Examine how the theme of innocence and experience is portrayed in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.

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

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Traditionally, the theme of innocence and experience is shown in literature when a character loses their innocence in a world of experience. Boyne's depiction of Bruno in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas defies this. The theme of innocence is shown to be a force that can withstand the horrors of experience, proving to be a transformative quality to demonstrate what can be in the face of what is.

Bruno views the world through the lens of innocence.  The questions he asks in the midst of Holocaust reflects this.  For example, Bruno questions power through his understanding of innocence:  "What exactly was the difference?...And who decided which people wore the striped pajamas and which people wore the uniforms?”   Another example of this is in the way in which Bruno views human beings:  "In his heart, he knew that there was no reason to be impolite to someone, even if they did work for you. There was such a thing as manners after all."  In these descriptions of Bruno's thinking, one sees how experience does not have to replace innocence.  Bruno is a stark contrast to Gretel, who succumbs to the lure of popularity and social power that Nazism offered.  Bruno willingness to question the system and continually raise a voice of dissent represents the innocence with which Bruno views the world.  Experience is not necessarily a repudiation of innocence. Rather, experience through the lens of innocence can transform the world from what is into what can be, a theme of change that is intrinsic to the novel.

The innocence in which Bruno views the world is a part of his characterization. Bruno's continual inability to pronounce "Auschwitz" and The Fuhrer are representative of this.  Additionally, Bruno views the people around him with such an idealized notion of the good that his innocence raises questions, even when it does not intend to do so:  "My dad's a soldier, but not the sort that takes people's clothes away."  Another example of this questioning of the system can be seen in an exchange between father and son, as he is "unsure what Father meant by" the idea that the people in Out- With are "not people at all."  Bruno's innocence does not waver in the face of experience.  Boyne treats the theme of innocence as one powerful enough to withstand the terror of experience.  The transformative and idealized notion of innocence is strong enough to withstand that which comes with experience.

Certainly, the ending is one in which the theme of innocence and experience converge.  When Bruno's courage is seen in how bravely faces death in the name of innocent ideals such as friendship, brotherhood, and honor, one sees how Boyne has used innocence as a form of resistance.  The theme of innocence and experience is one viewed through the lens of change.  If individuals are able to view the world as Bruno does with innocence that empowers, one can face down the forces of experience that seek to keep others pinned down.  It is in this light where I think that the theme of innocence and experience is used to advance the cause of change and social justice in the novel:  "...only the victims and survivors can truly comprehend the awfulness of that time and place; the rest of us live on the other side of the fence, staring through from our own comfortable place, trying in our own clumsy ways to make sense of it all."  In this idea, Boyne makes clear that the theme of innocence and experience can "make sense" of what should in the face of what is.

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