set of striped pajamas behind a barbed wire fence

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

by John Boyne

Start Free Trial

How does The Boy in the Striped Pajamas portray the theme of prejudice and discrimination?

Quick answer:

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a story about identity and prejudice told from the perspective of a young boy. In the beginning, Bruno does not understand why his family left their home and moved to somewhere he calls Out-With. When he arrives at Auschwitz, he discovers Shmuel, a boy who is also new to camp life. Despite being separated by ethnicity and living in completely different environments, Bruno sees Shmuel as someone he can play with and talk to. The two boys become fast friends, but there are some adults around them who see them differently. As they get older, they begin to see these differences as more important than all of the similarities they share together.

Expert Answers

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

John Boyne's The Boy in the Striped Pajamas tells the story of Bruno, a young boy who lives with his parents outside of Auschwitz. The story is told from Bruno's perspective, which is part of how Boyne highlights the theme of prejudice and discrimination.

From the first moment we meet Bruno, he is painted as a young boy without a clear grasp of what the adults around him are doing. When the family heads to Auschwitz, Bruno refers to the place as "Out-With," a clear indication he doesn't know where they're going or what the place represents.

When the family arrives at Auschwitz and Bruno begins to explore the grounds, he meets Shmuel, a young boy imprisoned in the camp. Bruno sees Shmuel as a boy in striped pajamas who gets to play outside, and he is jealous of Shmuel's life. Bruno does not see Shmuel as different or "other"; instead, he sees him as just like himself.

Toward the end of the novel, Shmuel smuggles an extra set of pajamas out for Bruno so that he can sneak into the camp to help locate Shmuel's father. Once he is dressed in the camp uniform, Bruno blends right in with the other children at the camp. He looks so much like Shmuel that there is no discernible difference between the two.

Through the eyes of children, the book explores how prejudice and discrimination are societal constructs rather than unavoidable realities of life. When left to their own devices, Bruno and Shmuel are not different. They are simply two people who want to enjoy their days and spend time together. As the adults around them age, they place themselves into boxes, making it easier to decide that one group is good and the other is bad. As the novel closes, Bruno enters a gas chamber, and none of the guards at the camp realize he is not a prisoner there. Once he is seen in the uniform, he is placed in the "bad" (in this case, Jewish) box and seen as someone whose life has no worth.

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

I tend to think that the theme of what it means to explore and delve into the theme of prejudice and discrimination is evident throughout the work.  Yet, it seems that Chapter 19 is the best example of how this theme is evident and becomes so large in understanding the narrative that Boyne develops.  When Bruno dresses like Shmuel, as the boy in the striped pajamas, it is evident that there is no difference between both boys.  They look exactly alike.  For Boyne, this becomes the critical element in the narrative.  It is here where the greatest delving into the exploration of prejudice and discrimination is evident.  In this case, the boys are exactly alike.  One is unable to tell them apart.  The labels of "German" and "Jewish" become moot at this point.  Prejudice and discrimination are seen to be nothing more than social constructs, arbitrary at best.  Shmuel remarks that it is “quite extraordinary” how much alike they look; it is “ if they [are] exactly the same.”  Prejudice and discrimination are shown to be useless in terms of their validity.  It is at this moment, the moment where Bruno makes the strongest possible stand against prejudice and discrimination, where the greatest statement is made about what it means to explore the idea of prejudice and discrimination.

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

How does The Boy in the Striped Pajamas explore the concept of persecution?

I think that Boyne looks at persecution from an individual standpoint.  In doing so, it is broadened out into a social one.  From this, the experience of the subjective or personal becomes applicable to the universal one. It makes sense that this is the perspective adopted.  Since Bruno is the one who is the center of the narration, the eyes of a child will only focus on persecution as they see it in their own reality.  In Bruno's mind, there is "something different" about the people who wear "the striped pajamas."  Persecution does look different when Bruno notices how small Schmuel's fingers are and it does resemble the sense of hurt when Bruno remains silent while Schmuel is abused.  Bruno never makes any sweeping indictments of the Nazis because most children do not do that.  Instead, Bruno recognizes persecution on a small level, with minor elements that do not alter the design of history or the narrative of the Holocaust, but help to bring these principles to the forefront of the reader.  It is through Bruno that we, the reader, understand the horror of persecution.  When Bruno sees the sadness in "Out- With" when he slips under the fence, we know what he experiences.  We also understand how Bruno's response to persecution should be our own when he tells Schmuel that he is his "best friend for life."  It is through the eyes of a child that persecution is explored and understood.  This makes the narrative more meaningful and something that resonates with effectiveness as a child has told us, the reader, what millions of adults never quite understood about persecution and the Holocaust.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

How does Boyne highlight the traumatic impact of prejudice and discrimination in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas?

There are numerous examples of the traumatic impact of prejudice and discrimination in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. But one of the most significant—and disturbing—comes in the shocking treatment meted out to Pavel.

Before being sent to Auschwitz, Pavel was a doctor. But now he works as a servant for Bruno and his family at the commandant's house. As a Pole, Pavel is regarded by the Nazis as racially inferior. As far as they're concerned, this gives them the right to treat him however they please.

A prime example of this attitude comes when Pavel accidentally empties a bottle of wine onto Lieutenant Kotler's lap at dinner. Pavel didn't mean to do it, but the consequences are the same as if he had. Though it is never explicitly spelled out in the story, it seems that Kotler savagely beats Pavel, probably to death.

Pavel had been kind to Bruno, tending to his injured knee when he fell off a swing. So Bruno cannot comprehend why someone as kind as Pavel should be subject to such savage treatment.

Whatever Kotler has done to Pavel, we can reasonably infer that it's not pleasant, that it involves violence, and that it has had a traumatizing effect on Bruno. Too young to understand the dangers of racial prejudice and discrimination—too young even to understand what they mean—Bruno can only respond to Kotler's brutality with tears.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on