Literary Criticism and Significance
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas continues a literary tradition of exploring the evils of the Holocaust through the eyes of a child. In the same vein as Jerry Spinelli's Milkweed, this novel contrasts the dichotomy of man's inhumanity to man with man's capacity to care and love.
Author John Boyne has said that he believes that the only way he could write about the Holocaust respectfully was through the eyes of a child. He does so masterfully in this novel, demonstrating how Bruno and Shmuel maintain the innocence of their childhood in spite of what is happening around them. Boyne acknowledges that the only people who can truly comprehend the horrors of the Holocaust are those who lived through it. Boyne's novel gives a voice to the victims, especially the millions of innocent children who perished at the hands of the Nazis.
What makes The Boy in the Striped Pajamas so effective is that rather than examining the big picture of the Holocaust and its atrocities, the novel instead focuses on individual relationships and gives readers an intimate portrait of two innocent boys seeking the same thing: friendship. Readers are cautioned, however, that even though the novel is about two nine-year-old boys, the novel is most definitely not geared toward this age group. The novel's devastating conclusion is not only beyond children's ability to comprehend but also in defiance of their worldview.
Interestingly, Boyne classifies The Boy in the Striped Pajamas as a fable, a story that bears a moral lesson. This is a fitting category for the novel as it imparts many lessons. Among these valuable lessons, perhaps the most significant is the final sentence which suggests that "nothing like that could ever happen again. Not in this day and age." It forces readers to confront the grim reality that hatred, discrimination, and intolerance remain potent forces in the world. Readers consequently consider their own prejudices and actions, perhaps wondering if they have been guilty of mistreating others. Additionally, some may even consider what their role might have been in the Holocaust: bystander, resister, perpetrator, or victim.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas has received much acclaim. The novel won two prestigious awards in Boyne's native Ireland: Children's Book of the Year and People's Choice Book of the Year. In addition, the book was short-listed for numerous awards, including the Ottakar's Children's Book Prize, the British Book Award, the Paolo Ungari Prize, and the Border's Original Voices Award. Additionally, the novel spent 80 weeks at number one in Ireland and topped the New York Times best-seller list. The film adaptation, released by Miramax in 2008, received many independent film awards and much critical praise.