Study Guide

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

by John Boyne

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas Summary

Introduction

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a fictional tale of the unlikeliest of friends: the son of a Nazi commandant and a Jewish concentration camp inmate. Written by John Boyne and published in 2006 by David Fickling Books, the story was made into a major motion picture in 2008.

The novel, set in Nazi Germany, begins when nine-year-old Bruno and his family must move from their lovely home in Berlin to a new house in an unfamiliar place called "Out-With." Tempted to explore his new environment, Bruno is told that there are certain places that are "Out Of Bounds At All Times And No Exceptions." Unable to fight his adventuresome spirit, however, Bruno ventures forth into the unknown one afternoon.

Bruno comes upon a fence that he follows until he sees a young boy sitting on the other side of the fence. The shoeless boy is wearing striped pajamas and a cloth cap. Bruno also notices that the boy is wearing an armband with a star on it. Bruno makes fast friends with the boy, Shmuel, and they quickly discover that they share the same birthday. The boys discuss their families and where they are from. At the end of their first meeting, Bruno asks Shmuel why there are so many people on his side of the fence and what they are doing there. A few days later, Bruno's father has dinner guests; the man's name is "the Fury" and his date is called Eva. Bruno instantly dislikes the couple. Bruno's sister Gretel, whom he refers to as "the Hopeless Case," is smitten by the man and tries hard to impress him and his lady friend. Bruno, however, is disgusted by his sister's behavior and her budding romance with a young soldier.

Much like Bruno hears "Auschwitz" as "Out-With," he also incorrectly hears "the Führer" as "the Fury." Boyne masterfully tells the story from Bruno's perspective; it is clear that the innocence of Bruno's childhood remains intact despite the fact that he is living on the periphery of a death camp and has met Adolf Hitler.

Bruno continues to explore the woods near his house and often finds himself at the fence spending time with Shmuel. Bruno brings him food, and the friends lament the fact that they cannot explore together or play a game of football. Shmuel confides in Bruno that he is unable to find his father and he is worried. Bruno vows to help Shmuel look for his father; to that end, Shmuel promises to get Bruno some pajamas so that he will blend in on his side of the fence.

One fateful day, Bruno sheds his clothes, dons the pajamas, and sneaks onto Shmuel's side of the fence. As the boys search for Shmuel's father, the soldiers herd the prisoners, Bruno among them, into the gas chambers where they meet their untimely death hand in hand.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas explores the beauty of a child's innocence in a time of war, the common desire we all have for friendship, and the fences—both literal and figurative—that we must all navigate and choose whether or not to break down.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas Summary

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a story about childhood innocence, friendship, and the importance of breaking down the fences we put up around ourselves.

The novel is told from the perspective of nine-year-old Bruno, the son of a Nazi commandant. Bruno arrives home from school one day to find the family's maid packing their things. Unbeknownst to Bruno, his father has been selected to oversee operations at Auschwitz (which Bruno hears as "Out-With") and the family will be joining him. Bruno is devastated to leave his home, his friends and his grandparents in Berlin. The situation becomes even worse when the family arrives at their new home which is stark and isolated. Bruno is instructed by his parents that there are certain rooms that are "Out Of Bounds At All Times And No Exceptions." This includes the vast property behind the house which seems to beckon Bruno. With no idea what is happening just behind his home, Bruno laments the lack of children his age and fun activities in "Out-With."

Bruno's twelve-year-old sister, Gretel, is an all-too-eager believer in the Nazi rhetoric being espoused to German youth. Her zeal for Nazi ideology increases when the family moves to Auschwitz and she develops a crush on a Nazi soldier, Lieutenant Kotler, who is a frequent visitor to the family's home. Bruno instantly dislikes Kotler, who patronizes him. Gretel is an all-too-eager student of Herr Liszt, the tutor hired by the children's father to home school them. He unabashedly promotes Nazi propaganda and anti-Semitism of which Bruno is skeptical.

From his bedroom window, Bruno can see hundreds if not thousands of people wearing pajamas working on what Bruno believes to be a farm. When Bruno's desire to explore gets the best of him, he embarks on an adventure which leads him to an endlessly long fence. Bruno follows the fence and after walking for quite a while, he sees a boy sitting by the fence. Bruno approaches him and notices that he is wearing the same pajamas as everyone else on that side of the fence along with a striped cloth cap. Bruno makes note of the boy's filthy feet which are bare. Bruno is struck by the boy's sad eyes and ashen skin. Shmuel introduces himself and the two strike up a conversation. They soon discover that they share the same birthday: April 15, 1934. Bruno realizes how lonely he has been since the family moved to "Out-With." He misses his friends from school, Martin, Karl and Daniel. Shmuel tells Bruno how there are many boys his age on his side of the fence and Bruno instantly deems this unfair; he plans to speak to his father about how he wants to be able to play with the boys on the other side of the fence. Bruno tells Shmuel he is from Berlin and Shmuel reveals that he is from Poland; neither has ever...

