The Boy in the Striped Pajamas | Study Guide

John Boyne

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The Boy in the Striped Pajamas | Themes


Power, Subordination, and Secrecy

Throughout the story, authority over others and obedience to authority influence and motivate all of the characters. From the first chapter, Bruno's father's home office is off limits. No one is allowed to enter without permission. There are people who cannot be approached casually, not even someone's own father. There is also the power of secrecy. And there are individuals who know the responsibilities of Bruno's father and others at Auschwitz, but this information is not discussed openly.

However, even Bruno's father must bow to authority. When the Fury comes to visit Bruno's father and mother at their home, the Fury exhibits his power over Bruno's father by immediately taking the seat at the head of the dining table. This action forces others to subordinate themselves to him in their own homes.

Even the Nazi officers are not immune to the threat of punishment that comes with disobedience to Nazi values. One night at dinner, Bruno's father questions Lieutenant Kotler about why Kotler's father left Germany in the late 1930s. Kotler becomes very uncomfortable regarding the subject. The suggestion here is that either his parents disapproved of Hitler and the Nazi Party or there may be Jewish lineage in Kotler's family. Kotler's insecurity and fear of exposure may account for his brutal treatment of the prisoners under his authority, such as Pavel, whom Kotler beats for spilling wine. Kotler is later inexplicably removed from his post. He may suffer an unfortunate fate at the hands of the party he has tried to embrace.

This subordination to authority is most horrendous when Shmuel and his parents are forced from their home in Poland and relocated to Out-With. The supreme power the Nazis have over Jews and other perceived enemies of the state forces many of the prisoners to be outcasts in their native countries.

Transcendent Friendship

Bruno's first "best friends for life" are lost when he leaves Berlin. In fact, as time passes, Bruno forgets what those boys looked like, forgetting even their names, suggesting that those friendships are not based on real knowledge of one another. Bruno at first despises his move to Out-With (Auschwitz), but his attitude changes once he encounters Shmuel. This relationship fills the void of the friendships he was forced to leave behind in Berlin and transcends them. Bruno's friendship with Shmuel is also vital to Bruno's ethical development. When Bruno denies to Lieutenant Kotler his friendship with Shmuel, Bruno feels horrible for this betrayal. Weeks later, when he and Shmuel meet, Bruno's top priority is to ask for Shmuel's forgiveness. It is heart-wrenching when the starving, emaciated child offers easy forgiveness to the boy whose father is in charge of the mistreatment and killing of the prisoners.

In addition, the act of friendship betrays the authoritarian power that runs through the story. It is the only genuine human action that brings real happiness. Bruno's relation to his sister Gretel has the typical rivalry readers might expect. However, later in the story, after Gretel loses her teenage crush—Lieutenant Kotler—her relationship with Bruno strengthens. Gretel's maturity comes not because she follows the rules, but because she follows her heart in supporting her brother, vowing to keep the secret of his imaginary friend from the adults in their lives, particularly Father.

It is also the act of friendship that offers hope at the end of the novel. As Bruno and Shmuel hold hands, Bruno declares, "You're my best friend ... My best friend for life." The diction here is clear: friendship offers life. On some level the boys understand this lesson even if it is lost on those around them. The question remains whether or not it is lost on the reader.

Separation: Physical and Psychological

An act of separation begins the novel when Bruno discovers from his mother that he will be leaving Berlin and his three closest friends. After moving to Auschwitz, he misses his grandparents as much as his classmates. The house at Out-With (Auschwitz) is like a prison to him at first. It is neither as cheerful nor as spacious as the one in Berlin. Bruno feels he does not belong in his new environment. In his ignorance he equates his separation with that of Shmuel's. Shmuel has also been torn from his home and brought to Out-With against his will.

In both the Berlin and Auschwitz houses, Bruno's father's office is as follows: "Out of Bounds at All Times and No Exceptions." Even at home, his father is a separate entity, someone not fully integrated with the rest of the family. This separation is both physical and psychological. Bruno's father does not show any physical intimacy toward his children. Also, because of the nature of his work, he cannot share a large aspect of his life with his family. Bruno, Gretel, and their mother simply resign themselves to the absence of the man in certain aspects of their lives.

Once Bruno discovers another boy his age at Out-With, he still must contend with separation. This time, the separation is caused by the wire fence surrounding the vast prison encampment. However, while Bruno's separation from his father is never resolved, Bruno and Shmuel end their separation when Bruno crosses the fence and holds Shmuel's hand in the gas chamber.

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