Skip over navigation

The Book Thief

Markus Zusak

Themes, Motifs, & Symbols

Analysis of Major Characters

Prologue and Part One

Themes

The Power of Words

Words and stories hold tremendous value in the novel, which suggests that they are among the most powerful ways in which people connect with one another. Numerous examples of the ways words connect people turn up throughout the story. Learning the alphabet and how to create words is how Liesel and Hans Hubermann begin to develop their deep bond. Later, Liesel’s descriptions of the weather outside to Max also help to establish a bond between them. The greatest gift Max gives Liesel in the novel is words in the form of the “The Word Shaker,” the story he writes for her. In it, he suggests that words are the most powerful force there is, indicated by the fact that Hitler uses words and not guns or money or some other instrument to take over the world. The story essentially dramatizes the way Liesel has used words to create a refuge for herself in the midst of Nazism, and Max was able to find shelter in her words as well. Liesel later uses words to calm her neighbors during the air raids by reading from her book, and she gives Frau Holtzapfel some comfort with her private readings to her. Ultimately, it’s Liesel’s words in the book she leaves behind after the bombing that establish the emotional connection Death feels to her, and the novel itself creates a connection between the reader and the characters of the story.

Although the novel doesn’t explore the idea as deeply, it also makes clear that words hold the power to spread ideas, and it suggests that power can be dangerous. Again, Max suggests this notion in the book he leaves for Liesel when he says Hitler used words to conquer the world. It’s quite a statement given the amount of suffering we see as a result of Hitler’s control, and it shows that something as insubstantial as words can have drastic real-life consequences. The book burning Liesel witnesses also raises this idea. The Nazis burned books to keep people away from certain ideas, as if those ideas would spread like an infection. They clearly feared those ideas, like the one in the book Liesel steals that a Jew could be a hero, because they could undermine the Nazi ideology and therefore the party’s control over Germany.

The Kindness and Cruelty of Humans

The novel shows the varying degrees of people’s kindness and cruelty, from the slight to the most extreme examples. Among the small acts of kindness we see are Ilsa Hermann inviting Liesel into her library and Rudy giving the teddy bear to the dying pilot represent the kind end of the spectrum. On the other hand, we see similar acts of cruelty, such as Viktor Chemmel’s and Franz Deutcher’s treatment of Rudy. We also see far more dramatic examples of each. The Hubermanns commit a great act of kindness in hiding and caring for Max. They keep him alive at great risk to themselves and always treat him with the utmost respect. Notably, they care for him not only physically by providing food and shelter but also emotionally, making him feel like a part of the family. Liesel in particular is kind to Max, and the two develop a strong bond. Given the political context of the time, with hatred and violence against Jews being rampant, Max clearly finds Liesel’s kindness to be extraordinary. Meanwhile, the concentration camps linger unseen in the background of the book as the most extreme example of cruelty.

One scene in particular juxtaposes the two extremes of human behavior. In it, Hans Hubermann tries to help one of the Jews being marched through town on the way to Dachau. One particular Jewish man is weak and clearly suffering from hunger and exhaustion, and Hans impulsively rushes to him and gives him a piece of bread. It’s a small act, but it shows great kindness. It lets the Jewish man know that not only does Hans not hate him for being Jewish, but he also pities him and wants to ease his suffering. Immediately after, one of the Nazi soldiers mercilessly whips Hans and the Jewish man. The act is cruel to begin with, but its cruelty is heightened by the fact that it comes in response to Hans’s kindness.

The Dualities of Nazi-era Germany

From the moment Rudy paints himself black to emulate Jesse Owens, we see that characters often have two faces, or sides. While on the surface Rudy appears to be an ideal Aryan, so much so that the Nazis try to recruit him into a special training center, inside he emulates an African-American, which directly contradicts Nazi ideology. Max, meanwhile, does something like the reverse. When he travels from Stuttgart to Molching, he poses as a non-Jewish (or gentile) German, calmly reading MKPF, while on the inside he is a terrified Jew who finds the book abhorrent. The book Max later writes, which on the outside bears the cover of MKPF, but the pages of which have been transformed to Max’s story of resistance against the regime, also embodies this theme of duality.

The Hubermanns are part of the theme as well. Once they begin hiding Max, they lead double lives. They pretend to be law-abiding citizens to their friends and neighbors, while inside they harbor their dangerous secret. Hans instructs Liesel about this behavior after he slaps her for saying she hates Hitler in public, explaining that she can feel as she likes in the house, but in public she must behave in a certain way. In fact, duality is a theme of life in general for Liesel and Rudy. Both spend a great deal of time engaged in typical teenage activities like playing soccer in the street. But these moments are broken up with events like the parade of Jews through town, or the bombings that threaten and ultimately destory Himmel Street. The theme suggests that appearances don’t always reflect reality, and also signifies how, in the oppressive political climate of Nazi Germany, many people must express their humanity in secret, subversive ways. Naturally this theme also ties in with the theme of extreme kindness and cruelty that people are capable of, and the two often intertwine.

