Themes in The Book Thief
The Book Thief is a book written by the Australian author Markus Zusak and published in 2005. The story takes place in Germany around and during WWII. Guided by an original narrator, Death himself, we follow Liesel Meminger, a young orphan girl placed in foster care, nicknamed “the book thief” by Death. Here is how “[our] devoted Narrator” teases the story in the Prologue:
“It’s a small story really, about, among other things:
* A girl
* Some words
* Some fanatical Germans
* A Jewish fist fighter
* And quite a lot of thievery.
I [Death] saw the Book Thief three times”
Through the many characters the reader meets along the pages, and the complex historical context in which they live, The Book Thief tackles many different themes, but they can be sumed up around three major notions: Death, Humanity, and Books. Those themes are, first of all, cleverly tackled, in a way that often subverts the reader’s expectations and goes behind prejudices, and, secondly, they are deeply linked to a constant reflection around the power of words and literature. Let’s analyze why and how.
Death is a constant in The Book Thief, not only because the action takes place during WWII, and Liesel crosses path with Death three times, but also because Death itself is the narrator. (And what a narrator, as it will be shown throughout this article!) Death introduces himself in a Prologue written in the first-person. Plus, even though the majority of the story is told from an omniscient point of view and in the third person, Death comments Liesel’s story, adding context through flashbacks, teasing through flash-forwards, and digressing in bold sidebars. Death shapes, in more than one way, the book thief’s story.
In The Book Thief, the majority of the characters are marked by the death of loved ones, and by the guilt to have outlived them. When the reader first meets her, in the train that leads her to Hans and Rosa Hubermann’s place in the suburb of Munich, Liesel is confronted to death for the first time, as her younger brother dies in her arm. This tragic event is what pushes her to steal her first book: A Twelve-Step Guide to Grave-Digging Success, even though, at the time, she doesn’t know how to read. This tragic event also haunts her for a long time. Indeed, she has terrible recurring nightmares about her dead brother:
“She would wake up swimming in her bed, screaming, and drowning in the flood of sheets. On the other side of the room, the bed that was meant for her brother floated boat-like in the darkness.”
In the same way, Max feels guilty about the family he left behind, a family assumed killed or deported. As he arrives at the Hubermann’s place, exhausted and starving, he can’t stop apologizing in a “pitiful” way. Like Liesel, nightmares are haunting him. Death and guilt are haunting him:
“He [Max] wanted to walk out—Lord, how he wanted to (or at least he wanted to want to)—but he knew he wouldn’t. It was much the same as the way he left his family in Stuttgart, under a veil of fabricated loyalty.
Living was living.
The price was guilt and shame.”
Then, there is the mayor’s wife, Ilsa Hermann. She is grieving for her son, who died in Russia during the First World War. Her son’s death broke her:
“The point is, Ilsa Hermann had decided to make suffering her triumph. When it refused to let go of her, she succumbed to it. She embraced it.”
These are not the only ones whose loved ones have been ripped away, of course, but these three characters manage to overcome their grief and guilt. However, and the book shows it in a very clever way, it is not an easy nor smooth road. This process takes time and is full of forth and back. The peace they find is never to take for granted. There are relapses. There are deadlocks. There are obstacles. For instance, when Liesel comes back to the Hermann’s library, after tearing one of Ilsa’s book out of anger, she can’t bring herself to knock on the front door, and, on the way back, she feels her brother’s ghost, his disappointment, her newfound guilt.
Despite everything, what helps those characters heal is the bond they form with each other – and at the base of that bond are books. The first thing Liesel notices, when she brings Max food, is the book he carries. A few weeks later, Max offers Liesel a home-made book for her birthday, the same way he leaves her a book when he leaves. During his time in the Hubermann’s basement, Liesel brings him newspapers, so he can do crosswords. She reads with him, and to him when he falls sick. Ilsa and Liesel also bond and heal through books, and words, as Ilsa begins to invite Liesel in her library.
