set of striped pajamas behind a barbed wire fence

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

by John Boyne

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How is the theme of friendship and family portrayed in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas?

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The theme of innocence is shown in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas to be a force that can withstand the horrors of experience, proving to be a transformative quality to demonstrate what can be in the face of what is.

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The theme of friendship and family is best embodied through Bruno.  Throughout the narrative, Bruno believes that the inclusiveness intrinsic to family is not merely limited to biological constraints.  Bruno seeks to emulate a spirit of inclusion to people who might not be represented in the genetic condition of family. Bruno's empathy is what makes family a universal condition that can be applied to as many people as possible.  Within this, one sees that friendship is an essential component of Bruno's universalized vision of family.  Accordingly, one sees a collapsing of both concepts into a universal sense of being where as many people as possible are acknowledged.

Bruno's universal notion of family involving friendship to all can be seen early on in the narrative.  One such way is in how Bruno treats Maria.  In hearing Maria's narrative, Bruno realizes that she is one “with a life and history all of her own.”  This spirit of friendship enables Bruno to know her more and see her as an ends in her own right and not a means to an end.  When Gretel rudely barks orders at Maria, Bruno admonishes his sister. This demonstrates how Bruno is able to expand his understanding of family through befriending another.  In acknowledging and validating the voice of "the other," Bruno is able to demonstrate a condition of being in the world that is inclusive through friendship and broadening the definition of family.

When the family moves to "Out- With," Bruno continues the same pattern of morphing friendship into family.  It is first seen with Pavel.  Bruno allows voice to emerge and complexity to identity to become evident in how Bruno understands Pavel.  He realizes that Pavel is more than simply someone who "peels vegetables and waits on tables."  This is where Bruno expands his understanding of family through respect and empathy, critical aspects of friendship.  Bruno exemplifies this tendency in his love for Shmuel.  Friendship and family merge in how Bruno approaches Shmuel.  Whether it is seeing one another as twins or brothers, honoring his commitment to cross the fence and help him, or when he walks with him, hand in hand, to the gas chamber, Bruno embodies a transcendent quality of friendship that moves it into a domain of family.  The descriptions offered in this represent how friendship and family move so close together for Bruno.  Boyne articulates this condition at different points in the narrative:  "...Despite the mayhem that followed, Bruno found that he was still holding Shmuel's hand in his own and nothing in the world would have persuaded him to let go.” In this, one sees how friendship and family are inextricable in Bruno's love for Shmuel.  When Bruno promises Shmuel that they are "best friends for life," one sees again how Bruno moves friendship and family closer to one another.  It is through the validation of another's experience and authentication of another's voice that Bruno is able to embody the theme of friendship moving into the realm of family.

The universality in which Bruno operates is deliberate. In a time period where so many were isolated from one another and narrowly defined friendship and family, Bruno exhibits a transformative behavior of what can be in the harsh face of what is.  Bruno's ability to embrace the theme of universality in which friendship and family are one in the same because of respect and validation proves to be an ideal of hope.

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Examine how the theme of innocence and experience is portrayed in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.

Traditionally, the theme of innocence and experience is shown in literature when a character loses their innocence in a world of experience. Boyne's depiction of Bruno in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas defies this. The theme of innocence is shown to be a force that can withstand the horrors of experience, proving to be a transformative quality to demonstrate what can be in the face of what is.

Bruno views the world through the lens of innocence.  The questions he asks in the midst of Holocaust reflects this.  For example, Bruno questions power through his understanding of innocence:  "What exactly was the difference?...And who decided which people wore the striped pajamas and which people wore the uniforms?”   Another example of this is in the way in which Bruno views human beings:  "In his heart, he knew that there was no reason to be impolite to someone, even if they did work for you. There was such a thing as manners after all."  In these descriptions of Bruno's thinking, one sees how experience does not have to replace innocence.  Bruno is a stark contrast to Gretel, who succumbs to the lure of popularity and social power that Nazism offered.  Bruno willingness to question the system and continually raise a voice of dissent represents the innocence with which Bruno views the world.  Experience is not necessarily a repudiation of innocence. Rather, experience through the lens of innocence can transform the world from what is into what can be, a theme of change that is intrinsic to the novel.