(The entire section is 1125 words.)

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas Chapter Summaries

Chapter 1 Summary

When nine-year-old Bruno comes home from school one day, he is surprised to find the maid, Maria, packing up all his belongings. He tries to remember if he has done anything “particularly naughty” in the past few days that would warrant him being sent away as a punishment. He asks his mother, “a tall woman with long red hair that she bundle[s] into a sort of net behind her head,” what is going on. He is somewhat relieved to notice that her things are being packed, too, by Lars the Butler.

Bruno’s mother goes into the large dining room, where the Fury, accompanied by a beautiful blond woman, had come to dinner the week before. Bruno notices that Mother’s eyes are “more red than usual” as she tells him...

(The entire section is 547 words.)

Chapter 2 Summary

To Bruno’s extreme disappointment, everything about the family’s new residence is the exact opposite of the beloved home in Berlin. The new house is the only building standing in “an empty, desolate place,” and it is small, having only three stories instead of five. All of the bedrooms are crammed together on the top floor, the servants sleep in the basement, and the ground floor contains a kitchen, a dining room, and an office for Father, which Bruno assumes is governed by the same stern restrictions as the office back in Berlin. Bruno thinks that his new home is in “the loneliest place in the world” and it seems that, in this God-forsaken place, there is “nothing to laugh at and nothing to be happy about.”

...

(The entire section is 480 words.)

Chapter 3 Summary

Bruno’s sister, Gretel, at age twelve, is three years older than him. He is “a little scared of her”; from as far back as he can remember, she has made it clear that she is in charge. Gretel has always been a challenge to her other family members—Bruno thinks of her as The Hopeless Case, and he has heard his parents refer to her as “Trouble From Day One.”

Gretel is a constant source of irritation for Bruno. She hogs the bathroom regularly, oblivious to his need to use it too, and she has a large collection of dolls arranged on shelves in her room that seem to stare at Bruno, watching whatever he does. Gretel also has “some very unpleasant friends” who make fun of Bruno, tormenting him about his small...

(The entire section is 483 words.)

Chapter 4 Summary

Directly below Bruno’s window is a small, well-tended garden with pavement surrounding it and a wooden bench highlighted by a plaque. Further out, however, the scenery changes drastically, and it is this sight that so astonishes Gretel when she looks out of the window.

About twenty feet past the garden and the bench is a huge fence topped with bales of barbed wire extending as far as the eye can see. The ground beyond the fence is barren, and there are dozens of low huts and large, square buildings with smoke stacks. What surprises Gretel the most about the scene, however, are the people who are apparently living within the enclosed area. They are all male: “small boys and big boys, fathers and grandfathers...they...

(The entire section is 537 words.)

Chapter 5 Summary

Bruno reflects upon his final morning in Berlin. The house had looked empty, “not like their real home at all.” Father had already left the city a few days earlier, and Bruno remembers that his mother had been very nervous. With tears in her eyes, she had said abstractedly:

We should never have let the Fury come to dinner...some people and their determination to get ahead!

An official car with flags on the front had taken the family to the train station where two trains had been waiting on opposite tracks; oddly, both trains were headed in the same direction. Hordes of people surrounded by soldiers were gathered by one of the trains, but the one Bruno and his family...

(The entire section is 578 words.)

Chapter 6 Summary

Out of boredom a few days later, Bruno is lying on his bed staring at the ceiling when he notices the paint above his head is cracked and peeling. This observation only adds to his unhappiness with his new home. He decides petulantly that he “hate[s] it all...absolutely everything.” At this point, Maria the maid walks in carrying a stack of laundered clothes. Bruno attempts to strike up a conversation with her, asking her if she is as dissatisfied with their new living arrangements as he is.

Maria is very cautious in responding to Bruno’s question. She finally addresses his concern indirectly by telling him how much she had enjoyed the garden back in Berlin. When Bruno persists, she says that what she thinks is...

(The entire section is 578 words.)

Chapter 7 Summary

After several weeks at Out-With, Bruno concludes that he had better find a way to keep himself occupied or else he will surely lose his mind. One Saturday, when neither Mother nor Father is at home, he decides to make a swing in a large oak tree a good distance from the house. For this project, Bruno will need a rope and a tyre. He finds some rope in the basement of the house, but to secure a tyre he will have to ask Lieutenant Kotler.

