set of striped pajamas behind a barbed wire fence

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

by John Boyne

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Discussion Topic

The portrayal of prejudice and discrimination in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas through imagery and thematic elements

Summary:

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas uses imagery and thematic elements to portray prejudice and discrimination. The stark contrast between Bruno's privileged life and Shmuel's suffering in the concentration camp highlights the brutal reality of the Holocaust. Themes of innocence, ignorance, and the loss of innocence further expose the devastating effects of prejudice and discrimination on both individuals and society.

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How does Boyne demonstrate senseless prejudice in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas?

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas follows the perspective of 9-year-old Bruno. Through his innocence and repeated struggles to understand the principles of the Nazi regime, the author emphasizes the nonsensical nature of anti-Semitism.

One day when playing in the yard, Bruno falls off the tire swing and cuts his knee. Pavel, an old Jewish man who serves in the house, attends to his injury. Pavel reveals that he was once a doctor before he came to Auschwitz. Bruno does not believe him initially, as he cannot fathom how a doctor could end up in Pavel's circumstances. Maria, another person who works in the house, later confirms that Pavel was indeed a doctor.

Modern readers are aware that it is unjust and illogical to strip a physician, or any professional, of their credentials simply because they belong to a certain religious or cultural group (as was the case for Jews during the Holocaust). Bruno sees things more clearly than adults because of his innocence; he does not possess the intense prejudice that clouds the collective judgment of the Nazis.

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How does Boyne use imagery to depict prejudice and discrimination in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas?

I think that Boyne is able to use the mental picture to convey much about the condition of prejudice and discrimination in which Bruno finds himself, but also towards that which he pledges to overcome.  The concept of the fence, itself, is one such image.  Bruno is repeatedly told about the fence and how he must stay away from it.  Yet, by going to the end of it and finding Shmuel, Bruno has been able to appropriate an image of discrimination into one of friendship.  At the signt of the two trains, Boyne uses another image to bring out the condition of racism and discrimination that exists in Nazi Germany.  Bruno notes how there is a fundamental difference in both trains.  The train he is traveling on is radically different than the train that others are boarding with facial expressions of sadness and despair accompanying them.  This is another image to bring out how there is a difference that Bruno perceives to bring out the discrimination and racism that exists in his world.  The "pajamas" themselves become another image that Bruno appropriates to mean something other than what it does.  The uniform that people like Shmuel must wear is the ultimate identification of the discrimination and brutal racism inflicted by the Nazis.  Bruno sees them as "pajamas," something that he himself dons at the end of the novel, leading to its climax.  In this, Bruno has himself take the objects of racism and discrimination and made them something of solidarity and strength with his friend.  These images are what Boyne employs to bring out the condition that surrounds Nazi Germany and the people in it.

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What are some examples of imagery in Boyne's The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and their relation to the story?

Boyne's The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is filled with many examples of imagery. Bruno is a very curious little boy and questions the world he has been thrust into, which is so unlike the home he has left. Many of the observations provide the reader with details that allow the reader to infer where Bruno is living.

One good example of this is in Chapter Four, "What They Saw Through the Window." Gretel and Bruno see the following:

There wasn't any grass after the fence; in fact there was no greenery anywhere to be seen in the distance. Instead the ground was made of a sand-like substance, and as far as she could make out there was nothing but low huts and large square buildings dotted around and one or two smoke stacks in the distance. (21)

The details of this observation provide the reader with clues that could be combined with background knowledge to build an idea about where Bruno and Gretel may live. The smoke stacks in the distance are perhaps the most disconcerting piece of this observation, as the reader will later discover what is being burned.

The imagery of the story is also utilized to provide parallelism between Bruno and Shmuel. For example, throughout Chapter 12, Bruno and Shmuel discuss and compare their lives before they came to live in this new location. They are able to find several commonalities, thus leading the reader to the conclusion that the boys are not so different, even though there society would lead them to believe otherwise. Boyne even includes images in Chapter 12, a swastika and a Star of David. The boys believe these images provide them with even more evidence that they have many uncanny similarities.

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What are some examples of imagery in Boyne's The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and their relation to the story?

Since Boyne's The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is written from the perspective of a ten-year-old, the images represent how he perceives the world around him. For example, the following passage shows how Bruno applies the senses of sound and sight in order to judge differences between the soldiers and his father:

"Father was the centre of them and looked very smart in his freshly pressed uniform . . . and as Bruno watched from above he felt both scared and in awe of him. He didn't like the look of the other men quite as much. They certainly weren't as handsome as Father. Nor were their uniforms as freshly pressed. Nor were their voices so booming or their boots so polished" (42).

Notice that Bruno applies the sense of sight when he compares how nice his father looks to the disheveled soldiers. He also uses the sense of sound to associate his father's "booming" voice to his important role as a commandant. Bruno's perceptions are important because they are naïve and do not lead him to believe that his father is doing anything wrong in his line of work.

