The novel was published on January 5th, 2006. It’s generally categorized with young adult books, but it’s also very popular with readers of many different ages. In fact, some young readers may struggle with some aspects of the subject matter.
The novel begins in 1943 in Berlin, Germany, before taking the reader to the Auschwitz concentration camp, where the main character, nine-year-old Bruno, meets Shmuel, a boy imprisoned on the other side of the camp’s fencing.
Spoiler Free Summary
In ‘The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,’ readers are introduced to a young boy named Bruno, whose father is a high-ranking Nazi officer. When the novel starts, the family is living in Berlin in a large house, but then Bruno’s father is assigned to work at Auschwitz. There, he meets another little boy, Shmuel, who lives on the other side of a tall fence and wears striped pajamas. The novel unfolds in shocking and horrifying ways that have serious repercussions.
Full Summary of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
Spoiler alert: important details of the novel are revealed below.
‘The Boy in the Striped Pajamas‘ by John Boyne opens with a description of nine-year-old Bruno, who has a strong and colorful imagination. He’s growing up in Germany during World War II but has no real concept of what that means. He spends his days reading and exploring his family’s huge home in Berlin. He tries his best to follow his parents’ strict rules and to make sure he avoids his older sister, Gretel, who is very different from he is.
The novel reveals that Bruno’s father is an officer in the Nazi Party, but Bruno, again, doesn’t understand what that means or what his father is doing on a day-to-day basis. In Berlin, he has several friends who he cares about and who he misses dearly after he’s forced to move, with his family, to a new home.
His father is starting a new job, and Bruno knows nothing about it. They’re going to be living in a smaller home, one that is far lonelier and colder than their home in Berlin.
In an important scene, Bruno looks outside the window and notices that there is a large fence with people behind it. It’s revealed that this is Auschwitz, or as Bruno says, “Out-With.” This is only one example of Bruno’s age making it difficult for him to understand where he is and the work his father does.
Bruno is told that the people outside are “not people at all,” a chilling comment that is one noteworthy allusion to the underlying ideology that Bruno has zero understanding of. He continues to dislike his new home, trying to get others to join in in his complaints about it. But Maria expresses fear at the concept and says that Bruno’s father took care of her and her family during a difficult time.
Time passes, and Bruno meets Pavel, a servant who used to be a doctor and who tends to a scraped knee he gets. Bruno finds himself curious as to why someone who is so intelligent would work as a servant.
As more time passes, Bruno starts walking along the fence outside his bedroom window. He meets another boy on the other side named Shmuel. He’s wearing the striped pajamas that all the people on the other side of the fence wear, and the two become friends. Shmuel tells Bruno as much of his own story as he understands, explaining that he and his family had been forced to move to the camp on the other side of the fence against their will.
Bruno continues visiting Shmuel at the fence and notices that his new friend is getting skinnier and skinnier as each day passes. Bruno starts bringing the young boy bread and cheese, hoping to help him. Later, Bruno finds his friends in his own kitchen, helping prepare for Bruno’s father’s birthday. This comes as a shock, but Bruno sees no reason why he couldn’t give his friend some chicken to eat.
He does, and the cruel Lieutenant Kotler admonishes him for it. Bruno pretends not to know Shmuel, and the novel suggests that he was beaten for eating the chicken.
A year has passed at this point, and Bruno’s mother is getting frustrated about the limited nature of their life there. She finally convinces her husband that she should take the children back to Berlin, where they can have a real life. Bruno tells his friend what’s going to happen and feels sorrow over the fact that the two never really got to play together.
Shmuel follows up Bruno’s bad news by telling him that his father has gone missing.
They make plans to meet one more time. Shmuel is going to bring Bruno his own pair of striped pajamas, and he’s going to sneak in through a small opening in the fence, hoping to help Shmuel find his missing father. They search around the compound for a while, and Bruno decides that it’s time for him to go home.
Just at that moment, a group of soldiers comes around the corner, rounding people up. They take Bruno and Shmuel, along with many others, on a march into a dark building. They’re locked inside and hold hands with one another. Bruno tells Shmuel that he’s his best friend. He’s never heard from around, and his father eventually pieces together what happened to his son when he finds his clothes on the outside of the fence where Bruno slipped through.
He’s heartbroken about the loss and mourns his son, giving up on his job and the demands it makes on him.
What do Bruno and Shmuel symbolize?
The distance between the two boys and their friendship symbolizes how a true friendship knows no real barriers. Bruno breaches the barrier between the two and tries to help his friend in a desperate moment. The two know nothing of the animosity between the Nazis and all those that they’ve imprisoned.
What is ironic about the ending of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas?
There is a clear, very dark example of irony at the end of ‘The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.’ Bruno, whose father is a Nazi officer, dies by the very means that the Nazis came up with to kill the many marginalized groups they imprisoned.
What is on Shmuel’s armband?
The armband that Shmuel wears in the novel has a star of David on it. It was worn by all Jewish citizens during this period in history. It’s contrasted against the armband that Bruno’s father wears, which has a swastika on it.
Is The Boy in the Striped Pajamas a true story?
No, ‘The Boy in the Striped Pajamas‘ is not a true story, but it could’ve been. It’s based on historical events, including the fact that the commandant of Auschwitz lived next to the camp with his children.