set of striped pajamas behind a barbed wire fence

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

by John Boyne

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Chapter 17 Summary

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In the weeks after the discovery of lice in the children’s hair, Mother’s unhappiness with life at Out-With becomes increasingly noticeable. Bruno understands her situation perfectly because he remembers how lonely he had been before he had found Shmuel to talk to. Mother has no one, especially now that Lieutenant Kotler has been transferred away. One afternoon, Bruno overhears an especially vehement “conversation” between his mother and father. Mother declares that she “can’t stand it anymore,” and although Father argues that they “don’t have any choice” because of the gossip that will occur if he lets his family return to Berlin without him, Bruno gets the sense that his mother might get her wish. Surprisingly, he is not sure how he feels about this possibility.

Despite his initial dissatisfaction with the place, Bruno has grown used to his life at Out-With and looks forward to his “afternoon conversations” with Shmuel. Bruno knows, however, that he can do nothing to influence the choices his parents will make, so he resolves to accept whatever happens without complaint.

Nothing unusual occurs for the next few weeks. Father is absent most of the time, working either in his office or “on the other side of the fence,” while Mother takes “an awful lot more of her afternoon naps” and seems to need quite a few “medicinal sherries.” Gretel remains secluded in her room, while Bruno continues to enjoy his time with his “secret friend.”

Then one day, Father summons the children into his office and asks them if they are happy here at Out-With. Gretel replies that she is very lonely and misses her friends in Berlin. Bruno, on the other hand, says evasively that he “would miss people no matter where [he] went” and expresses the desire to return to Berlin only if the four members of the family can stay together. Father responds that although this will be impossible right now, as the Fury still has work for him to do, he is thinking about sending Mother and them back home, as he has come to the realization that this may not be “a place for children.” Unthinkingly, Bruno comments that there are “hundreds of children here . . . only . . . on the other side of the fence,” and Father, taken aback, asks him what he knows about “what goes on over there.” Knowing that there will be trouble if he says too much more, Bruno answers carefully, saying only that he can see the children from his bedroom window, “all wearing the striped pajamas.”

Father, suspicious, is spurred into action by Bruno’s words. The decision is made to send Mother and the children back to Berlin. Bruno is not as happy as he had thought he would be at this turn of events. He dreads having to tell Shmuel that he is leaving.

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