Liesel slowly discovers the loss behind Ilsa’s constant sadness, thanks to talks around the books Liesel borrows, skims, reads. At some point, the young girl feels “at home” in the mayor’s library, “among the mayor’s books of every color and description, with their silver and gold lettering.” She can “smell the pages.” She can “almost taste the words as they [stack] up around her.” Even when anger comes along, and Liesel begins stealing, Ilsa and her keep talking through letters, left in the library. Finally, when they make amends, the mayor’s wife jokes on whether she should use the door or the window, and she smiles, “for the first time in a long time.”
For those three characters words and books paved the way to others, to forgiveness, to peace. They soothe, at least in a way, the hole Death has dug in their heart.
But in The Book Thief, though, Death isn’t the ultimate villain. He is the one telling, reading the book thief’s story, and, as strange as that might be at first, we come to sympathize with him. Death becomes an actual character, a character that could come from a Greek tragedy. Just like Greek heroes, Death can’t escape his fate. He hates his “job”. Right from the beginning, he puts forward his need for a vacation – a need that was especially strong during WWII – and such a plea is reaffirmed throughout the book. But he can’t put his metaphorical scythe down, he can’t just quit, he has to keep collecting souls. He has to, though it is not of his own accord. He is as trapped as any other human, by his own nature. Many extracts could illustrate that, here is two:
“I [Death] am not violent. I am not malicious. I am a result.”
“And then. There is death.
Making his way through all of it.
On the surface: unflappable, unwavering.
Below: unnerved, untied, and undone.”
This original stance also leads to thoughts about war and its atrocities. Once again, Death takes a step back, and contemplates on his own prison:
“Death’s Diary: 1942.
It was a year for the ages, like 79, like 1346, to just name a few. Forget the scythe, God damn it, I needed a broom or a mop. And I needed a holiday.
They say that war is death’s best friend, but I must offer you a different point of view on that one. To me, war is like the new boss who expects the impossible. He stands over your shoulder repeating one thing, incessantly. ‘Get it done, get it done’. So you work harder. You get the job done. The boss however, does not thank you. He asks for more.”
The reader also sees how taking some particularly bright souls reaps Death’s heart:
“On many counts, taking [spoiler] was robbery.
Yes, I know it.
In the darkness of my dark-beating heart, I know.
Even death has a heart.”
One literary device that may sum it up pretty well is the use of German in this English-written book. This device may be interpreted in several ways, as we will see, but here, let’s focus especially on the German words our narrator translates for us in sidebars, like this one:
Death speaks English and can translate German. By analogy, he speaks and can translate any language. Therefore, it can be a metaphor for his universality and timelessness. Death is also more powerful than any human, as, contrary to him, no man can be fluent in all the languages ever spoken. Yet, Death still is a “result”: in a way, he depends on mankind, he is the result of mankind’s existence and actions, the same way languages are. Plus, the fact that Death bothers to learn German, to speak German and to translate it for us, shows a more caring, human, vulnerable, side of him.
Without sugarcoating Death, such a narrative and writing style – the first-person narrator, its original status, the sweet irony, the poetry of some sentences, the intimate and conversational tone – give us distance on how we approach things.
“ ***A SMALL PIECE OF TRUTH ***
I do not carry a sickle or scythe.
I only wear a hooded black robe when it’s cold.
And I don’t have those skull-like facial features you seem to enjoy pinning on me from a distance.
You want to know what I truly look like? I’ll help you out.
Find yourself a mirror while I continue.”
And that leads us to our second theme.
Humans and humanity
“Humans” is the last word of the novel, as Death reveals to an old Liesel, one last secret: “I am haunted by humans”. Humanity, Human Nature, and its complexity are at the center of The Book Thief. The novel highlights both the duality that marked that specific historical context and the duality and complexity within individuals themselves, regardless of the historical context.
Guided by our original narrator, the reader dives into the atrocity, into the unspeakable reality of the Nazi regime, and into the war it triggered. We see some faceless fanatics beat or kill innocents men, women, children just because of their religion, or their political believes. All of this is shown either through the eyes of Liesel, a young girl, or through the eyes of Death. The first point of view highlights the horror of it, while the second gives us a distanced and slightly ironic opinion, that stresses the madness and obliviousness in humans:
“It kills me sometimes, how people die”
“A small but noteworthy note. I’ve seen so many young men over the years who think they’re running at other young men. They are not. They are running at me [Death].”