The Responsibility of the Living to the Dead

Because many of the characters in the novel have lost family members, many wrestle with the survivor’s guilt of continuing to live while their loved ones do not. Hans feels he owes his life to Erik Vandenburg, who indirectly saved him during World War I. As a result, he believes he is responsible for caring for Erik’s family in any way they need, and the offer Hans makes to Erik’s widow is the reason that Max Vandenburg seeks refuge with the Hubermanns in the first place. Max has his own feelings of responsibility. When he arrives at the Hubermanns’ house, he is so consumed by guilt over having left his family, presumably to die, that he can barely function. Similarly, Ilsa Hermann is wracked with grief over the death of her son. Liesel is plagued by nightmares of her dead brother.

Over the course of the novel, these characters slowly overcome their guilt, and come to realize that their greatest responsibility to the dead is to go on living. Thus, when Liesel returns to Frau Hermann’s house thank her, she feels her dead brother’s approval. And when Frau Hermann begins helping Liesel by leaving books for her, she is able to move past the pain of her dead son. The exception is Michael Holtzapfel, who is overcome with guilt for having lived while his brother died. When Michael’s mother refuses to go to the bomb shelter, Michael interprets this as a rebuke of his own willingness to save himself from the bombs. He can’t take the guilt much longer and commits suicide soon after.

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.

Symbols

Liesel’s Relationship to Books

Liesel’s development from a powerless girl to a more mature, empowered young woman is symbolized by her relationship to books. In other words, it’s not the books themselves that are symbolic, but how Liesel relates to them. Her first encounter with a book, for instance, comes just after her brother dies, as she is on her way to be delivered to a foster family. She is essentially powerless at this moment, and accordingly she is unable to read the book she picks up. A bit later, she struggles to read in front of the class and is mocked by Ludwig Schmeikl, and the incident again leaves her feeling powerless. But as Liesel begins to learn how to read and write, and thus begins to gain power over books, her character also develops. She starts to mature emotionally and to be kinder and more understanding of those around her. This change is highlighted by her friendship with Max. She becomes his caretaker, and again we see this role symbolized by her relationship with books: She often reads to him, using books as a way to comfort him. On the other hand, when Frau Hermann stops using Rosa to do her washing and Liesel feels powerless to do anything, she begins stealing books from the Hermann library as a way of reclaiming the power she feels was taken from her and her family.

Ultimately books become a refuge for Liesel and a way for her to exercise some control of her own in the midst of the highly controlling Nazi regime and the chaos of war. Max sums up Liesel’s use of books as a refuge in the story he leaves for her, “The Word Shaker.” In it, words are transformed into seeds, which Hitler uses to create a forest that fills people with Nazi ideology. Liesel, however, grows her own tree and takes shelter in it. Nobody can chop it down, but Max is able to climb it and take shelter there with her. The story dramatizes the way Liesel has used words and books to create a refuge in the midst of Nazi Germany, and how she’s invited Max into that refuge. In addition, Liesel begins using books to comfort the people in the shelter by reading to them. It’s a notable change, as the girl who could hardly read in front of her class and then attacked Ludwig Schmeikl and Tommy Müller becomes the person who uses books to comfort her neighbors. Of course, books can’t always protect her from everything. Overwhelmed by the pain of seeing Max on his way to the concentration camp, she rips the pages out of a book in Frau Hermann’s library, making the connection in her mind between words and the current state of the world. At the end of the story, however, it’s her book that in an indirect way saves her life, since she was in the basement working on it when the bombs fell on Himmel Street. It’s that book that Death finds, and that gives Liesel her voice in the world.

Hans’s Accordion

Hans’s accordion represents his debt to Erik Vandenburg, the friend who saved his life, and the responsibility he feels to live because Erik didn’t. Hans inherited the accordion after Erik died in the battle that Erik got him out of, and he learned to play it as a way of honoring Erik’s memory. In that way it always reminds him of Erik, and in fact when Max, who is Erik’s son, shows up at the Hubermann’s door, one of his first questions to Hans is whether he still plays the accordion. He doesn’t say so explicitly, but with that question he reminds Hans of the debt he owes to Erik and suggests that Hans can repay that debt by helping to hide him from the Nazis. Hans also uses the accordion to earn extra money in order to help his family survive financially. In other words, he essentially uses it to keep living.

Bread

Giving bread is an act of selflessness in the novel, and it represents the kindness that people are capable of. When Max is hiding in the storeroom, his friend brings him bread to help keep him alive. The fact that it’s a challenge for them to do so, because as we know if they were caught it would mean severe punishment and likely death, indicates that giving Max the bread puts his needs above their own. That same logic applies when Hans gives the Jewish prisoner the bread as the Jews are marched through town to Dachau. Hans and his family have little to eat, so giving bread to the man is a sacrifice in that regard. It’s a much bigger sacrifice in the sense that Hans knows he will be severely punished for it, and in fact he’s badly whipped as a result. He did it despite knowing he would be punished in an act of extraordinary kindness and selflessness. Later, Liesel and Rudy also give bread to the Jewish prisoners being marched through town. Rudy’s family already doesn’t have enough to eat, so giving away bread is a significant sacrifice on his part. As Death tells us, it marks Rudy’s transition from one who steals bread to one who gives it to others, symbolizing his maturation from selfishness to empathy.

Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!

Follow Us