set of striped pajamas behind a barbed wire fence

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

by John Boyne

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What is the conflict in The Boy In The Striped Pajamas?

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Despite being a relatively short novel, conflicts abound throughout The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. The story contains a solid mixture of both internal and external conflicts. One external and internal conflict that can be seen early on in the novel is the conflict that exists between Bruno and his father. What is amazing about this entire conflict is that Bruno's father is a relatively minor character. Bruno and his family have had to move to Auschwitz because his father is fairly high up in the Nazi political and military hierarchy. Bruno is forced to move away from a home he liked with friends he liked to a place that Bruno believes is a step down. Bruno struggles internally with honoring and supporting his father while at the same time harboring resentment toward him. Bruno's dad isn't ignorant of Bruno's feelings either, and the two characters have their moments of strife. One such moment occurs in chapter 5 when Bruno's father flatly states why he did what he did and heavily hints that Bruno should act similarly:

Do you think that I would have made such a success of my life if I hadn't learned when to argue and when to keep my mouth shut and follow orders? Well, Bruno? Do you?

Another good conflict to focus on that is mainly an internal conflict is the conflict that surrounds the friendship of Bruno and Shmuel. The two characters are indeed good friends that get along quite nicely, but as with any friendship, there are rough patches. Bruno is quite naive about what Shmuel is going through, and that puts some tension on the friendship; however, Bruno learns to recognize that being a good friend means standing up for each other. This is something that Bruno will fail to do when Kotler catches the two boys in the kitchen. Bruno is very quick to protect himself and abandon Shmuel, and Bruno feels horrible about it. He struggles to come to terms with his actions, and there is a definite sense of guilt about Bruno. Fortunately, Shmuel is quick to forgive, and the boys end up with an even stronger bond.

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In the novel, the conflict is majorly brought out by the protagonist, Bruno. The first instance of conflict is introduced in the first chapter. Bruno is distraught by the news of their sudden relocation plans from Berlin, due to his father’s new role in Auschwitz. Bruno does not want to leave his home; he likes it there, because the house is spacious and he can explore. He had also made friends there and his grandparents, of whom he was fond, resided there. The conflict is heightened when they arrive at their new residence in Auschwitz. The house is not only in poor condition, with cobwebs and chipping paint, but is also small and isolated.   

The main conflict is encountered after Bruno meets Shmuel, who is in the concentration camp adjacent to Bruno’s new home. The two, oblivious of the social order dictating how the Nazis and Jews should interact, establish a close friendship. Bruno sympathizes with Shmuel and often brings him food. He decides to help Shmuel find his father, who had disappeared for a few days, and it is at this point that the two meet their demise in a gas chamber within the concentration camp.

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The main conflict throughout the novel involves Bruno's inability to maintain a typical friendship with Shmuel because of their different backgrounds and situations. Bruno is a naive young boy whose father is a leading Nazi officer in charge of the Auschwitz concentration camp. In contrast, Shmuel is an imprisoned Jewish boy living inside the concentration camp. Despite the large fence separating them and their drastically different lifestyles, Bruno and Shmuel get along and enjoy routinely talking to each other. Their conflict can be viewed as individual preference versus society's expectations. Although Bruno and Shmuel are of different ethnicities, and Bruno is forbidden from speaking to Shmuel, the two boys become close friends. As the novel progresses, Bruno continues to disobey his father's orders by meeting up with Shmuel on the fence. Eventually, Bruno sneaks under the Auschwitz fence and attempts to help Shmuel find his father. Unfortunately, both boys lose their lives but die holding hands in an expression of their love for each other.

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Many different conflicts emerge from Boyne's work.  Most of them start with Bruno.  The exposition details how Bruno is in conflict in with the world around him.  He does not want to leave Berlin and does not want to do what his family, especially his father, wants to do.  In this demonstration, an initial conflict is evident.  Conscious or not, Bruno finds himself in conflict with the changing attitudes around him.  Bruno is in opposition to the Nazi lifestyle that advances one group of people at the cost of another.  At the train depot where Bruno notices different modes of reality in the same instant, it becomes clear that Bruno is in conflict, or at least, not in synchronicity with the world around him.  

Over the course of the narrative, Bruno continues to be in conflict with life at "Out- With."  He is not able to accept the propaganda lifestyle that Gretel does and cannot abide by his father's demands.  His friendship with Shmuel causes some of the greatest conflict in terms of forcing Bruno to stand up for what is right and for what he believes.  This involves Bruno feeling bad when Kotler beats up Shmuel and promising him that he will never abandon him.  Naturally, Bruno feels conflict when he has to embark on their "great adventure" and actually see what life on the other side of the fence is actually like.  Yet, Bruno does not cave into his fears.  Rather, he overcomes this conflict by bravely walking with Shmuel to their deaths in the name of what is right and honorable.

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The Conflict in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas centers around Bruno's feelings.  At first, he is content to pass the time by interacting with Schmuel despite believing him to be inferior. He doesn't feel badly about eating in front of him because the way that Jews are viewed is the way it has always been in his mind.  His father, he believes, is doing an important job in running the camp.  However, as he spends more time with Schmuel across the fence, he begins to see the boy beyond the label, and it is here that the conflict really begins to unfold.  Bruno begins to question why Schmuel can't come out from behind the fence, why his head is shaved, why he can only wear the "striped pajamas," and, on a deeper level, why he and Shmuel are any different at all.  At first, he is so conflicted within himself that his actions lead to a beating for Schmuel when he denies having told him that he could eat in the main house, but as the novel develops, he develops a feeling of kinship and likeness to Schmuel - their friendship has developed despite Bruno's upbringing and the environment.  Schmuel is just his friend, another boy who is more like him than different from him.  It is this resolution of the conflict within himself that leads to the fateful decision to help Schmuel at the end of the novel.  In the context of larger society, the book begs the question:  Is hatred taught - the conflict of nature vs. nurture with regard to prejudice and intolerance.

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