We see acts of fear, envy, nastiness, anger. Out of anger, because the mayor dismissed Rosa, Liesel tores apart one of Ilsa’s books and begins to steal from her. Out of envy, and hunger, Rudy steals from a boy who was carrying food to the local priest. Out of childishness, Rudy and other kids, Liesel included, often make fun of Tommy Müller, because of his tics. Out of nastiness and lust for power, Franz Deutcher bullies Rudy during Hitler Youth sessions. We see the Hubermann family being ripped apart by political divergence, as Hans and his grown-up son don’t share the same convictions regarding Hitler and the Nazi party.
But we see acts of kindness, as well. The biggest one, is, of course, Hans and Rosa’s decision to hide Max, despite all the risks involved, not only for them but for Liesel as well. The decision isn’t easy for the couple. But Max’s father saved Hans’s life, back in France during WWI, and Hans made a promise to help his family.
We also see smaller acts of kindness, but, somehow, they are as no lesser than taking Max in. We see Rudy give a teddy bear to a dying pilot whose plane crashed near Molching. We see Ilsa kindly invite Liesel in the library. We see Rudy stand up for Tommy Müller during the Hitler Youth. We see Liesel read to calm everybody’s mind during an air raid. We see Rudy and Liesel, and Hans, give bread to Jews on their way to Dachau, despite the soldiers’ warnings and threats.
Acts of goodness – Hans giving bread to a Jew – are sometimes juxtaposed to acts of cruelty – a faceless soldier battering both Hans and the Jew as a punishment. Some symbolic actions – Rudy stealing bread and then giving it – are echoing in a mirror-like disposition throughout the book. As Death puts it, when he comments on Rudy’s thief:
“In years to come, he [Rudy] would be a giver of bread, not a stealer – proof again of the contradictory human being. So much good, so much evil. Just add water.”
In the end, that is what the novel points out: human complexity, duality, contradictions. Or, to quote Death, once again:
“ I’m always finding humans at their best and worst. I see their ugly and their beauty, and I wonder how the same thing can be both.”
In this historical turmoil that stresses both the kindness and the cruelty, the beauty and the ugliness of humans, the main characters are still kids and young teenagers. Despite the circumstances, they are not deprived, not entirely at least, of their childhood. Readers can relate to them, to their experiences, to their feelings and discoveries.
Their hope and energy shine and drive the whole book. Liesel, Rudy, as well as the other kids of Himmel Street regularly play soccer, and matches are as important as actual world championships. Rudy often brags about how he scored, and Liesel gently makes fun of him. Despite the risk and the cold, Liesel brings back some snow in the basement, and with Max, then Hans, and even Rosa, they end up building a snowman. From the moment they met to the one death do them apart, Rudy keeps asking Liesel for a kiss. If at first, it is a childish game, it ends up being a genuine wish, so much that even our narrator pleas Liesel to kiss him – “Kiss him, Liesel, kiss him.” – as they both stand in the old Steiner’s shop on Christmas day. Liesel, too, begins to grow deeper feelings for her best friend, as shown by her fluster when the boys are passing a medical exam, in the 58th chapter soberly called The Thought Of Rudy Naked. And, like many teenagers, especially ones with a big secret to carry, Liesel writes it down, in the diary Ilsa gives her.
That particular energy and innocence is shown through words, and especially Liesel ones. For instance, when Max asks her what is the weather like, outside, she answers: “The sky is blue today, Max, and there is a big long cloud, and it’s stretched out, like a rope. At the end of it, the sun is like a yellow hole.” It makes Max laugh, and it is better than the plain weather report he expected, or the one he could read in the newspaper Liesel brings him. Another example: when Liesel knocks on the mayor’s mansion for the first time “a bathrobe [answers] the door. Inside it, a woman.”. This is an almost poetic way to describe things, and it is also an illustration of how children may see things in a different way than adults do. Yet, it still carries a tremendous amount of truth. Ilsa Hermann is, indeed, drowning in her sorrow, hiding in her pain, masked by her suffering, the same way Liesel sees her drowning in her bathrobe, masked by it. Similarly, Death also uses a countless number of metaphors, analogies, and comparisons, to tell us the unspeakable, to make me feel it, beyond the sole, frozen words, to drag the reader away from the comfortable sofa on which they are reading the book thief’s story. Words, used in this almost poetic way, suit the childish innocence as much as the seriousness of Death. Therefore, they can carry, they can embody the human duality, contradiction, complexity. They embrace it and unite it, against all odds. They make one of beauty and ugliness, of innocence and gravity, of life and death. They celebrate human resilience. As Death, once again, says:
“It amazes me what humans can do, even when streams are flowing down their faces and they stagger on, coughing and searching, and finding.”
