In The Book Thief, color is linked to the complex and ambiguous nature of human morality. Colors are associated with beauty, goodness, and positivity in the book, but are also associated with tragedy, evil, and atrocity. As such, color reflects the diverse spectrum of human behavior and emotion.
This novel is set during a terribly dark time in history, in Nazi Germany during World War II. Color symbolically offers some brightness and beauty against the backdrop of dark historical tragedy and suffering.
This idea is discussed by the narrator, Death, who uses colors to distract himself from the dismal nature of his work. Throughout history, Death has witnessed tragic deaths, wars, and terrible acts of human cruelty. He relies on the beautiful, captivating colors of the world to endure his grueling job:
I do try to enjoy every color I see—the whole spectrum. A billion or so flavors, none of them quite the same, and a sky to slowly suck on. It takes the edge off the stress.
Although there are terrible things in the world, the existence of colors and beauty "takes the edge off," according to Death. Colors don't eliminate the suffering in the world entirely, but they do diminish the impact as they offer a distraction.
There are a few examples of the beauty of colors in The Book Thief, including when Liesel encounters a collection of beautiful books:
Books everywhere! Each wall was armed with overcrowded yet immaculate shelving. It was barely possible to see the paintwork. There were all different styles and sizes of lettering on the spines of the black, the red, the gray, the every-colored books. It was one of the most beautiful things Liesel Meminger had ever seen.
These books stand out to Liesel, offering some vibrancy and excitement in her life. The color of the books stands out against the darkness of her experiences, which might represent the comfort books can offer people in dark times.
Conversely, colors also represent the darkness and evil of the world, such as the death and destruction caused by World War II. Consider the following passage:
The sky was like soup, boiling and stirring. In some places, it was burned. There were black crumbs, and pepper, streaked across the redness … Then, bombs.
In this extract, the colors have a disheartening impact on the reader. These colors are not beautiful or vibrant, but instead represent the violence and death caused by the war. Significantly, these colors (red and black) are part of the Nazi flag, linking them to the devastation caused by the political party and ideology during World War II.
Overall, color is a complex symbol in this book. While colors can be associated with beauty, kindness, and goodness, they can also be associated with the worst aspects of humanity, such as cruelty and violence. Death considers the diverse, contradictory nature of humanity in the following passage:
The human heart is a line, whereas my own is a circle, and I have the endless ability to be in the right place at the right time. The consequence of this is that I'm always finding humans at their best and worst. I see their ugly and their beauty, and I wonder how the same thing can be both.
The use of color in The Book Thief invites the reader to consider the nuanced and complicated nature of humanity, which can paradoxically be both beautiful and ugly at the same time.