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Bruno came home from school one day to find his family’s maid, Maria, packing his belongings. Despite his shock, he remembered to address Maria politely when he asked her what she was doing. Maria refused to answer him, so Bruno asked his mother, expressing concern that he had done something wrong. Mother explained that Bruno had no reason to worry. Maria was packing because the whole family would soon be going on a “great adventure.” Mother reminded Bruno that his father’s employer had a very special new job for him. Bruno didn’t know much about his father’s work, and in the past when he’d asked Mother, she had simply repeated that Father’s job was “very important.”
Mother explained that they would have to close up their house in Berlin for the time being and that Maria, the family cook, and the butler, Lars, would come with them. The family would be leaving very soon, and Bruno grew upset when he learned he wouldn’t have a chance to say goodbye to his three closest friends. Even though he didn’t like having to turn off all the lights in the house at night, Bruno didn’t want to leave Berlin or his life there.
Dejected, Bruno went upstairs to help Maria pack. He held the banister, which extended from the ground floor all the way up to the fourth floor. Bruno loved nothing more than climbing to the top floor of the house, which had a window that looked out across Berlin, then sliding all the way back down on the banister. As he walked upstairs, he saw Mother enter Father’s office, which was “Out Of Bounds At All Times And No Exceptions.” He listened to his parents argue briefly, then kept climbing.
Whereas the Berlin house had five floors (counting the cook’s cellar) and stood among other, similar houses, the family’s new house had only three floors and stood alone, looking empty and desolate. Bruno thought about the hustle and bustle of the city, with its bright store fronts and overflowing vegetable markets. The memories of Berlin filled him with a sense of “sweetness and life.” But standing in front of the new house, he felt he’d arrived in “the loneliest place in the world.”
Deeply upset by the upheaval, Bruno made his dissatisfaction known. But Mother insisted that he had no choice in the matter and that the family would stay for the “foreseeable future.” She sent him to his new room to help Maria unpack his belongings. Still fuming, Bruno asked Maria what she thought of their new situation, but she refused to answer him.
Bruno heard a creak in the hallway and saw a young blonde soldier carrying a box out of his parents’ new room. The man saw Bruno but said nothing to him. Bruno thought he looked too serious. Maria said, “Well, they have very serious jobs . . . Or so they think anyway.”
Bruno spotted a window in his new room. He hoped it would provide a view of Berlin, but he approached it slowly so as to defer disappointment. When he arrived and looked through the window, he saw “something that made him feel very cold and unsafe.”
The opening chapters of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas introduce the theme of politeness as a cover for unspoken emotions. Bruno is a boy with a lot of strong feelings who has been taught to overcome those feelings and always speak to others politely. When he returned from school to find Maria rifling through his belongings, the sight shocked him and made him worry that she would find items deep in his closet that he’d prefer to remain secret. Despite his raging emotions, however, Bruno remembered that he must always be polite. He therefore swallowed his displeasure and addressed Maria as nicely as possible. Bruno had learned this tactic from the adults in his life. For example, he frequently heard his parents arguing behind closed doors. Yet Mother never spoke badly of Father in front of the children. Instead, she maintained a semblance of politeness by passive aggressively referring to Father as “some people.” Similarly, Maria refused to complain directly about the family’s new situation. But she did make a passive critique of the soldiers—and, by extension, of Father—when she suggested their work was less important than they thought. In each of these cases, politeness covers something unspoken.
Read more about self-honesty as a theme.
The narrator offers clues in the first chapters to clarify that the story takes place during World War II. It is clear enough that the story begins in Berlin, Germany. The narrator explicitly mentions that the family’s house was located in Berlin and that Bruno enjoyed the view of the city afforded by the top-floor windows. What is less immediately obvious is when the story takes place. The fact that the family had a full staff of house servants suggests that the story occurs sometime in the past, but the detail that most clearly indicates the time comes when Bruno makes a single complaint about his current life in Berlin. Namely, he disliked the fact that the family had to turn out all the lights in the house every night. Bruno’s complaint refers to blackout regulations that required citizens to remain in darkness after sunset. Throughout World War II, the citizens of Berlin abided by blackout regulations that sought to make it more difficult for enemy troops to conduct nighttime attacks. Bruno’s complaint therefore situates the novel during the Second World War.
Read more about the author and the background of the novel.
The two houses presented in Chapters 1 and 2 establish a motif of doubling. These houses stand in symbolic opposition and represent shadowy reflections of one another. The Berlin house represents wealth, luxury, and privilege. The house itself is massive, and its five floors reproduce a strict hierarchy. The top floor affords a privileged view of the whole city. The parents sleep on the next floor down, and the floor below that has the children’s bedrooms. The cook is relegated to the basement. Despite this hierarchy, Bruno enjoys access to the entire house. The wooden balcony that runs from the ground floor to the top allows him literally to slide up and down as he wishes, symbolizing his social mobility. By contrast, the family’s new house compromises Bruno’s sense of privilege. Bruno perceives the house as cold, empty, and lonely, isolated as it is in the middle of nowhere. With only three floors, the new house proves significantly smaller than the old one. The views from the top floor also differ greatly. Whereas the view of the city from the Berlin house gave Bruno a liberated feeling, the view from his new bedroom window filled him with dread.
Read more about doubling as a motif.