The Boy in the Striped Pajamas as a Genuine Fable

For an author portraying a topic as precarious and momentous as the Holocaust, perhaps the only adequate approach is through a fable, such as The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. In this novel, John Boyne creates main characters and a narrator that match the criteria of a fable, among other fable-like subject matter choices. Through language and textual features, Boyne weaves a genuine fable that successfully portrays and universalizes a sensitive social topic.

By creating characters that are vague in description, match archetypes or stereotypes, and partake in extraordinary incidents, this novel satisfies the main principles of a fable. The protagonist, Bruno, fits into the archetype of ‘the innocent child’ while the antagonist, Lieutenant Kotler, matches the stereotype of a Nazi soldier but also seems like a folktale villain. ‘He [Lieutenant Kotler] wore the same type of uniform as Father… and looked very serious. … Bruno could see that he had very blond hair’(pg.19). Most characters lack definitive portrayals: for example, Mother’s and Father’s real names are never given. Also, the realistic likelihood of two protagonists from opposite ends of a social hierarchy meeting every day for almost a year, across the fence of a concentration camp, is very low. Nonetheless, ‘Every afternoon … Bruno took the long walk … and talked with his … friend [Shmuel]’ (pg. 138). In light of the real-life social tensions that would have arisen, it is very unlikely for such circumstances to occur within reality.

In depicting the Holocaust through the eyes of an innocent child, who is oblivious to the evil that lurks within his society, as well as making language choices that are suitable for a child, John Boyne has even created an innocent fable-like tone that avoids addressing the historical and moral complexity of the Holocaust. Through the innocence and ignorance of the young narrator, the novel indulges in language and vocabulary that is appropriate for children and is almost naïve in description. For example, Hitler is referred to as ‘the Fury’ (pg. 3) and the concentration camp, Auschwitz, is pronounced as ‘Out-With’ (pg. 25). The text avoids the disturbing details of the Holocaust, instead delivering a short fictitious story that views historical torture from a safe distance.

Finally, Boyne is able to present the sensitive topic of the Holocaust by focusing on characters who do not have especially clear historical models. One of the aspects of a fable is the unmistakable appearance of fiction, and although the Holocaust is not a fictitious event by any means, the circumstances and characters within the text are fabricated; there is no evidence to prove that Bruno or Shmuel ever existed. Also, fables are not concerned about being realistic or accurate; instead, the subject matter is used to communicate a moral, which in this text is ‘treat others as you would like to be treated’. The ignorance and innocence depicted allow Boyne to withhold detail. For example, Shmuel is first described as ‘the dot that become a speck that became a blob that became a figure that became a boy’ (pg. 107). Fundamentally, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas includes subject matter choices that assist in holding the reader at a fanciful, fable-like distance.

Using language and textual features, John Boyne presents his novel The Boy in the Striped Pajamas as a well-defined fable. Vague in description and made to represent archetypes or stereotypes, the characters are apt personages for a fable. Furthermore, the ignorant and innocent narration results in language choices suitable for a fable, while the delicate subject matter of the Holocaust is presented in a way that blunts its impact. A fable, after all, is meant to be an escape from the hardships of reality, not a stark reminder of history at its worst.

Trying Themes of ‘The Boy in the Striped Pajamas’

John Boyne’s most famous novel, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, is an intricate story about two boys that meet at a concentration camp during the Second World War. In this novel, several themes are made evident, such as the innocence of childhood, prejudices, fear, regret, and boundaries. However, perhaps the most interesting, yet subtle, theme is that of silence. Silence, stillness, and secrets are all interconnected throughout this literary work. As the protagonist’s father is the “Commandment” of the German army, the majority of his duties are hidden from his family. This is taken to such extremes that the family moves to Poland, without telling the children where they are moving to or the reason behind it. There is an overall silence throughout the family, particularly when it comes to the work of the father. The children are taught at an early age to simply respect his duties and to not question his decisions.As the story continues, Bruno develops a close friendship with a refugee named Shmuel. Shmuel is the Hebrew equivalent of the name Samuel, meaning strong. This fact is quite interesting in relation to Shmuel’s role in the story, particularly in his role in the friendship between the two boys. Due to the differences between the two, Bruno is required to not mention his new friendship to anyone. After he makes a Freudian slip in a conversation with his sister, Bruno is forced to cover his tracks: “’ I have a new friend,’ he began. ‘A new friend that I go to see every day. And he’ll be waiting for me now. But you can’t tell anyone.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘Because he’s an imaginary friend,’ said Bruno, trying his best to look embarrassed…” (155). unfortunately, this is not the only time that Bruno lies about his relationship with Shmuel. While the two are talking when Shmuel comes to clean out the glasses in Bruno’s kitchen, they are caught by Lieutenant Kotler. Shmuel easily admits that the two are friends, while Bruno claims to have never spoken with or seen Shmuel in his life. However, his decision to cover up their friendship does not sit well with him: “[Bruno’s] stomach churned inside him and he thought for a moment that he was going to be sick. He had never felt so ashamed in his life; he had never imagined that he could behave so cruelly. He wondered how a boy who thought he was a good person really could act in such a cowardly way towards a friend” (173–174). While the two young boys do not have a thorough understanding of their situations, they are intelligent enough to know that there is something more powerful than a fence that is keeping them apart. Hyde made an interesting point regarding this scene: “This incident suggests how silence imposed from the outside – by Lieutenant Kotler’s intimidating and threatening presence – could act so as to stifle Bruno’s sense of agency and his spirituality, thereby leading to a sense of disconnectedness with his friend Shmuel” (98). By contrast, silence and stillness are not always portrayed as negative things in this novel. Near the end of the book, Bruno disguises himself in the “striped pyjamas” and attempts to assist Shmuel in finding his father. When the soldiers gathered up the Jews for their march, Bruno took a great step of boldness in regards to their friendship: “He looked down and did something quite out of character for him: he took hold of Shmuel’s tiny hand in his and squeezed it tightly. ‘You’re my best friend, Shmuel,’ he said. ‘My best friend for life’” (212-213). While the boys remained in the gas chamber, not knowing what to expect, they still clung to each other: “…the room went very dark and somehow, despite the chaos that followed, Bruno found that he was still holding Shmuel’s hand in his own and nothing in the world would have persuaded him to let it go” (213). Hyde’s statement on this scene was quite intriguing:” Of all the ways in which they could have reacted in the midst of the chaos and the horror that was about to take place, Bruno and Shmuel chose silence. They stood holding hands, affirming their connectedness (irrespective of their very different racial backgrounds)…” (98). This scene represents the fact that silence has a strange power over words and that it is not always necessarily to speak in order to communicate.The innocence of a child and the power of silence in both positive and negative aspects are recurrent themes throughout John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Boyne does an excellent job describing the relationships that Bruno has with his family and with his new friend Shmuel. The two boys are wise for their ages, as they have the power to look beyond the things that separate them and to form a bond that words cannot break. These two young boys are a great example of true friendship and overcoming obstacles.Hyde, Brendan, Karen-Marie Yust, and Cathy Ota. “Silence, Agency And SpiritualDevelopment.” International Journal Of Children’s Spirituality 15.2 (2010): 97-99. Academic Search Premier. Web. 8 Feb. 2013.