The Book Thief

Introduction of The Book Thief

The Book Thief, a masterpiece of Australian literature, is written by Markus Zusak. It was published quite in 2005 in Australia and soon started breaking records of publications in the very first year. Within a few years, a record sale of 16 million copies and translation into 63 languages proved its force and author’s insight. The interesting storyline presents Death as the narrator telling about Leisel and Nazi atrocities but from the male point of view. The book became an instant hit and fetched Common Wealth Writer’s prize for the author followed by National Jewish Book Award and several other awards. Later, it was also featured as a movie in 2013 under the same name.

Summary of The Book Thief

The book starts with the narrative of Death when he sees the book thief boarding a train adding that he sees him again when he comes to a pilot of a plane likely to crash. It happens again when the bombing takes place. Death observes that the colors such as red, white, or black are surprisingly the colors of the flag of the Nazis too. Following this, the regular narrative begins. Death states that he sees Liesel with his family traveling to Munich when her brother, Werner breathes his last at which they stop the train and bury the body. It happens there that Liesel commits the act of stealing the book from one of the gravediggers, though, it does not stop the family journey and they reach Molching. Then Hans and Rosa take Liesel as their daughter, and her new journey of life starts with her new foster parents.

At the house of her foster parents, Liesel feels odd but starts adjusting to this new life. However, her brother constantly appears in her dreams that causes her discomfort. Soon, Rudy, the neighbor kid becomes her friend there who tells her that he loves Jesse Owens, an American athletic boy. He also jolts her to love him and constantly badger her to kiss him but Liesel’s response is often very cold. On the other hand, when Hans sees that as she is unable to read books, he starts teaching her reading, and she soon takes the gravedigger’s book to read. The city where they are living feels the political transformation in Germany after the Nazis take over the government. It leads to food shortage with the townspeople resorting to a book-burning ceremony to celebrate the birthday of Hitler yet Liesel does not stop from stealing another book during this melee.

Seeing no work, Liesel starts delivering laundry to Rosa. As she has many customers, the mayor’s wife, too, sends her laundry through Liesel. One day she asks her to come to her study to see her treasure. Frau, her daughter, after seeing her interest, permits her to study books. When the Jewish slaughter ensues there, Max, a local Jew, hides in the closet. Somebody provides him life-saving things and his identity card hidden in the biography of Hitler. Soon he meets Hans who has served with his father in WWI. They hide him in the basement of the house where he befriends Liesel and Rosa and they start their new venture of writing the book on the painted pages of the biography.

As the Nazi persecution becomes a new normal, Frau informs Liesel that she cannot go for laundry at which she becomes quite angry and feels chagrin over the disparity of having living resources. She soon starts her stealing spree in the library. When Christmas arrives, she prepares a snowman for Max who becomes ill and soon loses his senses. He stays sick for months which worries Hans and Rosa because of trouble of they have to go through to dispose of the corpse but eventually recovers when the Nazis arrive to inspect the house for using it as a shelter in case of a bombing but they do not suspect Max. When the allies initiate their bombing campaign against Germany, the Hubermanns’ house becomes a shelter, having a basement where Max is staying.

The war becomes intense and so does the persecution of the Jews being taken to Dachau, a concentration camp. It happens that Hans draws the ire of the German soldiers for throwing a piece of bread to an old Jew after which he receives a rude intervention from a German soldier, causing suspicion of the discovery of Max after which he flees at night. Roaming in the streets for the German soldiers to come and arrest him but nothing of that sort happens. After that, the soldiers come to take Rudy and come again to take both Alex, his father, and Hans to enlist them in the army. On the other hand, Rudy and Liesel start throwing pieces of bread toward the passing Jewish prisoners. Rosa, then, hands over the book Max has penned down to Liesel which is titled The Word Shaker, describing their friendship and how they’d be united someday.

After conscription, Hans is dispatched to the city of Essen to take part in the cleaning operation of the city after bombardment. However, one of his colleagues becomes hostile and asks him to change the seats but unfortunately, he dies in the accident, while Hans takes leave for recovery from that accident. During another air assault, Rudy and Liesel see an allied pilot dying after his parachute does not open properly. During this escapade, Death watches Liesel for the second time seeing him collect the pilot’s soul. Meanwhile, when Liesel observes the Nazis’ prisoners, she becomes surprised to see Max among them at which she informs Rudy about hiding him in their basement.

