The Book Thief Themes and Analysis

‘The Book Thief’ is a historical novel based on the events of the Holocaust and Second World War and the suffering and death experienced by people.

When analyzing The Book Thief, there are several themes one needs to look at. The majority are themes of the power of words, kindness, and cruelty of humans, reading and writing, the duality of the Nazi era, mortality, and love.

The Book Thief Themes and Analysis


The Book Thief Themes

The Power of Words

In The Book Thief, we see that words and, in extension, stories are among the most powerful ways people connect. So many examples show how the words connect people up throughout the story. Through learning the alphabet and how to use it to make words, Liesel and Hans Hubermann began developing their deep bond. Liesel’s descriptions of the weather to Max later in the novel also help establish a bond between them. 

In the book, the greatest gift Max gives Liesel is words in the form of the ‘The Word Shaker,’ the story he writes for her. In the story he wrote, he suggests that words are the most powerful force there is. He said that Adolf Hitler uses just words and not guns or money or some other instrument to take over the world.

The story shows how Liesel has used words to create a refuge for herself amid Nazism and later uses words to calm her neighbors during the air raids by reading from her book. Again, the power of words is seen in the book she left behind, giving her a connection to Death as we saw at the end of the story.

The Kindness and Cruelty of Humans

We see the various degrees of human cruelty and kindness in the novel, from the slight to the most extreme examples.

One of the small acts of kindness we see in the novel includes hiding and caring for Max by the Hubermanns even at great risk to themselves, Rudy giving the teddy bear to the dying pilot, Ilsa Hermann inviting Liesel into her library. Liesel is specially kind to Max, and the two share a strong bond. Because of the political context of the time, with hatred and violence against Jews being rampant, Max finds Liesel’s kindness to be extraordinary. On the contrary, we also see acts of cruelty, like the treatment of Rudy by Viktor Chemmel and Franz Deutscher. Again, the concentration camps linger unseen in the book’s background as the most extreme example of cruelty.

There was a scene that showed both kindness and cruelty at once. There, Hans Hubermann tries to help a weak Jew suffering hunger and deprivation, being marched through town on the way to Dachau. Hans reaches out to him and gives him a piece of bread, a small act of great kindness. Immediately though, one of the Nazi soldiers mercilessly whips Hans and the Jewish man, a great act of cruelty heightened by the fact that it comes in response to Hans’s kindness.

Mortality

We can not analyze the themes in The Book Thief without talking of mortality as Death is the book’s narrator. The book shows us that mortality is very present in the lives of each character as Death introduces the book to the reader. All through the novel, the deaths of the main characters reaffirm the presence of mortality. Since The Book Thief story takes place during World War II, Death and genocide are almost omnipresent.

Death is presented in a less distant and threatening manner as he narrates and explains the reasons behind each character’s destruction. Again, Death expatiates how he feels that he must take each character’s life, so there is a sense of care instead of fear. At a point Death states, ‘even Death has a heart.’

Reading and Writing

We see language, writing, and reading presented as symbols of expression and freedom all through the novel. Reading and writing provide identity and personal liberation to those characters who have them and provide a framework for Liesel’s coming of age. At the start of the story, shortly after her brother’s funeral, Liesel finds a book in the snow, but she cannot read. Learning under her foster father Hans, she slowly learns to read and write. By the time the novel comes to an end, her character arc has been shaped by her progress in reading, writing and learning a language. 

Writing and reading skills also serve as social markers since wealthy citizens are literate, owning books and even their libraries. On the other hand, the poor and illiterate do not own books or libraries. Rosa Huberman’s harsh and, at times, scathing remarks towards her family and others are an example of the despairing lives of the poorer classes. In contrast, Liesel’s repeated rescues of books from Nazi bonfires show her reclaiming freedom and also refusal to accept being controlled by the all-pervasive state.

The Dualities of Nazi-era Germany

We notice that the characters often have two sides or faces starting from the time Rudy paints himself black in imitation of Jesse Owens.

