He never felt so ashamed in his life; he had never imagined that he could behave so cruelly. He wondered how a boy who thought he was a good person really could act in such a cowardly way towards a friend.

This quote comes from Chapter 15 just after a harrowing incident that took place in the kitchen at Bruno’s house. Bruno had entered the kitchen feeling upset about a frustrating exchange he’d just had with Lieutenant Kotler. When he walked into the kitchen, he felt shocked to find Shmuel sitting at the kitchen table, polishing glasses for a party that would take place that evening. Bruno pulled some chicken from the refrigerator for a snack, but, still preoccupied by his annoyance with the lieutenant, he neglected to offer any to Shmuel. Bruno caught himself after a moment and, seeing how hungry Shmuel was, pulled more chicken out for him. Shortly thereafter, Lieutenant Kotler entered the kitchen. He flew into a rage when he spotted the grease on Shmuel’s lips, and he accused the boy of stealing. When Shmuel told the Lieutenant that Bruno had given him the chicken, the soldier turned his anger toward Bruno. Bruno tried to explain that Shmuel was his friend, but when Lieutenant Kotler demanded to know how the boys had met, Bruno said he’d never seen Shmuel before. In this quote, Bruno expresses his sense of shame for denying their friendship.

Bruno’s expression of shame has important implications for the development of his character and for the development of the novel itself. On the one hand, Bruno’s emotionally intense recognition of his failure to stand by his friend shows his growth as a person. As he realized how his actions affected others, Bruno developed a greater capacity for self-reflection and empathy. On the other hand, the particular language used to express Bruno’s moment of crisis points to a broader question that stands at the heart of the novel. As the narrator reports, Bruno wondered how he could still consider himself a good person after treating another person so cruelly. The question Bruno asked himself could also apply to other characters and especially to Father. The novel’s major characters consider Father a good man. And yet, as commandant of Out-With Camp, Father personally oversaw the murder of thousands of Jews. Thus, even as Bruno struggles to come to terms with his own internal contradictions, the novel asks the reader to consider a bigger question. That is, how could Germans like Father still consider themselves good people when they participated in the genocide of their neighbors?