The Book Thief | Study Guide

Marcus Zusak

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The Book Thief | Themes


Power of Words

The principal theme of The Book Thief is the power of words, stories, and books—that they can create and explain feelings, make human connections, and influence people for better or worse. Early in the book Liesel ponders "exactly when the books and the words started to mean not just something, but everything." Liesel steals her first book before she can even read; the narrator calls her "the book thief without the words." But Liesel acquires words rapidly and learns to use them.

Words and books can save people from suffering and death. Liesel learns to read late at night when her persistent nightmares force her awake; words protect her from frightening images. She and Hans create a bond through words, as he teaches her to read. Later, words will connect Liesel and Max, first in her describing the weather and later in his writings for her. Words connect Liesel with all those around her, even Death.

An entirely different set of words—those of Mein Kampf—protects Max as he travels to the Hubermanns' house; later, its reused pages let Max fight Hitler without using his fists as he explains to Liesel what is going on around her. And writing saved Hans's life during World War I. Liesel's words, describing the outside world, help Max stay sane, and her reading soothes the frightened people in the air-raid shelter. Max captures some of her power in The Word Shaker. In the end words literally save Liesel's life: she is in the basement writing and thus remains safe from the bombs.

However, words are neither all powerful nor all good. Johann Hermann's love of books did not save his life during World War I, nor do his mother's books bring her solace or happiness. Words cannot stop the Nazis from taking Hans, Rudy's father, or Max. Furthermore, words in the form of laws and propaganda have helped enable Nazi domination, as they spread throughout the nation, poisoning minds. Liesel, in her anger, destroys one of Frau Hermann's books and writes: "I wanted to kill the words."

Liesel inspires others to appreciate words. Her intensity causes Hans to give up some of his cigarettes to get her books. Rudy thinks she should steal food, not books, but he helps her nevertheless and is the one who suggests she read aloud in the air-raid shelter. Even Death understands humans a bit more because of Liesel's words. Why else did he carry her book for more than 60 years?

Burden of Guilt

The question of guilt—who feels it, why they feel it, and the responsibility it may bring—is an important element of the novel. On a basic level people may feel guilt over breaking laws; characters in the book do break laws, however, they are not the ones who feel guilty.

Liesel steals books, and many steal food. Thefts of food rarely trouble anyone's conscience, particularly during times of deprivation, and apples from an orchard are hardly a cause for concern. During better times the thieves might be punished, but their feelings of guilt would not burden them. When Liesel steals a book from the book burning, she does not feel guilty until Hans finds out. Of course, in the end, Death is also a book thief, for he steals Liesel's book.

More significant is survivor's guilt, far more pervasive and complex than breaking laws and being punished for doing so. Liesel has survivor's guilt because her brother died and she did not. Why him and not her? She is not the only one. Hans feels guilt because Erik Vandenburg died while he lived. And Erik's son, Max, similarly feels he has abandoned his family to die at the hands of the Nazis while he flees into hiding. He also feels guilt in endangering the Hubermanns. When he runs, he leaves a note for Hans saying, "You've done enough." Michael Holtzapfel, even though he is maimed, has survived the war only to commit suicide. He cannot accept the guilt of surviving and wanting to live when his brother was killed.

Sometimes survivors believe they deserve punishment and try to inflict it on themselves. Michael punishes himself with suicide. After Liesel realizes her mother is gone, she tries to provoke Rosa into beating her. When Liesel sees Max being marched to Dachau, a Nazi soldier does beat her, providing her with the "punishment" she seems to be seeking. Frau Hermann tells Liesel not to punish herself "the way I did." Frau Hermann continues to grieve for her son, who died when she didn't. Max works out in the basement because the pain feels good to him. When Hans's actions endanger Max, Hans literally screams to the Nazis to come get him.

However, with survivor's guilt comes survivor's responsibility. Hans helps Max not only because Hans is an exemplary human being but also because he feels responsible for helping Erik as Erik helped him. Michael Holtzapfel feels guilty for wanting to live. However, when his mother refuses to go to the air-raid shelter, he cannot understand her refusal and feels responsible for her reactions.

Does Death feel guilty? Certainly he does about Rudy's death. Throughout the novel, Death emphasizes that people's deaths are not under his control. But he cannot watch the "leftover humans" and repeatedly describes his tender care of newly collected souls. Death may have his own case of survivor's guilt.

Unanswered Questions

Early in the book Death says, "That's the sort of thing I'll never know, or comprehend—what humans are capable of." The human capacity for violence, generosity, and beauty are impossible to explain fully. The Book Thief is Death's attempt to understand humans and "to prove to me that you, and your human existence, are worth it."

Many deaths happen at random. Hans survives his LSE work in World War II, but then dies at home in bed. Michael Holtzapfel and his brother are in the same battle: one lives, one dies. Rudy's father is drafted into the army because he tried to protect his son, but Rudy gets killed anyway, at home in bed, while his father lives. Although the Hubermanns' cellar was too shallow to be an air-raid shelter, it saved Liesel. The unanswered and unanswerable question is Why?

In The Book Thief unanswerable questions confound even Death, who seems more like an employee assigned where to go and is as bewildered by humans as humans are bewildered by Death. The atrocities of the concentration camps lead even Death to ask questions of God. But "God never says anything. You think you're the only one he never answers?"

The unanswered, unanswerable questions indicate the world is haphazard and dangerous. Is there a God? Does this God care about the world? Few characters express religious beliefs. In fact religion seems distant from daily life. But if Death talks to God, is there anyone there? What kind of God would let this happen? And so continue the questions.

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