But we might already be impinging on our last theme, here.
Books, writing, and storytelling
As it was demonstrated in the last two parts, books, and words, are at the core of The Book Thief. But, here, let’s focus on the importance of books in their materiality, and everything it entails and symbolizes.
The story Death reads us is the book thief’s story, written by the book thief herself. When they both make amends, Ilsa offers Liesel a notebook for her to write on. Indeed, the older lady spotted Liesel’s writing skills, but also both her need and her entitlement to do so, to write her story.
“She [Ilsa] gave her [Liesel] a reason to write her own words, to see that words had also brought her to life. ‘Don’t punish yourself’, she [Liesel] heard her [Ilsa] say again, but there would be punishment and pain, and there would be happiness, too. That was writing.”
When Himmel Street is accidentally bombed, Liesel is writing her story in the basement, which is a highly symbolic place. Indeed, it is where she learned to read with Hans, learning new words and writing them on the walls. And that – her being in the basement, writing – literally saves her life.
As she exits from under the rubble, and contemplates the destruction and death with her notebook still in hand, she holds on to it, “she [holds] desperately on to the words that had saved her life.” The meaning is as metaphorical as it is literal. This book, full of her words, saved her from the bombing, the same way she saved The Shoulder Shrug from the flames during the celebrations for Hitler’s birthday years before – her second theft.
Books, and the words they carry, can physically affect people. They can hurt. Liesel hides The Shoulder Shrug in her jacket, and it burns her: “Smoke was rising out of Liesel’s collar. A necklace of sweat had formed around her throat. Beneath her shirt, a book was eating her up.”. Later, she physically tears a book apart, out of anger, and despair, and powerlessness:
“She tore a page from the book and ripped it in half.
Then a chapter.
Soon, there was nothing but scraps of words littered between her legs and all around her. The words. Why did they have to exist? Without them, there wouldn’t be any of this. Without words, the Führer was nothing. There would be no limping prisoners, no need for consolation or wordly tricks to make us feel better.
What good were the words?
She said it audibly now, to the orange-lit room. “What good are the words?”
Just when she has begun to understand and master words, and the power they give her – when she read to the frighten people of Himmel Street hiding in the bomb shelter, for instance – she is confronted to their dark side, to the evil they can produce.
But she also knows that hateful messages can be debunked, replaced, vanquished. Max, of all people, shows her how. Indeed, on two occasions, he paints over the pages of Mein Kampf. He physically erases the hateful words, and, as he writes stories for Liesel, he replaces them with hopeful and kind ones.
That is why, strengthen by those experiences, Liesel knows, when Ilsa offers her the notebook, that “there would be punishment and pain, and there would be happiness, too”, even if, of course, she can’t foresee what is about to happen. That is also why, during her last night in the Hubermann’s basement, she completes writing her story – entitled The Book Thief – with one final note:
“I have hated the words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right.”
Just like Max, when he wrote The Standover Man, writing all of it down allows Liesel to reflect on her past, on her own story, realizing Death’s forecast, but also Max’s. Indeed, in his second home-made book offered to Liesel, The Word Shaker, the young man writes:
“THE BEST word shakers were the ones who understood the true power of words. They were the ones who could climb the highest. One such word shaker was a small, skinny girl. She was renowned as the best word shaker of her region because she knew how powerless a person could be WITHOUT words.”
