Examine the significance of Bruno's quote when he asks, "Do I look handsome in my ringmaster's costume?"

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The escalating interpersonal dynamics between Bruno's immediate family and his extended one set the stage for Bruno's quote about his "costume."  At a point early in the narrative, Bruno recognizes that his idealized view of his father comes with some level of misgivings articulated by an equally beloved individual in Bruno's life.  Bruno's grandmother, his father's mother, has expressed her displeasure at the path of her son's career. While Bruno's father earnestly believes that his participation in the Nazi party is reflective of solid choices and pride, his grandmother holds such ascension as repugnant and the antithesis of what she has taught him.  The father's willingness to embrace the existing condition of his country's politics is cast against his mother's insistence of a type of conditional tense of what can or should be.  It culminates in an intense exchange between mother and son, pitting Bruno to observe two polarities from people he loves:

'Handsome?' asked Grandmother, leaning forward and staring at her daughter-in-law as if she had lost her reason. 'Handsome, did you say? You foolish girl! Is that what you consider to be of importance in the world? Looking handsome?'

'Do I look handsome in my ringmaster's costume?' asked Bruno, for that was what he had been wearing for the party that night-the red and black outfit of a circus ringmaster-and he had been very proud of himself in it. The moment he spoke he regretted it, however, for all the adults looked in his and Gretel's direction, as if they had forgotten that they were there at all.

Bruno's question is significant on a couple of levels.  The first is how Bruno sincerely wishes to bring consensus to those around him.  One of his most dominant traits is his willingness to bring people together.  Bruno wants people around him to feel comfortable and does not seek to alienate anyone.  When he asks his grandmother how he looks, it is a moment where he senses tension and stress and he wishes to deescalate the situation. Another aspect that is significant in Bruno's quote is the childish innocence with which he appropriates the world around him.  When he asks about how he looks in his "ringmaster's costume," it is clear that he really does not grasp the implications of what he is wearing and what it means.  He simply knows that he wants to divert the focus on tension, and generate a sincere sense of affection and love that his grandmother embodies.  In this moment, Bruno realizes a fundamental gap between what is external and what is real.  Boyne adds the detail that Bruno initially "felt very proud" of the uniform he wears.  However, he comes to recognize that there is something more underneath this exterior.  A similar understanding emerges at the end of the novel when he becomes "the boy in the striped pajamas."  It is an exterior that reflects challenge and difficulty, however also embodies what it means to be a good friend and an even better human being.

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