The Book Thief tells a story of a young girl who lived under the rule of Nazi Germany. She craved knowledge and believed in the power of language to empower truth and freedom. From a girl learning to read when she first stole a book from the grave of her brother, she eventually writes a book of her own, telling the world the story of her life, the story of a book thief.
At first, I found the book a little boring because the language is overly interactive. After I realized the interesting setup of the narration and the identity of the narrator, however, I came to appreciate the intelligence behind the book. Toward the end of the book, the story became very touching, and it has the power to move one’s hearts. Like many people said, this book is life-changing.
The interesting narrative of Death
— The Book Thief
I have read so many books with first person narratives: in autobiography, non-fiction, and in fiction where the protagonist is the narrator. In The Book Thief, however, the narrator is not any of the main characters in the book, nor is it simply written from a third-person omniscient perspective; the narrator of the book is Death itself. From choosing Death as the story teller, the author is able to achieve many effects that can not be accomplished otherwise by a third-person narrative or a first-person narrative by any of the protagonists. The character Death, as personified in the book, links the concept of death closely to war and the context of Nazi Germany, tells a great story about the beauty of human nature, reveals important attitudes and views toward dying, and through its characterization, explains to the audience the role of death in the vast universe.
Taking place in Nazi Germany, war and death are inseparable terms in the discussion. Whenever there is war, death accompanies. The narrative of death has the effect of disclosing the dehumanizing nature of war and its devastating effect on human civilization. In the book, the narrator Death expresses the fatigue he experiences having to witness the death of so many people during the time of war. Under the context of Nazi Germany in the 1940s, the narrative is especially effective in unveiling the vast amount of death that occurred during the specific period of time. “I’m in most places at least once”, says Death, “and in 1943, I was just about everywhere.”
The narrator characterizes the relationship between war and death as boss and underling. While some people might expect war and death to be friends given their inseparable nature, death is actually a side-effect of war. Death narrates, “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, doesn’t thank you. He asks for more.” Instead of being the stereotypical cruel character, death is characterized as a humorous narrator who blames war for doing the killing. Using the narrative of Death, the author points out that it was war and chaos that caused the death of so many people, and in the face of war, death becomes inevitable.
Besides the devastating effects of war and the dark side of human nature revealed from the conduct of war, the narration celebrates the beauty of human nature. One important theme of the book is the beauty of human nature and its strength, even during the hardest times. It would have been almost impossible to directly praise the beauty of Liesel’s character if Liesel was the narrator of the book. Using Death, however, the author avoids the awkwardness and creates an interesting relationship between Death and Liesel, the protagonist. In the book, the author establishes a very strong connection between human and death and how death views the human race. For example, Death reflects, “…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.” From interacting with Liesel, however, Death always finds the beauty of human nature. Death sees something beautiful in the girl: even though Death does not interact directly with Liesel until the very end of the book, the character always seems to surprise Death by her courage, selflessness, and ability to genuinely love and care about the people around her. When the beloved one died from the accidental bomb, Liesel’s sorrow surprised Death and further reveals the love humans share for each other. Death 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.” As humans could be selfish enough to conduct wars and brainwash people with propaganda, in Nazi Germany, there were also beautiful souls that sought to purify the brutality of war. Liesel, for example, taught Death, namely the narrator, and the audience the glorious side of human beings. When Death eventually confronts Liesel, an aged old lady in Sydney, Death wanted to tell the book thief many things about beauty and brutality, and he wanted to ask Liesel how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, so damning and brilliant.
The author uses Death to make his argument on the topic. The narrative, at the same time, also discloses different attitudes people hold toward death. Max, the Jew who lived in the basement of Liesel’s house, is a great example of those who hold fearless attitudes. “When death captures me,” the boy vowed, “he will feel my fist on his face.” Death reacts by saying that he appreciated the “stupid gallantry”. While some people like Max were simply not afraid of death, others embraced it out of devastation under the context of World War II. Death reflects that many people chase after him in that time, “calling my name, asking me to take them with me.” Here the author addresses the issue of suicide and reveals the brutality of war, which forced many to the edge of ending their own lives. Death says, those people feared “messing up and having to face themselves again, and facing the world…”
The author himself said, “I thought that one chink in [Death’s] armor should be that he is haunted by humans because he mostly finds us at our weakest, and our worst. He’s telling Liesel’s story to prove to himself that humans can be beautiful and selfless and worthwhile.”
What I love most about the narrative of Death is the characterization of the seemingly intimidating character Death. While many people associate death with the negative connotations, like Death itself in the book acknowledges, ” yes, I have seen a great many things in this world. I attend the greatest disasters and work for the greatest villains”, the character is thoughtful, curious, and kind, just like a human being. Death pleads the audience to believe that he is cheerful, amiable, agreeable, and affable.
If the pleading is not convincing enough of his characters, the narrative would persuade the audience of the thoughtfulness and even the adorable side of the character. Death has basic human feelings, including sympathy. He says, “it kills me sometimes, how people die.” The complex emotions Death experiences can be seen when Rudy, Liesel’s best friend died, “I carried [Rudy] softly through the broken street…with him I tried a little harder [at comforting]…He does something to me, that boy. Every time. It’s his only detriment. He steps on my heart. He makes me cry.” Death is characterized with the humans’ ability to experience sadness, regret, and sympathy in the face of death. When witnessing Liesel crying at the sight of her dead papa, death couldn’t help it but also experience the pain of losing a beloved one.
Like all narrators, Death not only has emotions but also has independent thoughts. The character can be curious, and he wondered “what page [Liesel] was up to when I walked down Himmel Street in the tripping-tap rain, five nights later. I wonder what she was reading when the first bomb dropped from the rib cage of a plane.” In the book, Death breaks the common stereotype and becomes an amiable character.
Like the narrator writes, even Death has a heart. From the interesting narrative, the author also expresses his own thoughts on the topic: death is inevitable and part of the life cycle. As Death narrates, “I can promise you that the world is a factory. The sun stirs it, the humans rule it. And I remain. I carry them away.” The sentence communicates the role the author believes death has in our lives. Death is not something scary; it is simply part of something every person goes through.
In a way, the Death’s narration has made the book come to live: the book becomes intriguing, moving and heartbreaking at the same time thanks to the unique narrative of Death. The author of the book finds the narrative of death to be perfect: “It had taken two years to find the specific voice, and I was determined to write all the way through to the end.” He did, and the language, along with the unique narrative, have become something readers still remember even ten years after the book’s publication.
information: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak