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The Book Thief is a novel by an Australian writer Markus Zusak. Published in 2005, it tells the story of World War II, as experienced by a 10-year-old girl and other inhabitants of a small town. It focuses on people’s day-to-day life under the Third Reich. The protagonist uses words and writing to survive, which shapes her identity and allows her to connect with others. This essay will examine some of the themes and characters in the story, as well as provide my opinion on the novel in general.
The story, narrated by Death, takes place in a fictional town of Molching, near Munich, Germany, from 1939, just before the start of World War II, through 1943. It follows a girl named Liesel, as she loses her little brother to an unnamed sickness and is subsequently adopted by Hans and Rosa Hubermann in their house on Himmel Street. Her only possession at the time is a book stolen from an apprentice grave-digger, even though she is illiterate.
Throughout the novel, Liesel learns to read and write with Hans’ help, and stealing and reading books becomes an integral part of her life. She also encounters several characters in Molching. Eventually, the Hubermanns take in a young Jewish man named Max, allowing him to hide in their basement. There, and he and Liesel become friends as they bond over books. Max writes his story, The Standover Man, by painting over pages of Mein Kampf and gives it to the girl.
As World War II progresses, Hans and Max get taken away, and Liesel finds solace in reading to the others in the bomb shelter where they have to stay. She writes her book, titled The Book Thief, wondering “exactly when… words started to mean not just something, but everything” (Zusak 30). Later, the Allies bomb Molching, killing most inhabitants of Himmel Street, but sparing Liesel. Death reveals that she and Max both survived the War, and Liesel dies of old age in Sydney, surrounded by children and grandchildren.
Death serves as the story’s narrator. While he does not interact with other (living) characters in any way, or affect any events, it is his commentary and observations that serve to provide details, clarification, and context to what is happening. Shields points out that he “acts as the objective, non-judgmental witness who has no allegiance to any nation or grouping of peoples and is, instead, the impartial observer” (6). In a way, he is a tool for the author to interject with his perspective of the events without disrupting the flow of the story.
Setting a supernatural being outside of the human world allowed the author to use vivid and descriptive, but also unusual language to create another layer of separation between the reader and the story’s events. Death’s manner of speech makes heavy use of defamiliarization: “words are dislocated from their normally accepted meanings, thus making the reader observe life differently” (Webb 73). It adds characterization to Death while allowing the author to maintain a light-hearted tone through the story’s traumatic events. This altered language also encourages the reader to slow down and consider phrases they might have glossed over otherwise.
Liesel, as the story’s central character and the titular Book Thief, is integral to the theme of words having power. Initially an almost blank slate, her only identity coming from losing her brother and mother, she begins to grow and mature as she starts learning to read. The books in Liesel’s life lend their names to the novel’s ten parts. Like The Book Thief, the book within the book “The Book Thief,” is authored by her, it symbolizes their importance to her.
The most prominent theme of the book is regular German citizens suffering in Nazi Germany. The novel goes to great lengths to paint them as sympathetic, believable, and relatable. Despite their circumstances, they are not some evil Nazi caricatures, but everyday, regular people one might meet in their day-to-day life, ones not often mentioned in literature about the period. Emphasizing this is the fact that “those who suffer in The Book Thief are ‘Aryan’ Germans” (Shields 8), the very same ‘Aryans’ the Nazi ideology supposedly held above all else. As described by Dominguez-Rué, The Book Thief “recovers the stories and voices of those silenced and victimized by WWII” (11). Before it is made clear where and when the story takes place, two guards have mentioned: “one of them called the shots. The other did what he was told” (Zusak, 23). The author (as Death) proceeds to ask rhetorically, “what if the other is a lot more than one?” The novel does not wholly absolve the “complicit majority,” and even the Allies share some of the blame as it is their bombing that abruptly ends the lives of many characters.
Another theme that is prevalent throughout the novel is words and symbols having the power to change people’s life. Liesel, the titular book thief, learning to read is what allows her identity to develop from being exclusively defined by her little brother’s death. Most of the books possessed by the characters carry a heavy irony in them. For instance, Max’s life is saved by a copy of Mein Kampf, the very symbol of hate towards Jews, used to conceal the map he used to get to the Hubermanns’. The pages of the same book are later literally painted over and rewritten with Max’s message of resilience and hope, overwriting the story of Hitler’s Strife (Kampf) with that of Max. At the same time, what should be Liesel’s first book, stolen while she wasn’t literate, but Grave Digger’s Handbook, symbolizing her ignorance of the horror and death around her.
The Book Thief is a remarkable novel for its use of language and reminding the reader that World War II was not a black and white conflict. While the Nazis are presented as clearly evil, they are not prominent in the book, at least as individuals. The focus is put almost entirely on regular small-town Germans often overlooked by narratives around the War, suffering despite being the very group that Nazi ideology claimed to protect.
The Book Thief is a rich, complex novel. The themes running beneath the surface are deep and intertwined. The story illustrates that words are a powerful tool that can be used for hate and evil, but also good, love, and healing. Regular German townspeople are shown as victims of the War, not just the more explicitly persecuted groups. In the end, however, Death comes for all, and in The Book Thief‘s case, his narration lends the story a witty, light-hearted tone in spite of the surrounding events.
Dominguez-Rué, Emma. “Shaking words: memoir as confrontation in Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief.” Holocaust Studies: A Journal of Culture and History, 2016. doi: 10.1080/17504902.2018.1471640. Accessed 21 Aug. 2019.
Shields, Kirril. “Pushing Aside the Nazi: Personal and Collective Exculpation and the Everyday German in Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief.” Dapim: Studies on the Holocaust, vol. 30, no. 1, 2016, pp. 1-15.
Webb, Jean. “Reading as Protection and Enlightenment in Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief.” Children as Readers in Children’s Literature, edited by Emily Arizpe and Vivienne Smith, Routledge, 2016, pp. 71-79.
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Zusak, Markus. The Book Thief. Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.