Another example of imagery is found in the description of Lieutenant Kotler. The fact that his uniform is clean and pressed, and that his black boots "always sparkle with polish," shows that he is concerned with keeping up appearances rather than doing his job (71). Not only that, Bruno cannot stand to smell Lieutenant Kotler because of the amount of cologne he wears. Thus, the sight of Lieutenant Kotler doesn't impress Bruno, and Kotler's character stinks as much as his cologne.

Finally, the symbol of the striped pajamas is a visual image that represents the Holocaust. When Bruno first meets Shmuel, he notices the pajamas and the cloth cap on his head. He also notices the following:

He wasn't wearing any shoes or socks and his feet were rather dirty. On his arm he wore an armband with a star on it. 

As time goes on, Bruno notices that Shmuel becomes skinnier, while also appearing sickly and hungry. These visual images might remind one of the pictures of Holocaust victims and the suffering they had to endure at the hands of the Nazis.

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How is the theme of prejudice and discrimination portrayed in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas?

John Boyne uses a series of techniques to explore the themes of discrimination and prejudice in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.

First, he writes the story through the eyes of Bruno, a pretty normal German boy, whose father is an SS Officer. Through doing this, Boyne is able to present the Holocaust through a set of innocent eyes, almost blind to the indoctrination and ideologies that underpinned the Holocaust shared by adults. Bruno finds it difficult to understand why certain people (Jews) are treated badly. The book goes further by exploring this discrimination through the friendship Bruno forms with Schmuel, the Jewish boy in the Death Camp. He has no understanding why this friendship should be forbidden, but knows that society is telling them that they should be enemies.

Another way the book explores the themes of prejudice and discrimination is by presenting a range of Nazi characters from particularly harsh ones (like Lt. Kotler) to Bruno's father who is portrayed as a kinder man just doing his duty. What the author does here is 'normalize' the horror of the Holocaust. This is an important idea because we think of the Nazis as murderous monsters who carried out these horrific acts. While all that is true, we tend to forget how normal many of these people probably appeared. They had dinners together, talked about life and music. While at the same time, they were murdering millions of people that they considered 'less human.'

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How is the theme of prejudice and discrimination portrayed in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas?

Boyne's novel clearly suggests that the Holocaust was the result of prejudice and discrimination.  Boyne does not take a complex path to this.  He asserts that if more individuals viewed reality as Bruno did, the Holocaust and events like it would cease to exist.  This becomes clear in the Author's Note:  

. . .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.

Boyne's way that seeks to "make sense of it all" suggests that when individuals shed "staring" at one another through "the fence" that is built through prejudice and discrimination, events such as the Holocaust do not need to happen.

It is a foundational premise, but one that Boyne reminds the reader of continually in the text.  These reminders are seen in the private realm and in the public domain.  When Bruno admonishes Gretel for treating Maria as merely a servant, it is reflective of how Bruno stands against prejudice and discrimination.  Bruno detests Lieutenant Kotler in part because of his savage treatment of Pavel and Shmuel, representative of prejudice and discrimination.  A large component of why Bruno and Shmuel get along so well is that they see one another as brothers, individuals who are not separated by the condition of prejudice and discrimination.   Boyne wishes Bruno's example to be modeled for all, as "nothing in the world" gets in the way of Bruno telling Shmuel that there is a lifelong friendship between them.  Prejudice and discrimination are elements that human beings can withstand if they view individuals as ends in their own right.  As Bruno walks with Shmuel to both of their deaths, it becomes clear that Bruno is willing to stand against these qualities until the very end.  Boyne makes clear that the prejudice and discrimination are viewed as the root causes of the Holocaust.  If individuals stand against these forces as Bruno did, there is a greater chance of stopping such atrocities. 

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Describe significant moments of prejudice in The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas.

To a great extent, the entire focus of the novel is one of the perils of discrimination.  Significant moments of such a practice abound.  Consider how Bruno understands Pavel's predicament, once a doctor and now a servant.  Bruno perceives that Pavel is treated differently because of prejudice and discrimination.  Bruno also recognizes that Shmuel is treated differently because of prejudice and discrimination.  He understands that Shmuel's mistreatment is because he is different, because he is perceived as different.  When waiting to board a train, Bruno sees that the train that he is boarding is different than the train that the "other group" of people across from him is boarding.  The train they are boarding looks sadder and fundamentally more uncomfortable.  Even the ending of the novel, one in which Bruno walks hand in hand with Shmuel to the gas chamber is one of discrimination as Bruno, German as can be, is herded into the gas chamber.  Bruno never quite articulates the condition of prejudice and discrimination that drives the narrative.  However, he understands fully that there is a condition that mistreats particular people and in standing against it, Bruno is making a statement for all people in the narrative and those reading about it to stand in solidarity with him.

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How does The Boy in the Striped Pajamas portray the theme of prejudice and discrimination?

John Boyne's The Boy in the Striped Pajamas tells the story of Bruno, a young boy who lives with his parents outside of Auschwitz. The story is told from Bruno's perspective, which is part of how Boyne highlights the theme of prejudice and discrimination.

