What is the message of the novel The Boy in the Striped Pajamas?

The message of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is that we are all more alike than we are different. The innocent friendship of the Jewish boy Shmuel and the Nazi's son Bruno, set against the horrific backdrop of the Holocaust, highlights the fact that divisions between people are arbitrary. This book also comments on people's ability to rationalize evil actions committed against "other" people. Bruno's family rationalizes their own participation in the Nazi regime—they are responsible for countless deaths—but only feel the true atrocity of the gas chambers when their own son is killed by them.

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The Boy in the Striped Pajamas promotes a message of interpersonal compassion, friendship, and tolerance. It further suggests that the mistakes of one generation need not taint or be extended to the children of the next generation. The innocence and ignorance of children may keep them from forming discriminatory beliefs and acting violently, those qualities cannot save them from violent practices that others inflict upon them.

In John Boyne’s novel, Bruno’s parents apparently have shielded him from the harshest realities of war. The exaggerated innocence of Bruno’s character is necessary for the plot to advance to the tragic outcome that Boyne has given it. His parents do not explain what his father’s job is or what is happening at Auschwitz. However, they also fail to adequately restrict his movements so he is able to meet another boy, Shmuel, who is a prisoner.

Just as Bruno cannot understand who the “Fury” is, he is also ignorant of the importance that others attach to the differences between Jews and other Germans. For Bruno, loneliness and curiosity are adequate reasons to become friends with Shmuel. He apparently has not learned his parent’s biases and has not caught the militaristic fever that is sweeping his country.

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There are several messages of John Boyne’s novel The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. An important one is that, despite their differences, there are similarities between people. Another important message is that in an oppressive society, horrible things can happen to anyone, and so it is important for rational people to fight against tyranny.

The similarities of people, their differences notwithstanding, can be seen with the two boys, Bruno and Shmuel. When they first meet, the image the author presents is of two boys of about the same height and same age sitting cross-legged across from one another. They seem almost like two bookends facing one another, separated by a fence. Moreover, the boys discover that they share the same birthday and are both nine years old. Bruno says,

“I'm surprised, that's all. Because my birthday is April the fifteenth too. And was born in nineteen thirty-four. We were born on the same day.”

Shmuel thought about this. “So you're nine too,” he said.

“Yes. Isn't that strange?”

“Very strange,” said Shmuel. [...]

“We're like twins,” said Bruno.

“A little bit,” agreed Shmuel.

Of course, they are not like twins. The symbolism of the fence represents a very real difference between them. Shmuel is a prisoner, while Bruno is free to roam wherever he wants. However, by showing the two boys this way, the author is conveying how alike they are fundamentally. They find much in common and much to talk about even though they are different in many ways.

The other important message is of the unpredictability inherent in an oppressive and inhuman society. This message is also epitomized with the use of the fence and can be seen when Bruno crawls under it to help Shmuel. Bruno is caught up in the Nazis herding the Jews into the crematoria and, like Shmuel, Bruno is killed. This underscores how terrible things can happen to anyone in this kind of dictatorial regime. In this message, Boyne conveys that people need to fight against tyranny.

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The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a story of two boys who cross barriers in friendship. The fence in the story represents the divide between people that is too often formed. Ultimately, the message of the story is that beneath it all, we are all the same. Regardless of our color, religious preferences, sexual preferences, or gender, we are all the same and should be judged the same. 

In the book, the author makes the reader aware of the fences, or divides, that exist in our world by telling us the story of Auschwitz and how the Jews were treated.  These "fences” often contribute to hatred, violence, and even killings.  By telling the story of Bruno and Shumel’s friendship, the author encourages its readers to see others through the eyes of a child, because children are innocent and unaware of racism, sexism, and other biases that separate people from one another.

The author made Bruno and Shmuel very similar—they are both nine years old, and are both brought to a place against their will. Yet they are so different because Shumel is a Jew who is treated inhumanely by the Germans, and Bruno lives a life of luxury. Yet, throughout their friendship, neither of them feels that they are different from one another. When Bruno puts on the striped pajamas, Shmuel recognizes that “If it wasn’t for the fact that Bruno was nowhere near as skinny as the boys on his side of the fence, and not quite so pale either, it would have been difficult to tell them apart. It was almost (Shmuel thought) as if they were all exactly the same really." This is the pivotal moment in which Shmuel and the readers realize that we are all the same.

The only thing that makes us different is what’s on the outside. Bruno recognizes what his grandmother had once told him: “You wear the right outfit and you feel like the person you’re pretending to be, she always told me. I suppose that’s what I’m doing, isn’t it? Pretending to be a person from the other side of the fence." In wearing the striped pajamas, Bruno has shown his father that his child and the children behind the fence are no different from one another. Bruno has shown us that despite our ability to compare ourselves to others, we are no different from one another.

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