At the beginning of the novel, Liesel don’t know how to read, nor write. She “was the book thief without the words.” But she learns. To quote Death, once again: “the words were on their way, and when they arrived, Liesel would hold them in her hands like the clouds, and she would wring them out like the rain.” Words, through books, became her revenge on life. And so was stealing them, because “[w]hen life robs you, sometimes, you have to rob it back.” Books, at first, meant nothing to the young girl, then they begin to mean “something”, and they end up meaning “everything”.
That is why she holds “desperately” to her book when her world comes to an end. At some point though, in the chaos of the moment, Liesel’s notebook, Liesel’s story, Liesel’s Book Thief, The Book Thief, slips from her hands, joining the rubble. Nobody cares about it. Nobody except Death. It is the third time he sees Liesel. It is the third time he stops for her. He picks up The Book Thief. He keeps it. He reads it for himself. Then, he reads it to us.
The Book Thief – by Markus Zusak – is an embedded story, that entwines and reunites The Book Thief by Liesel Meminger, and Death’s commentary of The Book Thief. As mentioned before, Death comments the story, adds some details, and, sometimes forecasts or reveals what will happen later. Prolapses are a known literary device, but some of Death revelations are quite surprising. Our narrator doesn’t hesitate to unveil the tragic fate of some of our beloved characters. Rudy’s death, for instance, is announced half-way through the book, at the beginning of the fifth part. It makes sense, as Death has already read The Book Thief, and is, commenting accordingly. The interesting thing is how he justifies such a shocking revelation:
“Of course, I’m being rude. I’m spoiling the ending, not only of the entire book, but of this particular piece of it. I have given you two events in advance, because I don’t have much interest in building mystery. Mystery bores me. It chores me. I know what happens and so do you. It’s the machinations that wheel us there that aggravate, perplex, interest, and astound me. There are many things to think of. There is much story.”
That might be a piece of reading advice, as much as writing one. The stories themselves, the way characters evolve, grow, interact, what we learn from them, what we learn with them, matter more than the ending in itself. The author seems to cast a critical look on storytelling rules that may be taken for granted by some. He seems to be deconstructing the way we may see books, stories, and narrative arcs. Such a stance also leads to the legitimization of rereading. Therefore, it echoes with Liesel’s way of reading. As she doesn’t own a lot of books, she often rereads the same ones, and, yet, enjoys them just as much.
One final thought on the use of German in an English-written book, to finish. Maybe German was what suited the most the story and to the author? According to George Steiner – a Jewish philosopher, from an Austrian family who fled to France, and then to New-York in 1940 – the myth of Babel is not some divine punishment. On the contrary, it is a gift, a blessing. From then, language is a living entity, a world in itself, that unveils an aspect of reality. To Steiner, in Errata, An Examined Life: “our literatures are the children of Babel.” If translations are necessary, they are also very delicate. They take something from the original material, and, therefore, they have to add something to the source, to fix their “intrusion”. Multilingualism must be preserved, and, even encouraged, because it allows the mind to expand, to have access to many different worlds. Indeed, to G. Steiner:
“To speak a language is to inhabit, to construct, to record, a specific world-setting – a mundanity in the strong, etymological sense of the world.”G.Steiner. Errata, An Examined Life, chapter VIII
Languages are also a way to stock memories. As Steiner writes:
“They preserve configuration of mores and institutions long past and almost indecipherable to the present.”G.Steiner. Errata, An Examined Life, chapter VIII
Therefore, keeping German words and sentences in the text may give a glimpse, or, at least encourage readers to take a glimpse of another “world-setting”. It might warn and prevent against a linguistic dictatorship drift, or against an ethnocentric and reductive point of view. Keeping German words and sentences can also be a way for the author – Markus Zusak – to preserve, or even make more vivid, the memories and stories of his parents and grand-parents. Indeed, Markus Zusak comes from a German-Austrian family, who moved to Australia after the war, just like Liesel does. Indeed, in the book, Liesel moved to Sydney, Australia, where she lived a full life and died at an old age. From a young orphan girl who didn’t know how to read and write, she becomes fluent and literate in two languages, at least.
In the movie, she even has became a renowned writer, as shown by the many awards see in her office. In the movie final scene, we also see the pictures of her friends and family, showing, once again the importance of bonds with each other.
What do you think? Leave a comment.