The protagonist of the book, Liesel is also its moral center. Having lost her father because of his Communist sympathies, and soon thereafter her brother and mother, she understands the pain of loss, and these experiences inform her actions and attitudes towards the other characters. When she first comes to live with her foster family, the Hubermanns, Liesel has a hard time trusting or allowing herself to be vulnerable and is characterized more by defensiveness than compassion. But as her foster family and new friends treat her with kindness and gentleness, she opens herself to the pain of others, while learning to express and transform her own pain. Liesel not only cares about specific people in her life such as Hans, Rudy, and Max, she cares about justice in general, and feels frustrated and angry at the injustices perpetuated by Hitler and war. Liesel’s early experiences with loss motivate her, and she is able to channel her anger to stick up for herself as well as others, as when she beats up a classmate for making fun of her, then later protects him when he is hurt at the bonfire.
As she matures, Liesel realizes that most everyone in her life has experienced loss and pain, and she reevaluates people she initially considered weak, such as Ilsa Hermann, with this new understanding. Even though she is a child, Liesel questions the status quo, and creates a moral system for herself rather than blindly following what society dictates. She is motivated both by a strong sense of guilt and a strong ideal of justice. The power of language is a major theme for Liesel, especially as she matures and becomes a more critical thinker. Liesel comes to understand that language can be both a dangerous weapon of control, as with the Nazi propaganda, and a gift that enables her to broaden her view of the world. Through the books she steals, reads, and writes, she evolves from a powerless character to a powerful character who deeply empathizes with the voiceless.
Max, like Liesel, comes to the story fresh from experiencing great loss. He feels deeply guilty for leaving his family to save himself, an act he sees as a choice rather than a necessity to survive. He also feels ashamed of the burden he places on the Hubermanns since he knows he’s putting them in serious danger by being in their home. He is often conflicted between his desire to stay alive and his wish to make life easier for the Hubermanns by leaving, but ultimately he knows leaving would likely mean his death. Despite everything, his wish to live is strong, and he fights to stay alive against the cold and malnourishment and illness as he hides out.
In fact, that fighting spirit defines Max’s character to a great degree. As he lives isolated in the Hubermann’s basement, he imagines literally fighting Hitler and countless Germans, and even as he’s pummeled in his imagination he struggles on. We also learn that he used to fight a boy in his neighborhood, and though he rarely won, he never gave up. Later he is led to the labor camp at Dachau, and though we don’t see his experiences there, there’s little doubt that he still had to fight to stay alive. The only time Max seems not to be fighting is when he is with Liesel. In those instances he is suddenly very soft and kind.
If Liesel is the novel’s moral center, her foster father, Hans, is its heart. Generous, kind, and patient, Hans is immediately sympathetic, and remains that way to the end. As a father figure to Liesel, he represents paternal self-sacrifice and the wisdom of experience. The few occasions when Hans is strict or harsh with Liesel, he is acting not out of anger but because he wants to protect her and teach her something. With his insistence on education and self-determination, he is the opposite of the paternalistic leaders of the town and country, who infantilize citizens rather than allowing them to think for themselves. Hans initially seems quite passive about his life. He has no particular ambitions and goes where circumstances propel him. Yet Hans is clearly not weak or cowardly, as he is one of the few characters who directly challenges Hitler’s regime. He is guided by his conscience, and suffers greatly when he feels he has acted in error. He cannot stand to see others in pain, and at times this sense of empathy causes him to put himself and his family in jeopardy. But his acts of kindness are rewarded at other times. By the end of the novel, Hans has made peace with his life and his fate, and accepts his death gracefully.
Rudy is kind and loyal, specifically when it comes to Liesel. He clearly cares about her, and he often sticks by her side and tries to protect her if necessary. When Viktor Chemmel begins berating Liesel, Rudy tells him to leave her alone, and when Viktor tosses Liesel’s book in the river, Rudy doesn’t hesitate to dive in after it, not because it holds any value to him but because he knows it’s important to Liesel. But Liesel isn’t the only character he tries to protect. His troubles in the Hitler Youth start when he intervenes to help Tommy Müller, whose ear problems make him unable to hear the marching orders. Rather than stay quiet, however, Rudy helps his friend, or at least tries to, and never shies away from protecting others because he’s worried about being punished or hurt himself.
In several ways Rudy is also representative of a typical teenager, and he shows that even in extraordinary circumstances people will continue to have rather ordinary concerns. Although there’s a war going on, his main interest is usually soccer or winning races. His conflicts in the Hitler Youth have nothing to do with ideology; they’re simply about the fact that he and Franz Deutscher don’t get along. At first he steals because he’s hungry, but he keeps doing it because he gets a thrill out of it. Everything about him suggests youthful innocence about the world, until his father is drafted. Once that happens, his character undergoes a dramatic shift. He becomes angry and somewhat withdrawn, and he begins to recognize the effects that political events have on people who are seemingly not involved. Even so, he never loses the kindness that made him friends with Liesel when she first arrived in Molching.
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