The Boy in the Striped Pajamas | Study Guide

John Boyne

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The Boy in the Striped Pajamas | Context


Subtitled A Fable

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is subtitled A Fable. The word fable comes from the Latin word fabula, meaning "a story." Fables generally have the following characteristics:

  • Short, moral tales: While traditional fables are usually just a few paragraphs, Boyne's novel runs longer, encompassing 20 chapters. It is as if this story of the corruption of childhood innocence by adult evil requires more exposition than is typical of its stated genre. The moral that ends the fable may be stated or implied. In the case of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, the moral is implied. The narrator says, "all of this happened a long time ago and nothing like that could ever happen again." The implication is that people have surely learned from the mistakes of history. However, the final line creates verbal irony—a type of sarcasm in which the meaning of the words differ from what is stated—"not in this day and age." This line suggests that the narrator is aware that people foolishly continue to repeat the mistakes of the past.
  • Anthropomorphism: Anthropomorphism is the literary technique whereby animals are personified with human traits. Because The Boy in the Striped Pajamas does not feature animal characters, it might have been more aptly called a parable—a short, moral tale that features human characters, representing symbolic actions and truths.
  • Surprise or twist ending: Fables often end in unexpected ways. For example, the slow turtle beats the speedy hare in a footrace in the fable by the legendary ancient Greek storyteller Aesop. In The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Boyne, too, offers readers a twist when Bruno crosses the concentration camp fence line and shares Shmuel's terrible fate.
  • Satire of social or political institutions: Fables often ridicule or scorn human weaknesses or foolishness. For example, Animal Farm (1945) by British author George Orwell (1903–50) critiques communism. In The Boy in the Striped Pajamas Boyne ridicules the practices of Nazi Germany and to a larger extent prejudice in general.
  • Children as audience: As a tale of moral instruction, fables are often intended for children but can be appreciated by readers of all ages. In The Boy in the Striped Pajamas Boyne calls to mind an imaginary audience of children like Bruno and Shmuel who do not fear their religious differences and who are able to build a friendship, while suggesting to his older readers that if children were allowed to grow up without the negative influences adults bring to their lives, such as anti-Semitism and racism, the world might, indeed, be a very different place.

Boyne uses stylistic tools such as repetition and capitalization to emphasize that his story is not realistic or historical fiction. These tools remind readers that the characters are younger than they are and that they do not share readers' cultural or historical knowledge.

Some critics, however, have found the label of fable troubling, arguing that the setting of the Holocaust does not honor the real suffering of its victims. Professor and author Rabbi Benjamin Blech (b. 1933) has said that the novel is "not just a lie and not just a fairytale, but a profanation." Others have criticized the book for its naivete, as nine-year-old Bruno appears simply too intelligent for his age to be unaware of the reality of the events around him. Others have commented that the basic facts of life in Auschwitz have been abandoned to allow the relationship between a young Jewish prisoner and a German commandant's son.

Nevertheless, others have found the novel appropriate for introducing a difficult topic to young readers. In her Guardian review of the novel, author Kathryn Hughes (b. 1959) praises Boyne's ability to shift narrative perspectives with Bruno, enabling him to think and speak as a child one moment and later to make fable-like observations that give insight into other characters and situations. Boyne's designation of his novel as a fable gives him the literary license to suspend disbelief (and logistical accuracy) in order to express what he perceives as a greater truth about humanity as represented by his characters.


In creating his nine-year-old protagonist Bruno, John Boyne employs the literary technique of defamiliarization—the strategy of presenting the familiar as something unfamiliar. One technique Boyne uses to accomplish defamiliarization is language. Bruno uses terms such as fury for führer and Out-With for Auschwitz. The term fury forces readers to envision the historical Hitler as the personification of a chaotic emotion that causes upheaval in people's lives. The term Out-With characterizes the purpose of the Holocaust as a movement to expel from Germany and its territories alleged undesirables, but it also characterizes the relationship between two unlikely friends who are out with each other despite a fence. By presenting Bruno as ignorant of the events of World War II (1939–45) and the Holocaust—events with which readers are acquainted—Boyne achieves the effect of making the old seem new again.

While the technique, at times, might have worked better if Boyne had made Bruno a little younger, it nonetheless serves a larger thematic purpose. Bruno's innocence works to expose the prejudices of the adults around him. Further, it exposes the truth that loving parents are often guilty of passing their prejudices to their children. The social process of teaching hatred begins at home, and very young children are susceptible to it. Bruno is willing to cross the fence line into Shmuel's life because the act of hatred is utterly foreign to the mindset of a child. The fable invites readers to consider a world in which adult prejudices do not inevitably become the inheritance of their children.

World War II

World War II started in 1939 after Germany invaded Poland. Reacting to Germany's illegal invasion, France and Britain formally declared war against Germany. The key motivation for Germany's war effort rested on the crippling effects of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, which officially ended World War I (1914–18). Britain, France, the United States, and Italy were primarily responsible for drafting this treaty, which effectively blamed Germany for World War I, forced Germany to pay reparations (money) to other countries that suffered from the war, limited the size of the German military, and took away German land to give to other countries. One result of the treaty was a devastated German economy. It was in this context that the country, in 1933, elected a charismatic new leader: Adolf Hitler (1889–1945).


