set of striped pajamas behind a barbed wire fence

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

by John Boyne

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Discuss the theme of racism in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne.

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The theme of racism prevails throughout The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, with the German Bruno being juxtaposed against his Polish, Jewish friend, Shmuel. The power of friendship, however, is ultimately shown to overcome racism.

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The theme of racism is central to the novel. In it, the naive young Bruno moves with his family from Berlin to a house just outside "Out-with," or Auschwitz, and becomes curious about the people living on the other side of the barbed wired fence nearby. When he asks his sister about them and why they have to be kept apart, she explains that they have to stay with their "own kind." She states that they need to be:

With the other Jews, Bruno. Didn't you know that? That's why they have to be kept together. They can't mix with us.

A darkly comic conversation follows in which Gretel is unable to explain what it is that makes Jews different, just that they are.

Gretel's discussion of the Jews makes it clear that there is no rational basis for racism. The Jews have simply been designated a different, dangerous, and inferior race.

Bruno demonstrates the hollowness of racial categories as he forges a friendship with a young Jewish boy named Shmuel from Auschwitz. Bruno, who has not yet been indoctrinated with Nazi antisemitism, though he has imbibed notions of German superiority, can perceive the common humanity that he and Shmuel share.

The novel talks little about the specifics of Nazi antisemitism, preferring to leave racism's irrationality and cruelty on a universal level. We can debate this as a novelistic device, but we can't debate that Bruno's individual goodness of heart acts as an indictment of racial politics.

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This great novel is about an unlikely friendship between two boys across a racial divide. Bruno is German and the son of a high ranking military official. Shmuel is Polish, Jewish, and everything that the Nazi party stands against.

It is for this reason that the friendship between Bruno and Shmuel is forged with a fence between them. Shmuel is imprisoned in Auschwitz and Bruno is living a lonely existence in his new home, which happens to be adjacent to Auschwitz.

The theme of racism rears its ugly head with feeling when Shmuel is brought into Bruno's home as a servant. Bruno offers Shmuel some chicken, and when he is reprimanded, Bruno denies ever having seen Shmuel before, let alone being his friend. It is thanks to his intrinsic knowledge that he would get into trouble for having made a friend across the racial divide that forces Bruno to let Shmuel take the fall for this incident.

Despite the prevailing theme of racism, the story of Bruno and Shmuel ultimately tells us that friendship and loyalty are worth far more than racism. When Bruno decides to break into Auschwitz to help Shmuel find his father—a move that ultimately seems him killed in the gas chambers along with Shmuel—he proves that for him, it does not matter what his friend's racial background is.

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Racism is presented in the story as something that keeps people apart, both literally and figuratively. The wire fence that separates Bruno from Shmuel symbolizes the artificial barriers that the Nazis have constructed between the Germans and so-called "inferior races." The self-appointed "master race" is on one side of the fence; the race it regards as subhuman is on the other.

Bruno is too young and naive to understand any of this; he thinks that the concentration camp is all just some gigantic adventure playground. In Bruno's innocence we can see that no one is born a racist; people become racist due to outside influences, usually through the warped values instilled in them by their parents. And Bruno's parents, like the fanatical Nazis they are, have tried their best to shape their son into someone who will one day come to regard himself as a member of a superior race that believes it has the right to murder those it deems inferior.

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John Boyne’s novel The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is about the relationship between two young boys, one a prisoner held under unspeakable conditions in a concentration camp. The other child is the privileged son of the camp’s commanding officer. The context of the story is entirely one of endemic racism. The Holocaust represents the greatest, most vile systematic manifestation of racism in history. The scale of tragedy and nature of the regime for which Bruno’s father serves, however, is revealed only very gradually as Boyne’s story progresses. Much of the first half of the novel, in fact, deals with the German family’s relocation from Germany to Poland, where Bruno’s father will command the most notorious of German death camps, Auschwitz. The theme of racism is introduced incrementally, as when Bruno is instructed by his teacher, Herr Liszt, on the innate superiority of Germany relative to other countries. Attempting to instill in his young charge the importance of their homeland and of knowledge of history, the teacher presses Bruno to become aware of his status: “the history of who you are, where you come from. Your family’s heritage. The Fatherland.”

The implication is clear: "You, Bruno, are a proud member of the most exclusive and privileged category of humanity on the planet, the Germans." It is not until Chapter 10 that the full extent of racism becomes clear. Bruno has his first encounter with Shmuel, the Jewish child with whom he will become friends and the most visible evidence of the distinction between those born of the Fatherland and those deemed racially inferior. Shmuel is dirty and lacking shoes and socks. On his arm is a band with the Star of David, the symbol of Judaism. When Shmuel explains that his family is Polish, Bruno responds with an innocent display of the racism with which he is being inculcated: “Germany is the greatest of all countries. . .We’re superior.”

Racism is prevalent throughout the second half of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Dinnertime conversations with Lieutenant Kotler and Bruno’s father further illuminate the role of racism, the former character arguably the most disturbing given the extent to which he has accepted Nazi doctrine, particularly ironic given later revelations of his background.

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