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John Boyne’s 2006 novel The Boy in the Striped Pajamas portrays the friendship between two boys, one, the nine-year old son of a “normal” German family in cosmopolitan Berlin, the other a Jewish prisoner in a concentration camp. Bruno, the child whose family is on familiar terms with the leaders of Germany and, consequently, constitute the architects of the “Final Solution of the Jewish Problem,” is himself subject to ridicule for his diminutive size, emphasized in the following passage in which Bruno is taunted by his sister, Gretel and her friends:
“Bruno’s not nine, he’s only six,” said one particular monster over and over again in a sing-song voice, dancing around him and poking him in the ribs.
“I’m not six, I’m nine,” he protested, trying to get away.
“Then why are you so small?” asked the monster. “All the other nine-year-olds are bigger than you.”
In a society in which failing to match the Nazi image of the ideal Aryan subjects to imprisonment and death, the suggestion that Bruno’s size sets him apart from the “norm” is intended to convey the notion that ideologies regarding the “perfect” human have influenced his demeanor and made him more receptive to friendly overtures from less fortunate souls. Consequently, it is his encounters with Shmuel, the young concentration camp prisoner in “the striped pajamas,” that expose him to a greater humanity represented by one more destitute and disadvantaged than himself. The friendship between these two boys that ensues represents the book’s rare glimpse into the bonds that can be forged under the most adverse of circumstances. Recognizing the apparent incongruity involved in their relationship, Bruno at one point observes:
“We’re not supposed to be friends, you and me. We’re meant to be enemies. Did you know that?”
Similarly, Bruno’s cultural awakening becomes increasingly pronounced the more he visits with Shmuel and reflects on his friend’s plight in comparison with the treatment he receives from his sister and her friends, and from the comments he overhears from adults around him, including during the visit from “the Fury”:
“What exactly was the difference?” he wondered to himself. And who decided which people wore the striped pajamas and which people wore the uniforms?”
As the relationship between the boys grows closer, Bruno experiences uncertainty regarding the nature of the world he inhabits. His closest personal relationship is with a Jewish boy imprisoned for reasons conveyed through Nazi propaganda. His confusion and growing ambivalence regarding the role of the proper German in society begins to conflict with his friendship with Shmuel until he enters the camp disguised as a prisoner. In the following action by Bruno, the bond that has developed between two boys too young to judge each other and who have both experienced emotional assaults directed against their very being illuminates the only successful crack in the barrier dividing them:
He [Bruno] looked down and did something quite out of character for him: he took hold of Shmuel’s tiny hand in his and squeezed it tightly. “You’re my best friend, Shmuel,” he said. “My best friend for life.”
Bruno’s death in the gas chambers, having been mistaken for a Jew due to his disguise, demonstrated the limits of the bonds between two young boys in the midst of what was arguably the greatest crime against humanity in human history.
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