Adolf Hitler, referred to as "the Fury" in the novel, was born on April 20, 1889, in Austria. After pursuing an interest in art, Hitler became fascinated with politics in his late teens. At 25 he joined the army to fight in Belgium during World War I, where he was wounded twice and received military honors.

After the war Hitler and many others were bitter regarding Germany's defeat. However, Hitler did not find fault with the German army or its allies but instead held traitors responsible for losing the war. In 1920 he left the army to continue his involvement with the German Workers' Party. By 1921 Hitler led the group now called the National Socialist German Workers (Nazi) Party. Hitler believed that for Germany to achieve greatness it would need a singular, all-powerful leader—a führer. In the novel the young protagonist Bruno refers to Hitler as "the Fury."

The Nazis also believed in ethnic purity, and Hitler put forth the false claim that Germans were descended from an Aryan—or purely Germanic—race. Hitler and the Nazis believed people not of this descent were inferior. These groups included people of Slavic, Czechoslovakian, Polish, and Russian descent; Jews; Catholics; homosexuals; political dissidents; Roma (colloquially known as gypsies); and the mentally and physically challenged.

Anti-Semitism and Eugenics

Hitler blamed many for Germany's situation, but more than any group, he blamed those of Jewish descent. This anti-Semitism—anti-Jewish sentiment—was not based on facts, but Hitler and his followers were convinced that the Jews had been in league, or working behind the scenes, with communists and social democrats to cause the defeat of Germany during World War I. In 1935 the Nuremberg Laws were passed, making it illegal for Jews to marry or have sexual intercourse with Germans for fear of polluting the so-called pure Aryan bloodline.

The idea of a superior race stems from the eugenics movement that was popular in America in the early 1900s. Although the original motivation behind eugenics as stated in a 1927 publication was "to improve the natural, physical, mental, and temperamental qualities of the human family," the idea quickly converted into the goal of maintaining desirable characteristics and weeding out undesirable ones, resulting, in some cases, in sterilization or institutionalization to prevent the propagation of unwanted characteristics in society. By the 1930s, eugenics had been systematically condemned in the United States, but it was just gaining traction in Germany. Nazi doctors incarcerated, experimented on, sterilized through radiation and injection, and killed people they considered unfit for a healthy German society. They also killed and studied twins as a possible means for expanding the Aryan race.

In 1938 the Night of Broken Glass (Kristallnacht) occurred. During this violent 48-hour period the Nazis targeted Jews throughout Germany, killing and maiming them and destroying their businesses. Immediately after this event, the Nazis began arresting and deporting Jews, sending them to concentration camps with other "enemies of the state." So horrible was everyday treatment of Jews that many fled the country. By 1939 German persecution reduced the Jewish population to less than half of what it had been in 1925.

The Final Solution

The constant, increasing hatred of the Jewish population culminated for Hitler and his supporters in the desire for complete genocide. Hitler and the Nazis proposed the "Final Solution," a plan to eradicate the entire Jewish population. The development of this plan witnessed an escalation, over time, from anti-Jewish legislation and enclosed Jewish ghettos to killing operations and eventually to killing centers or camps. Camps were created for the sole purpose of systematically killing Jews on a daily schedule. One of the most infamous of these killing centers was Auschwitz.


Bruno refers to this brutal camp, where Shmuel is imprisoned, as "Out-With" in the story. This concentration camp, which was really three camps (prison, extermination, and slave labor), existed from 1940 to 1945. It had two successive commandants during that period. The commandant had complete authoritarian control of the camp, and Auschwitz guards and officers treated the prisoners inhumanely as enemies of the German Reich, withholding adequate access to the basic necessities for life such as food, water, clothing, medical care, and shelter. One of the most famous commandants was Rudolf Höss (1900–47), who oversaw the killing of thousands of Jews. However, reports state he was not himself violent and was not known to abuse prisoners physically. He was a middle-class family man and husband living with his family close to the crematorium, the building where the German soldiers burned the dead bodies. Höss approved of the gassing of prisoners because it relieved the German soldiers of the mental anguish of shooting so many people, creating a "bloodbath." He viewed poison gas as the more humane option.

Auschwitz had four large gas chambers, and during the camp's deadliest period, 1943–44, the Nazis murdered about 6,000 Jews daily. Camp guards forced sometimes hundreds of individuals at a time into the chambers, some of which resembled showers. Many victims, like the fictional Bruno and Shmuel, did not know what awaited them. Once guards locked the victims inside the chamber, they dropped pellets of Zyklon-B—a crystalline insecticide—down air shafts. When the pellets contacted the air in the chamber, they vaporized, creating a deadly gas. Commandant Höss was quoted as saying that death by Zyklon-B was swift, but others have since disputed that claim.

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