Why Is Death Haunted By Humans

In The Book Thief, how is Death haunted by humans?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The definition of "haunted" means that one is physically frequented by ghosts, but it also includes the fact that one can be psychologically burdened, preoccupied, and/or disturbed by someone or something. In Zusak's The Book Thief , the latter is more of the issue for Death, who is also the...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

The definition of "haunted" means that one is physically frequented by ghosts, but it also includes the fact that one can be psychologically burdened, preoccupied, and/or disturbed by someone or something. In Zusak's The Book Thief, the latter is more of the issue for Death, who is also the narrator. Usually, Death does his job without question because he must deal with many dead human bodies every day—especially during war. He watches humanity at a distance and exists in a paradoxical state. For example, when Death describes his role in human history, he cannot extract himself, because no one else can take his job while he goes on vacation. Death explains the following:

". . . my one saving grace is distraction. It keeps me sane. It helps me cope, considering the length of time I've been performing this job. . . . you might be asking, why does he even need a vacation? What does he need distraction from? . . . It's the leftover humans. The survivors. They're the ones I can't stand to look at, although on many occasions I still fail" (5).

One human that interests him is Liesel, of course, because she is "an expert at being left behind" (5). He goes on to say that he saw her three times, but he also swipes her book, reads it, and presents it to her after her long life. He's amazed at how many times she escapes him. He is also impressed when Max escapes him a few times—like the time he fights Death off during a night of intense sickness, as shown in the following passage:

"I readied myself to insert my hands through the blankets. Then there was a resurgence—an immense struggle against my weight. I withdrew, and with so much work ahead of me, it was nice to be fought off in that dark little room. I even managed a short, closed-eyed pause of serenity before I made my way out" (318).

It seems from this passage that Death is also impressed with humans' strength and their will to keep going even when the world is falling down around them and they are facing the cruelest and most evil times in history.

By the end of the book, Death recognizes the extreme spectrum of emotions and experiences that humans face during their lives—from war to peace and back again. He marvels that he is there for "the greatest disasters" and "the greatest villains," but there are a few stories throughout history that distract him enough to teach him and interest him. Therefore, one way Death attempts to understand life is through human stories. In the same manner that humans are haunted by images of ghosts that represent death, Death is haunted by images, colors, and people that represent life.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In this last section of The Book Thief, Death considers what to tell Liesel about her story and human stories in general. Death wanted to tell her about "beauty and brutality," but he concludes there is nothing to tell her about such things that she didn't already know. Death is fascinated by the human race. Although he often speaks/narrates with indifference, he does "color" human experience in his own eyes and must distract himself at times because he pities them (which implies an emotional or at least a sympathetic reaction). 

When Death says "I am haunted by humans," he is captivated by their hypocrisy. That is, Death is haunted by how they can be "so ugly and so glorious" and how their "words and stories" could be "so damning and so brilliant" (550). In other words, Death is haunted by the history of the human race and its contradictory record of things wonderful and awful. 

Since Death is really at a loss for words here, when he simply says he is "haunted by humans," he actually wants to ask Liesel what she thinks of contradictory human nature. Death admits to constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race. Death is therefore surprised when humans illustrate their greatness and benevolence and Death is equally surprised/dismayed when humans illustrate their destructive side. Death is not only haunted by the deaths he must attend to. Death is also haunted by human potential; he is even bewildered by this human dichotomy of good/evil. The fact that he admits to overestimating and underestimating implies that he still does not fully understand the human race. In this sense, humans are still mysterious to Death. This is interesting because it is reciprocal; humans find Death equally (or more) mysterious. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team