When the wife of the city mayor visits them, she meets Liesel and hands over a notebook to her for writing. She starts working on the book writing project during air raids in which Rudy, Rosa, and even Hans get killed. Liesel is buried under the rubble but escapes death. She finds Rudy under the rubble lifeless and gives him the kiss he always wanted. When she is taken to the hospital, she sees that her book “The Book Thief” is left in the rubble, which is rescued later by Death. Once, she recovers after the accident she was taken under the wing of the Mayor couple. When the concentration comes to the end, Max returns to live in Molching and meets Liesel. They both hug each other and cry. Finally, she reaches Australia to have a family where she dies and shows that book which she had written many years ago to Death, who has come to take her soul.

Major Themes in The Book Thief

  1. Power of Words: The Book Thief shows the power of words through Death, Liesel, and Max. When Death narrates the story, he comes across Liesel leaving her book in the rubble when she is retrieved by the rescuers. Liesel learns the power of language quite early, especially of using words. Thus she starts to steal books and tries to learn reading and writing. The expression of words in books, however, points out later in the novel that they could be as evil as they could be helpful. The reference to Hitler’s autobiography and The Book Thief written by Liesel points out the same thing that words have power and Mark Zusak, with several other Jewish, authors has proved that words can change minds.
  2. Sense of Guilt: The novel shows the sense of guilt through the petty crimes of stealing books such as committed by Liesel to the reprehensible crime of killing human beings such as bombardment and concentration camps. The contrast of this minor crime to that of the horrible crime of killing the Jews makes this theme of guilt and its consciousness prominent. When Liesel sees her brother’s death, she feels this sense and Max feels it when he endangers the Hubermann family. Michael also feels this consciousness but he atones for it by taking his own life.
  3. Metaphysical Dilemmas: The Book Thief presents a host of metaphysical dilemmas to its readers that it does not explain or answer. These questions arise from issues such as human generosity, love, kindness, and barbarism committed side by side. The Hubermanns provide shelter to Max but also faces the consequences. Death also feels chagrin at such metaphysical issues that he fails to understand their real purpose. The death of Hans, of Holtzapfel brothers, and Rudy shows that Death is to take their souls willy-nilly. These metaphysical questions stay unanswered until the end of the novel.
  4. Propaganda: The theme of propaganda in the novel is obvious through the character of Liesel who comes to know about the significance of language and starts learning it when she finds gravedigger’s book and comes to know the Nazis are doing the same thing through vicious propaganda. When Max narrates “The Word Shaker,” he is unconsciously doing the same thing. Therefore, Leisel engages in reading and writing to narrate her story later when she dies. It means that the novel shows positive and negative propaganda and its impacts on the readers.
  5. Humanity: The theme of humanity is significant in the novel in that it demonstrates that despite the raging barbarism of the Nazis launched through the Jewish genocide humanity shows itself through the Hubermanns as they provide shelter to Max and bring up Liesel. When Liesel finds refuge, she comes to know about the love and kindness demonstrated by her foster parents.
  6. Cowardice: The novel shows the theme of cowardice in many ways such as Hans alleges that his father is a coward who does not oppose Hitler, while he has already fought in WWI. However, conversely, it seems courage to defy Hitler when it was considered a direct invitation to death.
  7. Death: The novel shows the theme of death in two ways; first through the character of Death and second through the prevalent death scenario where human life has lost its worth. First Death is personified to show that it/he is taking the souls of human beings, while the Nazis are providing wholesale opportunities to Death. The Hubermann family proves that though Death is ruling the roost, the people have themselves left to meet their deaths in the war.
  8. Friendship: The theme of friendship is significant in the novel in that the inhumanity and wholesale death have brought people closer to each other. The Hubermanns extend refuge to Liesel as well as Max when they are facing threats to their own lives. Rudy and Liesel, too, befriends because of the prevalent death march.
  9. War: The Book Theif is originally about WWII when the Nazis were butchering, burning, and killing every other Jew they find in their way. War mocks Death that he has no time to collect the souls of so many people. Also, it mocks the Death by gloating that people do not care as Max and his neighbors, including the Nazis, have joined the war as if it is a sport.