Superficially, Rudy looks like an ideal Aryan, such that the Nazis try to recruit him into a special training center. However, deep inside him, he is similar to an African-American, which directly contradicts Nazi ideology. Max also does something similar when he travels from Stuttgart to Molching when he pretends to be a non-Jewish or gentile German, calmly reading MKPF, while on the inside, he is a terrified Jew who finds the book despicable. This clearly shows the theme of duality in the book.

The Hubermanns are part of the theme and started living double lives immediately after they started hiding Max.

To their neighbors and friends, they pretend to be law-abiding citizens to their friends and neighbors; they harbor their dangerous secret inside. Hans teaches Liesel about this double face after he slaps her for saying she hates Hitler in public. He told her that she can hate inside the house but once they are outside, she must behave in a certain way. In fact, duality is a theme of life in general for Liesel and Rudy as they both spend a lot of time engaged in typical teenage activities like playing soccer in the street. However, these moments are broken up with events like the parade of Jews through town or the bombings that threaten and ultimately destroy Himmel Street. 

Love

In spite of the fact that war, Death, and loss caused a lot of damage to Liesel and the others, love is seen as an agent of change and freedom. This is because love is the only way of forming a family where real freedom exists. Liesel got the best of her traumas by learning to love and be loved by her foster family and her friends. At the start of the novel, Liesel is traumatized by the Death of her brother and her separation from her only family and the larger issues of war-torn Germany and the destruction wrought by the Nazi party. 

Liesel’s relationship with her foster father Hans helps create healing and growth reflected in the relational dynamic between the Hubermann family and Max. The Hubermanns’ association with Max defies the Nazi regime in a society governed by policies that presume to judge who is really human. Furthermore, the love that Max and Liesel develop through their friendship creates a strong contrast to the fascist hate in the story’s backdrop.

Analysis of Key Moments in Animal Farm

  • When Liesel’s brother died. This event marked the start of the story, which led her to foster parents. It also started Liesel’s stealing of books when she picks up The Grave Digger’s Handbook at the site of her brother’s burial.
  • Arrival on Himmel. This event sets the stage for the rest of the book as it marks Liesel coming to live with Hans and Rosa Hubermann after the loss of her family.
  • Early school failure. Liesel didn’t succeed in school when she tried earlier and she became determined to learn how to read.
  • Book burning day. The event of burning books on Hitler’s birthday helped Hans discover that Liesel is stealing books. 
  • Arrival of Max Vandenburg on Himmel Street. This event changes the Hubermann’s lives when Max arrives on their doorstep in 1940. Hiding him put their lives in immense danger.
  • Max writing The Standover Man for Liesel. This event helped to bring Max and Liesel together and they not only read words but also share them.
  • Giving bread to the Jew. The event of Han giving bread to a weak Jew is significant because it leads to Max’s departure and Hans being sent away to fight in the war.
  • Rudy idolizing a black man despite his perfect Aryan features. Rudy used the Jesse Owens event to exemplify the views of the main characters of the book.
  • The Nazi recruiting Rudy. The Nazis noticed Rudy’s physical and mental capacities and therefore recruited him to go to school to become the perfect German. His parents refuse, and Alex Steiner is sent to war.
  • Bombing of Himmel Story. This is a major event in the book where Liesel’s street is bombed and she lost most of her friends and family.
  • Death of Liesel. This marked the final major event in the book when death came to her soul. 


Style, Tone, and Figurative Language

The style and language of The Book Thief is simple because it was primarily meant for young adults. He used a lot of foreshadowing to give the reader a sense of what is coming up in the story.

In the book, the narrator of the story, Death, uses foreshadowing in many different events to keep the reader focused on how the characters meet their ends. In Death’s side notes, foreshadowing is constantly scattered throughout the book in boldface text. A good example is when Death alludes to the death of Rudy, who is Liesel’s best friend. …He didn’t deserve to die the way he did.” 

