Book Overview Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl
Engrossing. I was taken by surprise as I read Anne's diary. I was expecting to find lots of historical detail about the Holocaust. There is some of that. I was expecting to read the disjointed narrative of loose events. This diary had some of that, too. However, her narrative is a succinct and intimate portrait of two Jewish families, the Franks and the Van Daans, and an unmarried dentist. The diary does begin before her family goes into hiding, on June 12, 1942, but by July 9, Anne begins to chronicle the vicissitudes of the aforementioned families, and her personal reflections. Instead of politics and war, Anne describes quarrels between herself with her mother, Mrs. Van Daan, and Dussel (the dentist), between the Van Daans and the Franks, and between Mrs. Van Daan and Dussel. What makes these accounts astonishing is that Anne describes these quarrels with the irony and maturity of a full-fledged writer, and her tone makes any reader recall the ironies of a Jane Austen narrative (I may go as far as to compare the relationship between Anne and her mother with that of an Elizabeth Bennet with her silly mother in Pride and Prejudice). Only that this is nonfiction, and thus, her rivalry with her mother may be a situation that other teenagers may easily relate to. If Freud had this diary in his hands, he may even go as far as to point out that Anne has an Electra complex (the reverse of the Oedipus complex). Anne makes very clear that she cannot stand her mother and even claims to hate her. She may have modified this "hate" a year and a half later in the same diary, but she still accepts that she can live without her and that she cannot profess the motherly love. Again, she treads in Jane Austen territory when she claims on February 8, 1944 that her father is not in love with her mother, and that he kisses her the way she kisses them. If this had been fiction, one could find parallels with some Austen novels. Equally astonishing is the level of maturity with which she analyses her parents' matrimonial situation, even if her conclusions were wrong and she was just biased toward her father.
In likewise manner, she describes her relationship between herself and Mrs. Van Daan, and the Van Daans. Only a few weeks after their arrival at the secret annex, on September 2, 1942, Anne describes a quarrel between the couple and calls their son lazy, and on September 21, she calls Mrs. Van Daan "unbearable." Her antagonism toward Mrs. Van Daan will be one of her recurring topics throughout the diary. There is also plenty of conflict between her and Dussel with whom she has to share her room; and finally, when she is fourteen and a half, and in love with Peter Van Daan, she turns her adolescent rage against her own father in a letter defending her independence from parental intrusion and her right to see Peter as often as she liked. She may regret this afterwards, but this rebellion shows us an outstanding character trait of hers, an indomitable spirit, and one of the major themes in this diary: generational conflict; the world of adults against youngsters. Since the very beginning, Anne finds her privacy and free will threatened, not only by the external forces of the Nazis, but also by her mother, her sister Margot, Mrs. Van Daan, and Dussel. When on March 2, 1944 she writes, "We aren't allowed to have an opinion" teenagers all over the world will sympathize. Her musings about relationships between youngsters and adults, however, must not be confused with mere griping; her voice is carried by a balance between passion and reason.
Along with the threat of parental intrusion upon her freedoms, she talks in depth about sexuality and the need for courage in the face of adversity; the importance of work and having goals in life; the roots of happiness; the importance of religion (no matter which religious doctrine one follows); the unfortunate growth of anti-Semitism, and her love for Holland. Each one of her discussions are appropriate for teenagers and adults as she speaks with wisdom. In sexuality, she advocates for sexual education at a young age. She feels no shame for her periods and openly confesses on January 6, 1944 that she is "always looking forward to the time when I'll feel that secret inside me once again." And when she is falling in love with Peter, she announces on February 12, 1944 "I think spring is inside me." In matters of love, she does sound more radical when she claims on March 2, 1944 "Losing your virtue doesn't matter, as long as you know that for as long as you live you'll have someone at your side who understands you..." But the way she reflects on these issues throughout the diary show a desire to balance out her natural teenage impulses with the reasoning of a maturing adolescent, not a rebel without a cause.
Anne also talks about her literary ambitions and she does show her knack for writing with skill. There is a tone of irony in an entry subtitled "Peeling Potatoes," August 10, 1943. Once you've read this section you'll discover that it is more than about peeling potatoes. A clever story is subtitled "Ode to My Fountain Pen: In Memoriam" found on the November 11, 1943 entry. It's about the loss of her fountain pen. She even makes the most out of scary situations when she writes about an attempted break-in into the factory where they are hidden as if she were narrating a suspenseful story. In addition, on many occasions she shows us the sensibility of a poet as she connects with nature even within her confinement: "As long as you can look fearlessly at the sky, you'll know that you're pure within and will find happiness once more" she states on February 23, 1944. Later on, on March 7, 1944, she claims her right to beauty in the face of misfortune: "If you just look for it, you discover more and more happiness and regain your balance. A person who's happy will make others happy; a person who has courage and faith will never die in misery."This does not mean that Anne's diary has nothing to do with the war or with anti-Semtism. Without these two, without the Nazi menace, Anne would have discovered these things sooner in a freer environment (it took her almost two years to explore love and friendship with Peter), she would have developed her skills as a journalist, a poet, and a writer, had not the Nazis and the war existed. And yet, in spite of the overwhelming presence of the Nazis, anti-Semitism, and war, Anne's greatest triumph was being able to reveal the heart of an adolescent with frankness and honesty. Like the great writer of fiction, Jane Austen, Anne Frank found in the tidbits of her conflicts with adults, their everyday quarrels, her bodily needs and intimacy, her desire for affection and love, their disagreements over politics, the voice of all humanity. It is for these reasons, that this diary endures among classics and among must reads for our youth.