In The Book Thief, what does Death mean by saying this: "You really want to know what I look like? Find yourself a mirror while I continue." What does it mean? You can find it on page 317, where he describes himself. What does he look like?

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Death's response to this question is metaphorical. He's not actually saying that if you look in a mirror, you'll see death and know how his face looks. Instead, the exchange goes deeper than physical characteristics. Death does two things by mentioning the mirror, and they are both very symbolic.

The first thing is to make him seem more like humans. He is saying that he is essentially a person, nothing more—he has thoughts, feelings, desires, and he is not an evil individual. At worst, he is neutral, just like the majority of humanity sees in themselves. He wants to rid himself of the villain stereotypes that surround him.

Secondly, Death says that we, on the other hand, are like him. Humans are the harbingers of doom and death; Death personified is just the agent which carries those actions out. By looking in the mirror, Death wants us to see that humans are causing the deaths of millions and are the more villainous characters.

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Death's personification in Markus Zusak's The Book Thief is purposeful. Not only is Death personified, by giving "him" human characteristics, Death's dialogue is meant to humanize "him" as well. By telling us to find a mirror to see what he looks like, Death is doing something many of us try to do.

First, Death is trying to negate the typical stereotypes associated with him. He is not a character dressed in robes and carry a sickle. Like many of us, Death is upset with the labels and images people associate and stereotype him with. By creating this connection, Death is stating that he is more like us than we realize.

Second, by telling us to grab a mirror, Death is telling us that he is (again) not much different than us. If we realize what Death is doing in the first part (above), he is only solidifying this idea when asking us to peer into a mirror. It is in the mirror that we are able to see aspects of Death in ourselves. We, as mankind, are responsible for much of the death and destruction around us. We evoke conflict, war, and genocide (like the text of the novel discusses). Outside of natural disasters, the blood of others is on our hands. We are Death.

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In this fascinating novel, Death is personified and directly addresses the reader.  This chapter is Death’s diary, and when he suggests that the reader look in the mirror he is reminding us that the human race is what caused the destruction.  During World War II, Death is feeling grumpy.  He is busy and overworked, because of the combination of war and the genocide of the Holocaust. 

Death is also grumpy because he feels misunderstood.  He notes that the reaper image of a robe and scythe is inaccurate (he only wears a hooded robe when it’s cold).  Death points out that he looks just like us. 

“On the other hand, you’re human.  You understand self-obsession.” (p. 317)

Death is reminding us that humans are the ones who are selfish and self-absorbed.  After all, it was humans that caused the war and the Holocaust.

Zusak, Markus. The Book Thief. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. Print.


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