Lieutenant Kotler is the soldier Bruno encountered on his first day at Out-With. The young man has been seen frequently around the house since that time, coming in and out “as if he owned the place.” Bruno dislikes the lieutenant although he does not fully understand his own feeling,...

(The entire section is 641 words.)

Chapter 8 Summary

Bruno misses his paternal grandparents terribly. Grandfather, who is retired from his job running a restaurant, is seventy-three years old and, in Bruno’s estimation, is “just about the oldest man in the world.” Grandmother, in contrast, is sixty-two; to Bruno, she “never seem[s] old.” Grandmother has long, red hair and green eyes because of Irish blood somewhere in her family. She loves to have parties and is an accomplished singer; one of her favorite pieces to perform is La Vie en Rose.

Grandmother has secret hopes that Bruno and Gretel will someday appear on the stage too, and at every Christmas and birthday party, she arranges for them to put on a simple play with her for Mother, Father, and...

(The entire section is 563 words.)

Chapter 9 Summary

As time passes, Bruno’s memories of home start to fade and he begins to adjust to his life at Out-With. Things remain pretty much the same: Gretel is “less than friendly” to him as usual and the soldiers go into and out of Father’s office for meetings every day. The servants continue with their jobs, and Lieutenant Kotler still acts as if he owns the place; when Father is not there, he spends his time flirting with Gretel or “whispering alone in rooms with Mother.”

One day Father announces that it is time for the children to resume their education, and he hires Herr Liszt to tutor them. Herr Liszt is a dour man who is “particularly fond of history and geography.” Although Bruno prefers literature and the...

(The entire section is 551 words.)

Chapter 10 Summary

Bruno walks along the fence for the better part of an hour. He does not see anyone or any opening that will allow him to cross over to the other side. Just when he is about to turn back, he spies a boy sitting in the dirt on the other side of the fence, “minding his own business, waiting to be discovered.” Cautiously, Bruno approaches him and says hello.

The boy is smaller than Bruno and wears the same striped pajamas as all the other people who live beyond the fence. When he hears Bruno’s voice, he looks up. All Bruno can see are “an enormous pair of sad eyes” staring at him; he is sure that he has never seen “a skinnier or sadder boy in his life.” The boy returns Bruno’s greeting. Bruno wants to ask...

(The entire section is 578 words.)

Chapter 11 Summary

This chapter goes back to describe an evening in Berlin several months earlier, when the Fury comes to Bruno’s house and everything changes. Father returns home one day in “a state of great excitement” and announces that the Fury has invited himself to dinner on Thursday, two days from now, because he has something of great importance to discuss with Father. Bruno asks, “Who’s the Fury?” Father responds by telling him he is pronouncing the name wrong and proceeds to pronounce it correctly for him.

Although he tries, Bruno still cannot say the Fury’s name correctly. When Father does not believe that he really does not know who the Fury is, Gretel interjects in exasperation, “He runs the country, idiot.”...

(The entire section is 475 words.)

Chapter 12 Summary

Bruno has asked Shmuel why there are so many people on his side of the fence and what they are doing there; Shmuel reflects upon his past in searching for an answer. He recalls that before he came there, he had lived with his parents and brother in a small flat in Cracow. Shmuel’s father had been a watchmaker and had given him a beautiful watch that was taken away by the soldiers.

Shmuel’s idyllic life began to unravel when his mother made an armband with a star on it for each member of the family, and they had to wear it whenever they left the house. Bruno says that his father also wears an armband, one that is “bright red with a black and white design on it.” Bruno draws the design on the ground so Shmuel can...

(The entire section is 563 words.)

Chapter 13 Summary

Every afternoon, after his lessons are finished, Bruno takes the long walk along the fence and spends time talking to his new friend, Shmuel. One day as he is filling his pockets with food from the kitchen for his daily excursion, he notices the piles of vegetables waiting for Pavel to peel and is reminded of a question that has been bothering him. In confidence, Bruno asks Maria why Pavel told him he was a doctor on the day he fell from the swing. Maria is startled and at first lies, but she is clearly troubled. She looks out the window to make sure no one is coming and tells Bruno that Pavel was once a doctor “in another life.” Warning Bruno that he must keep what she is about to tell him a secret, Maria reveals to him what...

(The entire section is 621 words.)

