I am having difficulty doing my assignment on The Book Thief: I must argue whether or not humans in the novel and in the real world are more “beautiful” or more “brutal.”

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In his essay "Self-Reliance," Ralph Waldo Emerson argues,

Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company in which the members agree for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.

Since man's early beginnings, there have been the strong and the weak; in the basic struggle for survival, the stronger have dominated the weaker. So, in order to survive,the weaker have often conjoined with the stronger in tribes, clans, societies; however, this unification often costs the weaker individual his liberties. Certainly, then, Markus Zusak's novel illustrates this basic truth about humanity. Set in Nazi Germany, a regime that set about to dominate the Western world, Germans are forced to embrace Nazism or be killed, or go into hiding as many Jews did. Like real people, the characters of The Book Thief, act not so much out of personal convictions, but more in self-preservation against a society that "conspires" against them. One exception is Rudy Steiner, who in youthful idealism paints himself to represent Jesse Owens (to whom Hitler turned his back as he refused to recognize him as a human being in the 1936 Berlin Olympics when he won a gold medal) and run through the streets. Yet, he later dies.

Still, repression by a totalitarian government yields its private dissidents. Such are Hans and Rosa Hubermann; they both dissent with their taking in a foster child of Communists, and by their harboring of the fugitive Jew, Max Vanderburg; individually Hans dissents by furtively teaching Liesel to read while Rosa vociferates her anger and frustration with her state of being upon Liesel. Then, out of guilt, she is kind to the girl. Liesel herself does not believe in Nazism, but in Part 2 when the Liesel dons her brown uniform and attends a book burning rally, she finds herself caught up in the emotional chauvinism of the Youth march, and her heart swells. However, when she hears the dreaded word Kommunisten (Communists), her fears return.

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So, return to Emerson and, perhaps, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who strongly felt that man's essence is one of goodness, but the evils of society and governments corrupted the purity of his soul. This idea, indeed, seems closely aligned with the character analysis of the personages of Zusak's novel as it also does with much of humanity in general, although there are those "bad seeds" found throughout history. And, since literature represents the human experience, there are close parallels between the characters and real people, so close that it is difficult to judge one group as more cruel or kind than the other. Rather, there are both traits in people, real or fictional.

As an example of how people are both "brutal" and "beautiful" consider a passage from Part 2 in which Liesel Meminger rescues Ludwig Schmeikel, the boy who earlier has ridiculed her for being unable to read. After his ankle is broken by the frenzied crowd, Liesel manages to pull him away.

His face wore a helpless expression beneath his tangled blond hair....He was just an animal hurt among the melee of its own kind, trampled by it....They staggered to the steps of the church...and rested...relieved.

"Thanks," he said..."I'm sorry--for you know."

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vancali's profile pic

vancali | Student, Grade 9 | (Level 1) Honors

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Zusak himself says in interviews that some humans appears more beautiful because of all of the brutal humans who they come in contact with. He also says that some of that brutality makes the humans more beautiful.

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