The Book Thief | Study Guide

Marcus Zusak

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The Book Thief | Symbols



When Liesel steals books, they become symbols of rebellion, a small gesture of defiance against the Nazis. Their titles also signify important moments in Liesel's life, as does the first book The Grave Digger's Handbook, which signifies the losses of her mother and brother.

Books also represent learning and power. As Liesel and Hans work through The Grave Digger's Handbook, Liesel, learning to read, is described as "a girl with a mountain to climb." They finish the book with a sense of accomplishment. Liesel has climbed her own mountain. Mein Kampf represents the power of the word. Its message has served to inflame both supporters and opponents of its author. However, in The Book Thief, Max reclaims power from the book's creator through his own writings. Also, with Liesel's knowledge of words, she is able to bring some peace to the air-raid shelter and end the feud between Rosa and Frau Holtzapfel.

Frau Hermann's dictionary gives Liesel even greater power over words and books. Frau Hermann suggests Liesel write her own book, giving her the ultimate power. In the same way, Max takes power from Mein Kampf by reusing its pages to tell his own stories. Liesel's book saves her life. In the end Liesel's book has the power to affect Death itself.


In The Book Thief food represents caring. Rosa is a bad cook, and her pea soup is unappetizing, but she generously feeds others in need, as all are. Rosa speaks harshly but still loves those around her; similarly her food tastes bad but gives sustenance. Walter gives Max food while Max is hiding, but the food almost chokes Max. As a symbol of caring, Max's choking on Walter's food indicates Max needs more than what Walter can do for him and signals to Max he must leave if he is to be safe.

Always hungry, Rudy often talks about food. He and Liesel steal food out of desperation, not because they are criminals. Wartime rationing has limited the food they get at home. Their country must supply its troops fighting a war, and so it cannot care for its citizens. The need for food and the delight of a simple treat draw Liesel and Rudy closer, as they enjoy the stolen apples and finally a shared piece of candy.

Hans offers bread to a Jewish prisoner because he cares. That the man doesn't get the bread is not significant: what matters is someone has tried to help, again bringing people together and showing compassion. Later Rudy and Liesel think about leaving bread for another group of Jews. Perpetually hungry Rudy is the one who suggests it. As he says, "I'm better at leaving things behind than taking them." He is a giver because he cares.

Death uses food imagery as well. He talks of "leftover humans," using a term associated with food. Death describes a sky "like soup, boiling and stirring. In some places, it was burned. There were black crumbs, and pepper." When Death collects Liesel's brother, he says the "boy's spirit was soft and cold, like ice cream" and, of course, Rudy's hair is "the color of lemons." Death's preoccupation with food shows another level of unexpected humanity.

Questions for Symbols

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