Major Characters in The Book Thief

  1. Death: Death is a primary character and cynical narrator, holding metaphysical characteristics in the book. Its main task involves taking away the souls of the dead. Death states it clearly that he has done it millions of times without any qualm but human beings’ penchant for war has tired him. As this has proved a horrible task for him, he diverts his attention by looking at colors. When Liesel goes through the grueling life events, Death comments on them as if he is a masculine figure, narrating them in the first person. The appearance of Death in the novel as a character is a mockery of the human tenacity for initiating the war machine.
  2. Liesel Meminger: Besides death, Liesel Meminger is the central character of the novel. Hence, she is also the protagonist of the story. She is a young Jewish girl, who becomes the victim of the Nazi’s cruelty, losing her entire family as well as her benefactors. Her generosity and empathy toward the innocents show her grueling past, though, she even mistrusts her benefactors at first, the Hubbermanns. So, she stays discreet during her initial phase of stay with them. However, when she receives unusual kindness, she becomes quite expressive and feels sympathy toward Rudy and Max. She takes care of her classmates due to the Nazi death rule but later she pens down everything in the book that she hands over to Death before her own death.
  3. Max Vandenburg: Max appears later in the novel when he feels remorse at leaving his family to become the victims of Nazism. When he takes shelter with the Hubermanns, he is regretful for his selfishness and this mental conflict makes his life miserable when living in the Hubermanns’ basement as a refugee. He is, later, sent to Dachau to work in the labor camps.
  4. Hans Hubermann: Head of the Hubermanns, he becomes the foster father of Liesel and takes her in his house when she needs him the most. Being a generous fellow, he extends his paternal love to her and takes care of her. However, his emphasis on her education makes him stand on high moral grounds as he challenges Hitler, a defiant act that finally takes his life.
  5. Rudy Steiner: Rudy Steiner takes care of Liesel when her life is at stake. He fumes at Viktor for taunting Liesel and dives into the river to bring her book back to her. His moralist attitude raises her spirits but later he loses heart and becomes disillusioned.
  6. Rosa Hubermann: Rosa stays stable and mentally balanced where the situation is ripe to make people insane. She earns a little money yet she does not refuse Liesel to take her under her wings. She, though, commits profanity due to loss of control during hours of anger later.
  7. Isla Hermann: Ilsa Hermann is a minor character and the mayor’s wife who extends refuge to the main character, Liesel. She proves a genuine benefactor as she provides her books and causes an interest in her to study and write.
  8. Werner Meminger: Liesel’s young brother, Werner sets the tone of the novel through his death when he breathes his last in the beginning, causing nightmares to Liesel. He helps Liesel to express empathy towards others.
  9. Paula Meminger: As a mother of Liesel, Paula becomes a significant character because she hands her over to the Hubermanns. As a Jewish lady, she meets her fate in some concentration camp.

Writing Style of The Book Thief

Written in an entirely unusual style, The Book Thief starts with Death as its first-person narrator but sometimes he turns to be an omniscient narrator. This use of Death as a narrator is highly unusual in the fictional world. Despite this, the narrator or Death does not have any impact on the plot, or the setting of the novel. This writing style has given Zusak some room to view his characters from multidimensional angles. Therefore, when Death is the narrator of the events, there are chunks of information with quotable sentences that are highly seductive in their tone and meanings. However, when the narrator shifts, the language, tone, and mood, too, shift with it.