From the first moment we meet Bruno, he is painted as a young boy without a clear grasp of what the adults around him are doing. When the family heads to Auschwitz, Bruno refers to the place as "Out-With," a clear indication he doesn't know where they're going or what the place represents.

When the family arrives at Auschwitz and Bruno begins to explore the grounds, he meets Shmuel, a young boy imprisoned in the camp. Bruno sees Shmuel as a boy in striped pajamas who gets to play outside, and he is jealous of Shmuel's life. Bruno does not see Shmuel as different or "other"; instead, he sees him as just like himself.

Toward the end of the novel, Shmuel smuggles an extra set of pajamas out for Bruno so that he can sneak into the camp to help locate Shmuel's father. Once he is dressed in the camp uniform, Bruno blends right in with the other children at the camp. He looks so much like Shmuel that there is no discernible difference between the two.

Through the eyes of children, the book explores how prejudice and discrimination are societal constructs rather than unavoidable realities of life. When left to their own devices, Bruno and Shmuel are not different. They are simply two people who want to enjoy their days and spend time together. As the adults around them age, they place themselves into boxes, making it easier to decide that one group is good and the other is bad. As the novel closes, Bruno enters a gas chamber, and none of the guards at the camp realize he is not a prisoner there. Once he is seen in the uniform, he is placed in the "bad" (in this case, Jewish) box and seen as someone whose life has no worth.

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How does The Boy in the Striped Pajamas portray the theme of prejudice and discrimination?

I tend to think that the theme of what it means to explore and delve into the theme of prejudice and discrimination is evident throughout the work.  Yet, it seems that Chapter 19 is the best example of how this theme is evident and becomes so large in understanding the narrative that Boyne develops.  When Bruno dresses like Shmuel, as the boy in the striped pajamas, it is evident that there is no difference between both boys.  They look exactly alike.  For Boyne, this becomes the critical element in the narrative.  It is here where the greatest delving into the exploration of prejudice and discrimination is evident.  In this case, the boys are exactly alike.  One is unable to tell them apart.  The labels of "German" and "Jewish" become moot at this point.  Prejudice and discrimination are seen to be nothing more than social constructs, arbitrary at best.  Shmuel remarks that it is “quite extraordinary” how much alike they look; it is “almost...as if they [are] exactly the same.”  Prejudice and discrimination are shown to be useless in terms of their validity.  It is at this moment, the moment where Bruno makes the strongest possible stand against prejudice and discrimination, where the greatest statement is made about what it means to explore the idea of prejudice and discrimination.

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How does The Boy in the Striped Pajamas explore the concept of persecution?

I think that Boyne looks at persecution from an individual standpoint.  In doing so, it is broadened out into a social one.  From this, the experience of the subjective or personal becomes applicable to the universal one. It makes sense that this is the perspective adopted.  Since Bruno is the one who is the center of the narration, the eyes of a child will only focus on persecution as they see it in their own reality.  In Bruno's mind, there is "something different" about the people who wear "the striped pajamas."  Persecution does look different when Bruno notices how small Schmuel's fingers are and it does resemble the sense of hurt when Bruno remains silent while Schmuel is abused.  Bruno never makes any sweeping indictments of the Nazis because most children do not do that.  Instead, Bruno recognizes persecution on a small level, with minor elements that do not alter the design of history or the narrative of the Holocaust, but help to bring these principles to the forefront of the reader.  It is through Bruno that we, the reader, understand the horror of persecution.  When Bruno sees the sadness in "Out- With" when he slips under the fence, we know what he experiences.  We also understand how Bruno's response to persecution should be our own when he tells Schmuel that he is his "best friend for life."  It is through the eyes of a child that persecution is explored and understood.  This makes the narrative more meaningful and something that resonates with effectiveness as a child has told us, the reader, what millions of adults never quite understood about persecution and the Holocaust.

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How does The Boy in the Striped Pajamas portray the theme of prejudice and discrimination?

There are numerous examples of the traumatic impact of prejudice and discrimination in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. But one of the most significant—and disturbing—comes in the shocking treatment meted out to Pavel.

Before being sent to Auschwitz, Pavel was a doctor. But now he works as a servant for Bruno and his family at the commandant's house. As a Pole, Pavel is regarded by the Nazis as racially inferior. As far as they're concerned, this gives them the right to treat him however they please.

A prime example of this attitude comes when Pavel accidentally empties a bottle of wine onto Lieutenant Kotler's lap at dinner. Pavel didn't mean to do it, but the consequences are the same as if he had. Though it is never explicitly spelled out in the story, it seems that Kotler savagely beats Pavel, probably to death.

Pavel had been kind to Bruno, tending to his injured knee when he fell off a swing. So Bruno cannot comprehend why someone as kind as Pavel should be subject to such savage treatment.

Whatever Kotler has done to Pavel, we can reasonably infer that it's not pleasant, that it involves violence, and that it has had a traumatizing effect on Bruno. Too young to understand the dangers of racial prejudice and discrimination—too young even to understand what they mean—Bruno can only respond to Kotler's brutality with tears.

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