The innocence in which Bruno views the world is a part of his characterization. Bruno's continual inability to pronounce "Auschwitz" and The Fuhrer are representative of this.  Additionally, Bruno views the people around him with such an idealized notion of the good that his innocence raises questions, even when it does not intend to do so:  "My dad's a soldier, but not the sort that takes people's clothes away."  Another example of this questioning of the system can be seen in an exchange between father and son, as he is "unsure what Father meant by" the idea that the people in Out- With are "not people at all."  Bruno's innocence does not waver in the face of experience.  Boyne treats the theme of innocence as one powerful enough to withstand the terror of experience.  The transformative and idealized notion of innocence is strong enough to withstand that which comes with experience.

Certainly, the ending is one in which the theme of innocence and experience converge.  When Bruno's courage is seen in how bravely faces death in the name of innocent ideals such as friendship, brotherhood, and honor, one sees how Boyne has used innocence as a form of resistance.  The theme of innocence and experience is one viewed through the lens of change.  If individuals are able to view the world as Bruno does with innocence that empowers, one can face down the forces of experience that seek to keep others pinned down.  It is in this light where I think that the theme of innocence and experience is used to advance the cause of change and social justice in the novel:  "...only the victims and survivors can truly comprehend the awfulness of that time and place; the rest of us live on the other side of the fence, staring through from our own comfortable place, trying in our own clumsy ways to make sense of it all."  In this idea, Boyne makes clear that the theme of innocence and experience can "make sense" of what should in the face of what is.

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How is the joy of friendship portrayed in Boyne's The Boy in the Striped Pajamas?

In Boyne's The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Bruno is a typical boy who loves to play with his friends. His best friends in Berlin are Karl, Daniel, and Martin. What Bruno finds most joyful with these friends can be described in the plans he wants to fulfill in the following passage:

[The plans] included causing a lot of chaos, especially in a few weeks' time when school finished for the summer holidays and they didn't have to spend all their time just making plans but could actually put them into effect instead (8).

Unfortunately, Bruno must move with his parents to Auschwitz, and he becomes lonely without his friends. Bruno finds joy in a new companionship when he meets Shmuel, who lives in the concentration camp there. The friendship is different, however, because he can't make the same plans with Shmuel as he did with his other friends. Therefore, Bruno and Shmuel find joy in their friendship in non-traditional ways. First, they make plans to meet on certain days by the fence to talk. They may not get to play ball or tag with each other, but these meetings give each of them something to look forward to. They also bear each other's burdens by listening to each other. Bruno explains his friendship with Shmuel to his sister as though he had an imaginary friend, but the joy of it comes through as follows:

We talk about everything. . . I tell him about our house back in Berlin and all the other houses and the streets and the fruit and vegetable stalls and the cafes. . . and about Karl and Daniel and Martin and how they were my three best friends for life. . . He tells me about his family and the watch shop that he used to live over and the adventures he had coming here and the friends he used to have (157-158).

Even though the two boys don't have a way to play games together, they do find peace and joy confiding in each other. When the boys finally decide to dress Bruno up in "pajamas" so he can help Shmuel look for his father, both become excited, as shown in the following passage:

Both boys went home in high spirits that afternoon. Bruno imagined a great adventure ahead and finally an opportunity to see what was really on the other side of the fence before he went back to Berlin. . . and Shmuel saw a chance to get someone to help him in the search for his papa (199).

Finally, the boys both feel joy at a chance to be together on one side of the fence. Unfortunately, they die together in a gas chamber, but at least they first experience the joy of friendship during a very difficult time in their lives.

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Explain how the theme of friendship is portrayed in John Boyne's The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.

Shmuel and Bruno are two little boys uncorrupted by the brutal realities of the world around them.  In both fiction and in real life, nothing represents innocence like children; in fact, they are presumed to embody the notion of uncorrupted youth.  Two boys, left untouched by the prejudices of adults, are prone to form friendships irrespective of differences in ethnicity.  Bruno’s father, however, is the commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp in which Shmuel is a prisoner – a prisoner based solely upon his religion.  While Bruno regularly hears derogatory comments from Germans regarding Jews, he is unable to reconcile the negativity in those comments with the humanity he identifies in that other little boy on the side of the barbed-wire fence.  As the friendship between the two boys grows, Bruno finds that challenge increasingly difficult.  The Holocaust, of course, was one of, if not the greatest tragedy in human history.  For Bruno, the little boy he befriends in the striped pajamas – “and who decided which people wore the striped pajamas and which people wore the uniform?” – is just another little boy and one with whom he can forge a friendship.  As John Boyne’s novel, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, nears its end, the innocence is somehow still there.  Bruno cannot comprehend, even after all he has seen, that the world can be so cruel.  In that heartbreaking scene at the end, with Shmuel being corralled into the gas chamber along with other prisoners, Bruno cannot let go of his friend’s hand:  “You’re my best friend, Shmuel,” he said.  “My best Friend for life.”