Analysis of Literary Devices in The Book Thief 

  1. Action: The main action of the novel comprises Liesel’s life when she is left alone and the Hubermanns provide her love and care. The rising action occurs when her brother breathes his last on the way in the beginning and the falling action occurs when she reaches Australia and starts leading a successful life.
  2. Anaphora: The Book Thief shows the use of anaphora as given in the below example,
    Please, be calm, despite that previous threat.
    I am all bluster
    I am not violent.
    I am not malicious.
    I am a result. (Beside the Railway Line)
    The sentence shows the repetitious use of “I am.”
  3. Antagonist: Similar to most novels set during the Second World War both fact or fiction, The Book Thief also shows Hitler as the main antagonist causing troubles for Liesel, Rudy, and Max through the antisemitism and Nazi party.
  4. Allusion: There are various examples of allusions in the novel; a few examples are given below,
    i. Rudy Steinerthe boy next door who was obsessed with the black American athlete Jesse Owens. (The Kiss)
    ii. On the whole, it was a street filled with relatively poor people, despite the apparent rise of Germany’s economy under Hitler. Poor sides of town still existed. (The Kiss)
    iii. The other was still holding Mein Kampf.
    The first example alludes to Jesse Oven, an American runner, the second to Germany and Hitler, and the third to Hitler’s autobiography.
  5. Conflict: The are two types of conflicts in the novel, The Book Thief. The first one is the external conflict that is going on between the Jews and the Nazis. Another conflict is in the mind of Liesel about her consciousness as a Jewish girl and her behavior with the Hubermanns.
  6. Characters: The Book Thief presents both static as well as dynamic characters. The young girl, Liesel, is a dynamic character as she goes through a transformation during her growth. However, the rest of the characters do not see any change in their behavior, as they are static characters such as Rudy, Max, and her father and mother.
  7. Climax: The climax takes place when Himmel Street faces the worst bombardment.
  8. Foreshadowing: The novel shows the following examples of foreshadowing,
    i. First the colors. Then the humans. That’s usually how I see things. Or at least, how I try. (Death and Chocolate)
    ii. The question is, what color will everything be at that moment when I come for you? What will the sky be saying? (Here is a Small Fact)
    iii. If the summer of 1941 was walling up around the likes of Rudy and Liesel, it was writing and painting itself into the life of Max Vandenburg. (Sketches)
    These quotes from The Book Thief foreshadow the coming events.
  9. Hyperbole: Hyperbole or exaggeration occurs in the novel at various places. A few examples are given below,
    i. Within a second, snow was carved into her skin. (An Observation)
    ii. Curtains of rain were drawn around the car. (A Translation).
    Both of these examples exaggerate things as snow cannot carve into the skin, nor the rain can become curtains.
  10. Imagery: Imagery is used to make readers perceive things involving their five senses. For example,
    i. The second eye jumped awake and she caught me out, no doubt about it. It was exactly when I knelt down and extracted his soul, holding it limply in my swollen arms. (How It Happened)
    ii. It was a place nobody wanted to stay and look at, but almost everyone did. Shaped like a long, broken arm, the road contained several houses with lacerated windows and bruised walls. The Star of David was painted on their doors. Those houses were almost like lepers. At the very least, they were infected sores on the injured German terrain. (The Last Stop)
    The book was released gloriously from his hand. It opened and flapped, the pages rattling as it covered ground in the air. More abruptly than expected, it stopped and appeared to be sucked toward the water. It clapped when it hit the surface and began to float downstream. (The Floating Book Part-II).
    These three examples from the novel show the images of sound, color, and sight.
  11. Metaphor: The Book Thief shows good use of various metaphors; a few examples are given below,
    i. When he turned the light on in the small, callous washroom that night, Liesel observed the strangeness of her foster fathers eyes. They were made of kindness, and silver. Like soft silver, melting. Liesel, upon seeing those eyes, understood that Hans Hubermann was worth a lot. (Some Facts About Hans Hubermann)
    ii. For me, the sky was the color of Jews. (Birthday Diary)
    iii. A hand was shoved gently at Liesels shoulder as she slept. (The Sound of Sirens).
    iv. They originally thought the words had come from behind the door sheets and paint cans. (Duden Dictionary Meaning #3)
    These examples show that several things have been compared directly in the novel such as the first example shows eyes compared to something that is silver, the second shows the Jews like stars, the third shows the hand as an individual, and the fourth shows words like water.
  12. Mood: The novel shows various moods in the beginning but it turns out mostly somber and tragic.
  13. Motif: Most important motifs of the novel are reading, books, darkness, light and rain.
  14. Narrator: The novel is narrated by Death, in the first-person point of view as well as the third person, and other characters.
  15. Personification: The novel shows examples of personifications as given in the below examples,
    i. She attempted to explain. I when . . . It was sitting in the
    snow, and The soft-spoken words fell off the side of the bed, emptying to the floor like powder. (A 2 A. M. Conversation)
    ii. That was when the word struck her face like a slap. A reflex grin. SAUMENSCH! she shouted, and Papa roared with laughter, then quieted. (A 2 A. M. Conversation)
    iii. In the times ahead, that story would arrive at 33 Himmel Street in the early hours of morning, wearing ruffled shoulders and a shivering jacket. It would carry a suitcase, a book, and two questions. A story. Story after story. Story within story (Papas Face).
    These examples show as if the words and the stories have a life of their own.
  16. Protagonist: Liesel is the protagonist of the novel. The novel starts with her entry into the world and moves forward as she enters her youth and becomes a lady.
  17. Rhetorical Questions: The novel shows a good use of rhetorical questions at several places. For example,
    i. She plonked her folder on the table in front of her and inspected Rudy with sighing disapproval. It was almost melancholic. Why, she lamented, did she have to put up with Rudy Steiner? He simply couldnt keep his mouth shut. Why, God, why?  (A Definition)
    ii. Exactly what kind of people Hans and Rosa Hubermann were was not the easiest problem to solve. Kind people? Ridiculously ignorant people? People of questionable sanity? (Liesels Lecture)
    iii. He explained World War I and Erik Vandenburg, and then the visit to the fallen soldiers wife. The boy who came into the room that day is the man upstairs. Verstehst? Understand? (Leisels Lecture)
    These examples show the use of rhetorical questions posed but different characters not to elicit answers but to stress upon the underlined idea.
  18. Setting: The setting of the novel is the fictional town of Molching with the realistic background.
  19. Simile: The novel shows good use of various similes as given in the below examples,
    i. This time, his voice was like a fist, freshly banged on the table.  (The Way Home)
    ii. They fought like champions. (A Short History of the Jewish Fist Fighter)
    iii. When Max heard the news, his body felt like it was being screwed up into a
    ball, like a page littered with mistakes. Like garbage. (A Short History of the Jewish Fist Fighter)
    These are similes as the use of the word “like” shows the comparison between different things.