The Book Thief

by: Markus Zusak

Motifs

Books and writing

Books and writing figure prominently in the novel, and several characters’ lives are changed or affected in some way by one or the other. In fact, three lives are saved through books or writing. Max ironically receives the fake identity card that helps him survive in a copy of MKPF, and then he reads the book for cover as he travels to Molching. Hans’s life is saved when he is recruited to write letters rather than go into a deadly battle with his platoon. Lastly, at the end of the novel, Liesel escapes death in the bombing of Himmel Street because she is writing her life story. On the other side of this equation, Liesel realizes her mother is most likely dead when she fails to write back to Liesel. Writing also builds some of the relationships in the story. Max’s friendship with Liesel blossoms when he writes her a book on the pages of “Mein Kampf.” Liesel begins stealing books from Frau Hermann’s library after Frau Hermann gives her a letter apologizing for firing Rosa, and their friendship resumes after Liesel writes an apology for destroying one of the books. Finally, writing is the way Michael Holtzapfel explains his decision to commit suicide.

Darkness

At the beginning of the book, Death observes that people generally only notice color at dawn and dusk—in other words, the end and beginning of darkness. Darkness, symbolizing ignorance and despair, figures prominently throughout the book, from the dark basement of the Hubermanns where Liesel learns to read, bringing the light of knowledge into the darkness, to the dark closet where Max hides as he waits to leave Stuttgart. Because of Max’s profession, he creates darkness when he paints over peoples’ blinds for black outs, so in this sense the motif of darkness symbolizes safety, as well. Max can only look at the stars under cover of darkness. But, in a book about reading, darkness is an obstacle, and Liesel and the other characters must constantly fight the darkness if they want to see the words they read and write.

Stealing

The act of stealing appears repeatedly in the novel, beginning with Liesel taking the book dropped by the gravedigger right at the start. As the novel progresses, Liesel as well as others begin stealing more regularly. Liesel and Rudy join a band of boys who frequently take apples and vegetables from a nearby orchard. They also cause a delivery boy to fall on his bike and steal the food he was carrying. The most notable thefts, of course, are of books, earning Liesel the nickname of the “book thief.” Initially she just steals what she finds, like the book she takes from the book burning held in celebration of Hitler’s birthday. Later, the thieving becomes more deliberate as she starts taking books from Ilsa Hermann’s library. In the context of the novel, these thefts aren’t portrayed as crimes. Liesel and Rudy at first steal food because they’re literally almost starving, and eventually, stealing becomes an act of empowerment. The Hermanns decision to stop using Rosa to do their washing made Liesel feel helpless, and stealing from their library serves as a way for her to reclaim some small measure of power. Rudy similarly feels empowered by the act, which is why he steals to cheer himself up when he’s had a string of hard defeats. For both characters, stealing is a way of taking back some control over a world that is largely beyond their control.