Summary: Chapter 19
It rained the following day. Bruno spent the morning worried that his plans with Shmuel would fall through. By mid-afternoon, however, the rain had stopped, and Bruno set off to meet his friend. On the way, Bruno looked to the overcast skies and wondered if the rain would return, but he felt that enough rain had already fallen for one day.
He arrived to find Shmuel waiting with an extra pair of striped pajamas. Shmuel passed the pajamas under the fence. Bruno changed into them and folded his ordinary clothes into a neat pile. Bruno complained that the pajamas smelled, but Shmuel felt pleased that the disguise would work: “It was almost (Shmuel thought) as if they were exactly the same.” Bruno commented that dressing up reminded him of acting in one of Grandmother’s plays. She had always said the right outfit made it easy to feel like you were the person you were pretending to be.
Shmuel lifted the fence, and Bruno crawled under. Each boy felt an urge to hug the other, but instead of embracing they walked toward the camp. Bruno quickly realized that the reality of the camp differed greatly from what he’d imagined. Instead of cafés, shopping centers, and playing children, he saw groups of people staring at the ground with expressions of profound sadness. He also saw soldiers, who alternated between laughter and shouting.
Bruno told Shmuel that he didn’t like it there and that he should go home, but Shmuel reminded him of his promise to help search for his father. Bruno stayed, and they searched for evidence. But the boys didn’t know what to look for, and as the sky grew darker, Bruno said he needed to go home.
Just then, a whistle blew, and a group of soldiers surrounded the area where Bruno and Shmuel stood. Shmuel told Bruno this happened sometimes and that the soldiers made people go on marches. The other people in striped pajamas gathered together, pressed in by the soldiers. They all looked frightened, and Bruno wanted to whisper to them that his father was the commandant and that everything would be fine. Another whistle blew and the group of nearly one hundred people began to move. Some people near the back resisted, and Bruno heard loud noises that sounded like gunshots.
Bruno felt hungry and asked Shmuel if marches typically went on for a long time. Shmuel didn’t know since he’d never seen people come back from a march. Bruno looked at the darkening sky and heard thunder. Rain started falling. Wet and muddy, Bruno felt increasingly uncomfortable and worried about catching a cold.
Bruno told Shmuel once again that he needed to go home, and just as he said this, they reached a set of steps. The boys were forced by the shuffling crowd into a long, airless room. Bruno felt glad to be out of the rain. He said to Shmuel he was sorry that they didn’t find his father and that they didn’t really get to play. Bruno took Shmuel’s hand and told him he was his best friend: “My best friend for life.”
At that moment, two heavy doors closed, and the marchers started to panic. Bruno didn’t understand what was happening but assumed it had to do with keeping out the rain. Then the room went dark and erupted into chaos. Bruno held on to Shmuel’s hand and would not let go.
Summary: Chapter 20
The narrator explains that no one heard from Bruno again. Soldiers searched the house and the nearby towns and villages to no avail. Eventually, a soldier found the pile of Bruno’s clothes by the fence. Father came and examined the scene, but he couldn’t understand what had happened.
Mother and Gretel stayed at Out-With for several more months before moving back to Berlin. Father stayed for a full year. He became increasingly merciless with the soldiers, who grew to despise him. Father thought about Bruno constantly, and one day, he came up with a theory of what happened. He returned to the place where the soldier had found Bruno’s clothes. He discovered the place where the fence hadn’t been properly secured to the ground and reasoned what must have happened next. He collapsed to the ground in shock. A few months later, other soldiers came and took Father away. He submitted to the other soldiers without complaint: “He didn’t really mind what they did to him anymore.”
Analysis: Chapters 19–20
Weather plays an important and ominous symbolic role throughout Chapter 19, foreshadowing the disturbing events that close the novel. When Bruno woke up to rain on the day of his last meeting with Shmuel, he worried that the bad weather would ruin their plans. Even though the rain stopped just in time for Bruno to walk to the usual meeting place, the sky remained overcast, threatening a future downpour. But Bruno once again displayed the logic of a child, reasoning that because enough rain had already fallen, it didn’t make sense for more rain to come. The reader recognizes the faultiness of Bruno’s logic. This recognition in turn generates a sense of dramatic irony, in which readers feel like we know something the character doesn’t. Whereas we interpret the overcast sky as a bad omen, Bruno carried on in blissful ignorance, heightening tension. The chapter later confirms the weather’s ominous symbolism. Just as soldiers closed in and forced Bruno, Shmuel, and others to begin marching, thunder cracked, and rain began to fall again. Bruno worried about getting a cold, but the reader suspects that the return of rough weather betokens something much worse.
When the narrator describes how Bruno crawled under the fence and joined Shmuel on his side, the narrative point of view begins to blur. Aside from Chapter 4 when the narrator briefly registered Gretel’s thoughts and feelings, nowhere else in the novel has the narrative point of view strayed from Bruno’s internal experiences. In Chapter 19, however, the point of view begins to include some of Shmuel’s thoughts and feelings. For example, as Bruno complained about the stench of the pajamas Shmuel brought him, the narrator notes the Shmuel thought to himself that the pajamas would disguise Bruno perfectly. Then, when Bruno crossed to Shmuel’s side of the fence, the narrator describes how both boys wanted to hug each other but resisted doing so. Though brief, the way the narrator register’s Shmuel’s internal thoughts is significant since it happens at the precise moment the two boys come together for the first time. No longer separated by the fence or the divisive ideology the fence symbolizes, the boys develop a new kind of closeness, and the narrator signals this closeness with a subtle shift in the point of view.
Read more about the material and metaphorical significance of the fence.
Although the narrator doesn’t clarify what happened to Bruno and Shmuel at the end of Chapter 19, readers with knowledge of the Holocaust will recognize that the boys died in a gas chamber. Concentration camps like Auschwitz (i.e., “Out-With”) didn’t serve merely to intern European Jews and members of several other targeted groups; they were also the places where the Nazis conducted their genocide. After wrecking their prisoners’ bodies through poor nutrition and forced labor, the Nazis exterminated them in large groups. The most efficient method the Nazis had for conducting mass murder involved the use of gas chambers. Soldiers periodically rounded up large groups of prisoners, forced them to march into specially designed rooms, then locked the doors and pumped in a noxious gas that killed them all. All of the details of Bruno and Shmuel’s final minutes are consistent with the horrific historical facts of how the Nazis killed Jews in gas chambers.
Read more about how the novel offers a unique perspective on the horrors of the Holocaust.
In their final moments of life, Bruno fully committed to his friendship with Shmuel in a way he’d never done before, symbolizing the power of love in the face of unspeakable evil. Throughout the novel, Bruno struggled to be a good friend to Shmuel. Though he consistently showed up to their meeting spot by the fence and brought food to help curb Shmuel’s hunger, he also tended to be self-centered. Slowly Bruno realized that he didn’t always listen to what Shmuel said. This realization made him want to become a better friend. Bruno’s commitment to Shmuel grew even stronger after the incident in his family’s kitchen, when, out of fear, he denied their friendship (see Chapter 15). Bruno felt ashamed of his cowardly instinct for self-preservation, and he apologized to Shmuel profusely. In some ways, Bruno remained self-centered throughout his final hours with Shmuel. Uncomfortable with what he saw in the camp and worried about cold and hunger, he nearly forgot his pledge to help Shmuel find his father. But when Bruno took Shmuel by the hand and refused to let go, even as the chaos of the gas chamber erupted around them, he demonstrated his full capacity to stand by his friend despite his fear. Though they are destroyed by the hatred of adults, the two boys stand united even in the face of death.
Read more about the closing words of the novel.