The Book Thief Themes
The main themes in The Book Thief are death, friendship, and war.
- Death: Liesel’s brother dies at the beginning of the novel, and his death is followed by those of the millions of Jews killed in the concentration camps. Death proves capricious, both in the victims it claims and the stories it tells.
- Friendship: Liesel’s friends provide support, entertainment, and love during the difficult years of the war. With their help, Liesel finds the strength to stand up to bullies and show compassion.
- War: War creates moral ambiguity and forces people to make difficult choices about survival, compassion, and personal beliefs.
Last Updated on May 16, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 772
Death is not only the personified narrator of the story; it is also a prevalent theme. The novel is set during World War II, when death continuously intersected with many of those who lived in Germany. Millions of Jews died in the concentration camps, German soldiers died fighting for their country, and many innocent German civilians died as a result of the Allied bombings on their cities. Death also personally touches every character in the story. Liesel’s brother dies in her arms, and her parents are most likely killed in concentrations camps. Max’s entire family is probably killed in those same camps, and Max spends a desperate struggle fighting against potential death for the entire novel. Neighbors to the Hubermanns have sons, brothers, fathers, and uncles who die in the war, just as the Hubermanns’ son is also out fighting for the Nazi cause. Hans has friends in the army who die while fighting with him, and he himself narrowly avoids dying while out on patrols. Death can come at any time, in any number of ways, and is a ruthless and inevitable part of war and of life.
In The Book Thief, friendship often arises in atypical places; war throws people together who would have never had a chance to get to know one another otherwise. Liesel is led to Hans and Rosa Hubermann, who not only take care of her and love her, but become her genuine friends. Max also becomes friends with the Hubermanns and with Liesel, developing ties that are crucial to his survival and enrichment throughout the story. Liesel develops an unlikely friendship with the mayor’s wife. Books are a common thread that ties these friends together. Perhaps the most endearing friendship of the novel is that between Rudy and Liesel; they are best pals and often do risky and daring things for one another. Friendship occurs right in the middle of the chaos and despair of war, and it is friendship that makes the circumstances of living amid the atrocities of war survivable.
Because the novel is set during World War II, war weaves its way into all of the characters’ lives. It is the driving force that brings them together, that tears them apart, that makes their lives dangerous, and that forges their characters through the heat of its intense fire. This novel gives a unique perspective on World War II: readers see events from the viewpoint of Germans caught right in the middle of Germany. Readers also encounter people complicit with the Nazi regime and agenda, people mildly aware but unsure, people solidly opposed to the events, and people caught in the middle of everything, swept into the chaos that war brings. Perhaps most important, readers are able to glance at the moral ambiguities and gray areas that created by the war and to see the German people’s different reactions to the atrocities that were occurring. The story is told from the viewpoint of a child, and it is interesting to see how the war impacts the youngest German generation and how it brought out key character traits not normally expected in a child. Acts of courage, daring, integrity, friendship, and kindness are made all the more significant because of the presence of war in the lives of these people. As each character deals with the personal impact of war on their own life, their character traits solidify and strengthen, helping them and others to survive.
Family is a theme that runs throughout the novel, even from the opening scenes as readers meet Liesel on the train with her brother and mother. Liesel is torn from her birth family and placed in a surrogate situation; nonetheless, she finds joy and friendship in this substitute family. It is her relationship with Hans and Rosa that guides her through the despair of losing her mother, father, and brother, and helps her adjust to all of the changes going on in her life. As Max enters the equation, a little family is formed, bringing joy to all of their lives. Max, feeling guilty for the loss of his family, must struggle against his grief and frustration. He battles with his despair at not having done more to help his family and with his lone survivor status. He responds to the Hubermanns well, taking comfort in their little family and drawing strength from them. So, even though the families represented in this book are not of the traditional variety and seem thrown together ad hoc, priceless familial bonds are nonetheless formed that provide strength through the hard times of war.