The tone of The Book Thief is serious most of the time and mocking or hopeful the rest of the times. When you have death talking about humans in the time of war, the tone will be serious and somber. Death spends a lot of time mocking, or making fun of, humans. For instance, when Death talks about humans and destruction in the quote above, he is making fun of how people like to see things get destroyed.

In the book, we see so many figurative languages used in The Book Thief. These are vivid and stimulating word choices that author’s use to add color and meaning to their work. In the book we have many of the likes of simile, metaphor, contrast, hyperbole, personification, etc. Even the narrator, death, is personified. Here are examples of other figurative languages used in the book. 

She would wake up swimming in her bed, screaming, and drowning in the flood of sheets.

This quote from The Book Thief shows metaphor as the figurative language when death was describing the nightmare Liesel was having.

She did have it easy compared to Max Vandenberg. Certainly, her brother practically died in her arms. Her mother abandoned her. But anything was better than being a Jew.

Here, the figurative language is contrast as death is trying to tell the readers that any hardship is better than being a jew.

Within seconds, snow was carved into her skin.

The figurative language used is hyperbole. Sure, snow was all over her body but it was extreme exaggeration to say it carved into her skin.

Analysis of Symbols

The Book Thief uses symbols extensively because it is not just a story about a little girl. It is an important historical novel that delved into the suffering of people who lived in Germany during World War II. The story has a lot of lessons especially in mortality, kindness and love and the symbols embody all these.

Bread

Giving bread anywhere is a sign of care and comfort. Once you give bread to somebody, you have shown absolute compassion for that person. You have also comforted the person and probably solved his hunger issues. It is a symbol of empathy in the story and it was clearly demonstrated by Max when he offered bread to the weak Jew as they were marching to the gas chamber.

Accordion

The accordion in the novel was inherited by Hans Hubermann from Max’s father during World War I and it became part of Han’s identity. He played regularly to those around him to give them comfort. He plays it during trying times to give comfort and care to those who hear it. Example is when Liesel realises that her mother is not coming back again and when she first came to their house.

Books

Books were a source of comfort to Liesel and later Max. It is another major symbol in The Book Thief and it was the source of Liesel’s transformation from a weak girl to an empowered young woman. She developed a great relationship over books when she learned how to read and write and thus got the power she needed from the books. This power helped her to develop a strong character, mature emotionally and became kinder and more understanding to those around her.

FAQs

What is the main theme of The Book Thief?

The Book Thief has many themes and they include love and kindness as expressed by Liesel and her foster family; literacy and power, as seen when Liesel learns to read and explore the world of words, cruelty and suffering as experienced by the Jews in the hands of the Nazis.

What is an example of a theme?

In most literature work, we have themes that the author uses to pass his message across. Some of the common themes that run through them are love, mortality, war, peace, revenge, grace, betrayal, fatherhood, patriotism, life, isolation, cruelty, motherhood, forgiveness, treachery, wartime loss, rich versus poor, and appearance versus reality.

Is survival a theme in The Book Thief?

There are many themes in The Book Thief like love, mortality, kindness, etc. One of the themes you will find in the book is the theme of survival. Most of the major characters in the book namely Liesel, Max, Rudy, the Hubermanns, passed through many awful ordeals but they still survived. 

How do you identify a theme?

A theme is the idea the writer wishes to convey about an event, subject, or person. It is from the theme that you learn about the author’s view of the world. To identify the theme, you have to be sure that you have first identified the plot of the story, the way the story characterization, and the primary conflict in the story.

What are the steps in analyzing a theme?

Generally, here are the ways in which you can begin to analyze the theme of any literature you read. First, you look for recurring images in the story or poem, then ask questions about the author’s message. Through your answers, you’ll be able to identify the different tools the author uses to express the theme

About Ugo Juliet
Ugo Juliet is a passionate lover of books. For over 10 years, she has written books and articles for various organizations. She continues with her passion for literature as an expert analyst on Book Analysis.

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