Violence in The Book Thief: Close Readings of Key Scenes
In works of great literature, violent scenes often play prominent roles. However, these scenes of violence do not exist for their own sake, but instead add value and depth to the story being told. The Book Thief, written by Markus Zusak, is no exception to this statement. Throughout the story there are many violent scenes, and all of them add meaning and potency to Zusak’s writing. In this story in particular, the violent acts show how a cruel, Nazi, fascist society responds to the acts of human kindness; they also show the power of words and, lastly, show how survivors of tragedies handle their guilt. The violent scenes in The Book Thief help to display the themes of human kindness, the power of words, and survivor’s guilt.
One example of a violent scene in the story arises during the first time the Nazis parade a line of Jews down Munich Street. “Their eyes were enormous in their starving skulls. And the dirt. The dirt was molded to them. Their legs staggered as they were pushed by soldiers’ hands…” (Zusak, 391-92). The parade of these human beings, being treated like animals, is certainly a scene of unimaginable violence. However because of this violence, Hans Hubermann’s thoughts about the Nazis are shown through his caring actions. “The Jew stood before him, expecting another handful of derision, but he watched with everyone else as Hans Hubermann held his hand out and presented him with a piece of bread, like magic” (Zusak, 394). When he gives one of the Jews a piece of bread, his compassion and care for humans, regardless of their ethnic or religious background is displayed. From this scene of violence, the theme that even in the darkest of times, human compassion for one another still exists is shown.
Another example of how a scene of violence affected the meaning of the story is the death of Liesel’s brother on the train in the beginning of the story. “Liesel Meminger-could see without question that her little brother, Werner, was now sideways and dead. His blue eyes stared at the floor. Seeing nothing” (Zusak, 20). Although the death of her brother is a quick scene of violence, as he died coughing on a train, it sets off a chain of events that benefited Liesel’s life and affects the meaning of the story. Since Werner died, Liesel had to stop before she arrived at her foster home to bury him. It is at this stop that she picks up The Grave Digger’s Handbook and steals her first book. This book later becomes the glue that binds Liesel and Hans together, and helps Liesel to learn more and more about books, and words. She then realizes the power that words have and the damage they can do. “The words. Why did they have to exist?… Without words, the Führer was nothing. There would be no limping prisoner, no need for consolation or worldly tricks to make us feel better” (Zusak, 521). All of these events, that began with the violent death of Werner, contributed to the book’s theme of the power of language.
Yet another violent scene comes when Michael Holtzapfel survives the Battle of Stalingrad, but his brother Robert dies. Michael is so full of guilt that he survived that he takes his own life. “Michael Holtzapfel knew what he was doing. He killed himself for wanting to live” (Zusak, 503). This violent act of someone taking their own life shines light on the theme of abandonment and survivor’s guilt in the story. This theme, which is introduced earlier in the book, when Liesel’s mother abandons her and Liesel goes to live in the foster home. This theme is also apparent in Hans’ story of when he was serving in World War I. The story was that, Erik Vandenberg saved his life by volunteering him for a written assignment, while the rest of the regiment was sent into battle and all of them died. “He wrote the letters as best he could while the rest of the men went into battle. None of them came back” (Zusak, 178). The violence of the first World War, which took Erik Vandenberg, gave Hans survivor’s guilt and this causes Hans to take Max in. Some violent scenes contribute to the theme of survivor’s guilt, which dramatically changes the plot and meaning of the story.
Throughout the course of The Book Thief, many violent events occurred. However, these violent events had an underlying purpose, as they contributed to the many themes of the story. As the Jews are being mercilessly paraded through Munich street, the theme of human compassion is shown when Hans gives bread to a dying and starving Jew. From the death of Werner, Liesel’s brother, the theme of the power of words and books enters into the story. Lastly, in the deaths of Erik Vandenberg and Robert Holtzapfel, the theme of survivor’s guilt passes onto their friends and family and causes changes in the story. A simple scene of violence can change the plot of the story, deepen its themes, and even add completely new ones.
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