friends or family. Anne expresses frustration that she does not know how to share her feelings with others, and she fears that she is vulnerable to attacks on her character. When her relationship with Peter begins, Anne wonders whether he will be the first one to see through the outer, public Anne and find her true self beneath.
Anne struggles with her two selves throughout the diary, trying to be honest and genuine, while at the same time striving to fit in with the rest of the group and not create too much friction. On January 22, 1944, Anne asks a question—“Can you tell me why people go to such lengths to hide their real selves?”—that suggests she realizes she is not alone in hiding her true feelings and fears. With this realization, Anne starts to read into other people’s behavior more deeply and starts to think about their true but hidden motivations.
In her final diary entry, on August 1, 1944, Anne continues to grapple with the difference between her self-perception and how she presents herself to others. She arrives at a greater resolve to be true to herself and not to fold her heart inside out so only the bad parts show.
Anne’s inner struggle mirrors the larger circumstances of the war. Both the residents of the annex and the Dutch people who help them are forced to hide themselves from the public. They must take on a different identity in public to protect their livelihood because their true identities and actions would make them targets of persecution. This is yet another manifestation of the hypocrisy of identity that Anne is trying to come to terms with in her diary.
Anne’s diary demonstrates that war brings out both the best and the worst traits in people. Two characteristics in particular become prominent defining poles of character in the annex—generosity and greed. The group’s livelihood depends on the serious and continual risks taken by their Dutch keepers, who are generous with food, money, and any other resources they can share.
Although the annex is hardly luxurious, the Franks and van Daans feel their situation is better than that of the thousands of Jews who are in mortal danger outside. As a result, they extend Mr. Dussel an invitation to join them and to share their limited resources—an act of true generosity. The fact that Mr. Dussel accepts the others’ offer but never makes any attempt to acknowledge or reciprocate their generosity might be attributed to the extreme circumstances. More likely, however, is that Mr. Dussel is the kind of person in whom hardship brings out the qualities of greed and selfishness. Indeed, the two people Anne most reviles, Mr. Dussel and Mrs. van Daan, share the tendency to look out for themselves far more than to look out for others.
Generosity and greed also come to bear on Anne’s feelings of guilt about being in hiding. Although by the end of their time in the annex the residents have practically run out of food, Anne feels lucky to have escaped the fate of her friends who were sent to concentration camps. She struggles with the idea that perhaps she and her family could have been more generous and could have shared their resources with more people. While Mr. Dussel and Mrs. van Daan feel that greed is the only way to protect themselves from the horrors of war, these same circumstances of hardship inspire Anne to feel even more generous.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Anne is thirteen years old when she first goes into hiding in the annex, and she turns fifteen shortly before the family’s arrest. Thus, her diary is a powerful firsthand record of the experience of a young girl as she matures. Although Anne faces the challenges of puberty under unusual circumstances, the issues she struggles with are universal. She frequently contemplates the changes in her body and her psychology. Because Anne does not readily confide in her mother or her sister, she turns to her diary to understand the changes she perceives and to question issues about sexuality and maturity. In later entries, as Anne begins to see herself as an independent woman, she compares herself to her mother and to other women of her mother’s generation, imagining what she will be like in the future. She often thinks about what it means to be a woman and a mother, typically using her mother as an example of the type of woman she does not want to become. Instead, Anne seeks to overcome the obstacles of gender bias and prejudice, just as she hopes to escape the persecution faced by the Jewish people.
The Franks and the van Daans are fortunate enough to have made advance plans to go into hiding should the need arise, but they still know they are not completely safe from the Nazis. Their security depends on the cooperation of many different people outside the annex, as well as a good amount of luck and hope. Their fear grows each time the doorbell rings, there is a knock on their door, or they hear that there is a break-in at the office building. They hear reports from the outside world about their friends who are arrested and about non-Jews who are suffering from a lack of food. As the war rages on around them, all people—Jews and non-Jews—suffer. Anne knows that her family’s situation is precarious, and she spends much of her time trying to distract herself from this frightening reality. However, each scare does color her diary entries. She knows what would happen to her and her family if they were discovered, and this fear that permeates life in the annex likewise permeates the tone of Anne’s diary.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Hanneli is one of Anne’s close friends who appears in Anne’s dreams several times as a symbol of guilt. Hanneli appears sad and dressed in rags, and she wishes that Anne could stop Hanneli’s suffering. A young Jewish girl, Hanneli has presumably already been arrested and deported to a concentration camp. For Anne, Hanneli represents the fate of her friends and companions and the millions of Jews—many of whom were children like herself—who were tortured and murdered by the Nazis. Anne questions why her friend has to suffer while she survives in hiding. Anne continually struggles with the guilt that her friend is dead while she is still alive. Hanneli’s appearance in Anne’s dreams makes Anne turn to God for answers and comfort, since there is no one else who can explain why she lives while her friend does not.
Anne’s grandmother appears to Anne in her dreams. To Anne, she symbolizes unconditional love and support, as well as regret and nostalgia for the life Anne lived before being forced into hiding. Anne wishes she could tell her grandmother how much they all love her, just as she wishes she had appreciated her own life before she was confined in the annex. Anne misses living a life in which she did not have to worry about her future. She imagines that her grandmother is her guardian angel and will protect her, and she returns to this image to sustain her when she feels particularly afraid or insecure.