That Bruno, who had donned the striped pyjamas of a Jewish prisoner in order to sneak into the camp, perishes along with Shmuel in the gas chamber while continuing to hold his friend’s tiny hand lends Boyne’s story an added dimension of sadness to an already horrific scenario.  The theme of friendship in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is demonstrated through the continued acts of kindness between the Bruno and Shmuel and by the expressions of love they express.  The innocence conveyed in the exchange between the two boys earlier in the novel as Shmuel describes the changes in his and his family’s life upon returning from school to discover his mother sewing yellow arm bands on his clothes – the yellow arm bands that identified Jews as such – and as Bruno describes the arm band on his father’s, the commandant of the concentration camp, uniform (“My father wears one too,” said Bruno.  “It’s very nice.  It’s bright red with black and white design on it”), that innocence and naivete is all too apparent.  All these boys see is each other: a friend.  Boyne’s novel is the story of that friendship, and its conclusion is unbearably sad.

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What are scenes in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas that illustrate the theme of friendship?

There are several scenes that illustrate the theme of friendship in the book. Most of the scenes take place between Bruno and his friend Shmuel, but there are also a few scenes between Bruno and Pavel, the prisoner who works in the kitchen of Bruno’s home.

Bruno forms a strong friendship with Shmuel, the boy in the striped pajamas on the other side of the fence at Auschwitz. Bruno comes to the fence to sit across from Shmuel and share stories about their families and their lives before the war. The reader gets a good picture of their growing relationship as we read the discussions between the two boys and picture two boys of similar size and the same age sitting on opposite sides of a fence. One boy is German, and the other is Jewish. One is a prisoner, and the other the commandant's son. Yet, in their youthful innocence, the boys do not understand the differences that would make their friendship taboo.

Although Bruno longs for his friends back in Berlin at the beginning of the book after he first moves to Auschwitz, the reader is never really given much insight into what those relationships were like. By comparison, the readers see much of the interaction between Bruno and Shmuel. Bruno nearly always remembers to bring his friend something to eat, because he understands that Shmuel is always hungry. He does not understand why that is, but he reaches out to Shmuel in friendship to help ease his hunger. He also agrees to help Shmuel find his father after the father goes missing. The reader understands what a fruitless task this will be, but it is a clear sign of friendship between the two boys. In fact, Bruno even tells his friend how much their friendship means to him and how he eagerly awaits him at the fence each day so that they can spend time together.

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What are three ways that the theme of friendship is reinforced in the film The Boy in the Striped Pajamas?

The theme of friendship in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas can be seen throughout the film.

From the film's exposition, Bruno underscores the importance of friendship.  He misses the friends that he has left behind in Berlin.  He never forgets the fact that while his father and his sister might be enjoying the new world of "Out- With," Bruno is lost without friendship.  The fact that Bruno does not waver in his commitment to friendship from the start of the film underscores the theme.  It helps to frame the work because it establishes  a significant way we get to know Bruno.

Another way that friendship is reinforced in the film version of Boyne's book is when Bruno acknowledges that he was not a good friend to Shmuel.  When Bruno witnesses Kotler beating Shmuel up for something that he did not do, Bruno remains silent.  He watches as his friend is abused.  Bruno acknowledges his mistake to Shmuel.  In doing so, he reaffirms the importance of friendship.  It has to be protected and when it is not, restoring it through forgiveness is essential.  Bruno shows this in his actions towards Shmuel.

The final moments of the film also reaffirm the theme.  Bruno and Shmuel set off on their great adventure.  However, the horrifying nature of what surrounds them becomes very clear.  Both boys are herded into the gas chamber.  Uncertainty and fear dominate their emotions.  However, both boys do not abandon one another.  They remain true to their friendship until the very end as they walk hand in hand towards their deaths. The theme of friendship is validated in how both boys do not sacrifice their loyalty to one another even in the face of terrifying fear.

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