set of striped pajamas behind a barbed wire fence

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

by John Boyne

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Why is The Boy in the Striped Pajamas a fable?

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In order to convey his moral message, Boyne departs from the conventions of historical fiction to tell his story as a fable. This is his way of alerting the reader to the sense of unreality that pervades The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.

When writing the novel, Boyne doubtless knew that he would come in for criticism for presenting a friendship between a German boy and a concentration camp inmate that could never have taken place in the real world. Putting the story into a fable form is a way of heading off potential criticism as well as trying to get the reader to concentrate on the moral messages the author wishes to convey instead of historical detail, which, though important, is of secondary importance.

What we're left with is a tale that certainly packs a powerful emotional punch and puts across its message with great aplomb, but which is still recognizably a fable in that the two most important characters—Bruno and Shmuel—have an air of unreality about them.

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Author John Boyne subtitles his book The Boy in the Striped Pajamas as "a fable." He has decided to classify his story as a fable instead of historical fiction. He explains why in an interview with Teen Reads:

Considering the serious subject matter of this novel and the fact that I would be taking certain aspects of concentration camp history and changing them slightly in order to serve the story, I felt it was important not to pretend that a story like this was fully based in reality (which was also the reason why I chose never to use the word "Auschwitz" in the novel). My understanding of the term "fable" is a piece of fiction that contains a moral. I hope that the moral at the center of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is self-evident to readers.

We can understand how some events in the story, such as Bruno being able to join Shmuel on the wrong side of the fence and go with him to the showers, is not so realistic. Boyne drifts from reality in his fable in order to present the moral of the story. The story shows us the dangers of discrimination. Bruno's naive voice adds to the innocent quality of the fable, as we see the horrific events through the eyes of a child and must piece together the information based on his hints.

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Fables are characterized by a short story format and narrative which conveys some moral lesson. Though John Boyne's novel, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, is longer than most fables, the fact that it contains strong moral themes could push it into this genre. I would also argue that the story could be condensed down to its major plot points, creating a shorter narrative, while retaining the moral lessons.

The story itself is set in Germany during the Nazi regime. Nine-year-old Bruno and his family have just moved to a new place where he feels quite alone....

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One day while wandering outside, he finds a boy his very age sitting on the other side of a fence. It turns out that Bruno and his new friend Shmuel have quite a lot in common, but they are different in one major respect. Bruno is a free German boy and the son of a Nazi commandant, while Shmuel is a Jewish boy imprisoned in the Auschwitz camp. 

Their friendship offers some comfort but ultimately leads them both to death-- a strong warning about the evils of involving children in, or making them ignorant of, war. The focal point of the pajamas sends an equally strong message about not taking people at face value. When Bruno dons his friend's pajamas, did he instantly become a prisoner? Did he become something his father hated and sought to punish? Though the pajamas represent the different life circumstances the boys experience, they also symbolize the religious, social, and ethnic context of the Second World War.

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