Chapter 14 Summary

Bruno continues to meet Shmuel by the fence in the afternoons. He asks every day if he can come over to Shmuel’s side so they can play together, but Shmuel says:

I don’t know why you’re so anxious to come across here.... It’s not very nice.

Bruno complains the difficulties of his own living conditions and even expresses envy over the advantages he thinks Shmuel has over him, which shows that he has absolutely no understanding of what life is like on the other side of the fence.

One day it rains heavily and Bruno is unable to go out to meet Shmuel. Bored, he is lying on his bed reading a book when his sister barges in and asks what he is doing....

(The entire section is 463 words.)

Chapter 15 Summary

Father’s birthday is coming up, and Mother is planning a party for him with Lieutenant Kotler’s help. Repulsed by the soldier’s presence, Bruno decides to make a list of all the reasons why he hates him. The lieutenant never smiles, and Gretel flirts with him shamelessly. Also, when Father is away, the young soldier is always around the house with Mother, acting “as if he [is] in charge.” Sometimes he is there when Bruno goes to bed and is back before he gets up again in the morning. One time Bruno saw Lieutenant Kotler shoot a dog that was barking outside. He also has not forgotten what the cruel young man did to Pavel that evening at dinner when Pavel had dropped the contents of a bottle into his lap. In Bruno’s...

(The entire section is 637 words.)

Chapter 16 Summary

Almost a year has passed since Bruno and his family moved to Out-With. Grandmother dies, and the family must return to Berlin for her funeral. Bruno had missed his home acutely when they first had to relocate, but in the intervening time his memories of life in Berlin have slowly faded, and the two days they spend back home are very sad. Father is particularly remorseful because he and Grandmother had fought before she died and never made it up. Although he is very proud that one of the wreaths sent in her honor is from the Fury himself, Mother says that “Grandmother would turn in her grave if she knew it was there.”

When Bruno returns to Out-With, he finds that the house there has now become his home. Bruno...

(The entire section is 543 words.)

Chapter 17 Summary

In the weeks after the discovery of lice in the children's hair, Mother's unhappiness with life at Out-With becomes increasingly noticeable. Bruno understands her situation perfectly because he remembers how lonely he had been before he had found Shmuel to talk to. Mother has no one, especially now that Lieutenant Kotler has been transferred away. One afternoon, Bruno overhears an especially vehement "conversation" between his mother and father. Mother declares that she "can't stand it anymore," and although Father argues that they "don't have any choice" because of the gossip that will occur if he lets his family return to Berlin without him, Bruno gets the sense that his mother might get her wish. Surprisingly, he is not sure how...

(The entire section is 469 words.)

Chapter 18 Summary

Shmuel does not show up at their usual meeting place for a few days, and Bruno is worried that he will have to leave Out-With without saying good-bye. Finally, on the third day, Shmuel is there again at the fence, but he looks “even more unhappy than usual.”

He tells Bruno that something bad has happened and his father is missing. According to Shmuel, his father had gone Monday on “work duty with some other men”; inexplicably, none of them have returned. Bruno proposes that “there must be a simple explanation,” but he cannot think of what it might be. He offers to ask Father about the situation, secretly hoping that Shmuel will not take him up on his suggestion. To his relief, Shmuel says that this would not...

(The entire section is 451 words.)

Chapter 19 Summary

On the day of Bruno and Shmuel’s scheduled “great adventure,” it rains heavily in the morning, and Bruno worries that he will not be able to see his friend before leaving for Berlin. Fortunately, the weather improves in the afternoon, and Bruno is able to make his way down the fence to their regular meeting place. When he arrives, Bruno finds Shmuel waiting for him with an extra pair of striped pajamas “exactly like the one he [is] wearing.”

Bruno tells Shmuel to turn his back then he Bruno strips off his own clothes and dons the striped pajamas. He notices that they do “not smell very nice.” When Bruno is ready, he tells Shmuel that he can turn around now. Shmuel finds it “quite extraordinary” how...

(The entire section is 580 words.)

Chapter 20 Summary

After the incident on the other side of the fence, Bruno is never seen or heard from again. His parents are frantic when he does not return home that day, and soldiers are sent out immediately to search “every part of the house and...all the local towns and villages.” Mother, who had been so happy about returning to Berlin, ends up staying at Out-With for several more months, hoping for news of her son. Eventually, she decides that he must have made his way back home to Berlin by himself, and she goes to wait for him there. Gretel accompanies her mother and spends a lot of time alone in her room crying. Despite her rude and impatient attitude toward her brother, she misses Bruno very much.

In the initial days of the...

(The entire section is 409 words.)