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Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Two sets of pairs appear in the novel, establishing a motif of doubling and opposition. The pair of houses presented in Chapters 1 and 2 establish this motif. These houses stand in symbolic opposition and represent shadowy reflections of one another. The spacious, five-story Berlin house represents wealth and luxury. By contrast, the family’s much smaller house in the middle of nowhere represents the moral destitution of the Nazi mission. The second major example of doubling emerges when Bruno and Shmuel meet for the first time. The boys learn that they share the same birthday, making them symbolic twins. Even so, they had very different upbringings and now stand on opposite sides of a fence meant to keep them physically and symbolically divided. They ultimately transcend their differences when Bruno agrees to join Shmuel on his side of the fence and help him look for his father. With his head freshly shaved, Bruno looks more like Shmuel than ever. And when he dons a pair of striped pajamas as a disguise, he becomes virtually indistinguishable from his friend. Though previously separated, the two boys die together.
Read more about doubles as a motif in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations.
Various references to history appear throughout the novel. The first clear reference to history appears in Chapter 7 when Bruno recalls a neighbor in Berlin named Herr Roller, whose erratic behaviors had disturbed Bruno. Mother cautions Bruno against calling Herr Roller mad since his psychological afflictions resulted from his participation in the previous great war. She reflects sadly on the suffering of many young German men who had fought in the trenches in World War I. In Chapter 9, Herr Liszt expands on Mother’s reflection by indicating that other European powers have committed “great wrongs” against Germany both during and after World War I. When Bruno complains about having to study history, Herr Liszt insists on the importance of understanding how Germany has been wronged. During the dinner scene in Chapter 13, Father takes this motif further by repeating Herr Liszt’s insistence on the importance of history then declaring that his work at Out-With (Auschwitz) aims to correct the great wrongs perpetrated against Germany.
Bruno loves adventure stories and frequently tries to make his reality conform to the fantasies playing out in his head. As a nine-year-old with an active imagination, Bruno takes refuge in make-believe. He enjoys reading adventure novels like Treasure Island, which keep him entertained and feed his desire to become an explorer. Bruno grows especially dependent on adventure stories at Out-With (Auschwitz), where he has little else to do. Lonely and afraid he might go mad, Bruno seeks out real-world adventures. Initially, he suspends a tire swing from an oak tree that is so old it makes him think about medieval knights-errant. But that fantasy falls apart when he falls from the tire swing and hurts himself. Later, Bruno sets out on a more serious adventure. He ventures along the fence and eventually “discovers” Shmuel, a strange boy who introduces him to a new world. After a year of talking through the fence, Bruno suggests one last real-world adventure in which he will disguise himself and help Shmuel track down his missing father. When Bruno’s final fantasy adventure becomes real, however, his childish game has tragic consequences.
Read more about one of Bruno’s adventure stories, Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson.