Summary: Chapter 17
Mother grew increasingly unhappy with life at Out-With after the lice incident. Bruno felt sorry that she had no friends there, especially after Lieutenant Kotler’s transfer. One day, Bruno walked by Father’s office where he overheard Mother telling Father she wanted to get away from this horrible place. Father worried that others would question his commitment to the work if his wife and children left him there alone. Angrier than ever, Mother asked, “You call this work?”
Bruno didn’t know what to think about the possibility of moving back to Berlin but decided he would accept whatever decision his parents reached. For weeks, though, nothing changed. Father remained occupied by his work, and Gretel confined herself in her room full of maps. Mother spent a lot of her time sleeping, and Bruno worried about the fact that she’d started drinking more “medicinal sherries” than usual. Then one day, Father summoned Bruno and Gretel to his office to announce that the children would accompany their mother back to Berlin. Father said he agreed with Mother that Out-With was not a good place for children. Bruno pointed out that hundreds of children lived on the other side of the fence. Surprised, Father asked how he knew this, and Bruno said he could see them from his window. Father reconfirmed that it was time for the children to leave, and preparations began for their departure.
Summary: Chapter 18
Shmuel didn’t show up at the fence for two days after Bruno learned he’d be returning to Berlin. Bruno worried he wouldn’t get to see his friend again. But on the third day, Shmuel came. Bruno was glad to see his friend, but Shmuel looked more unhappy than usual. He told Bruno that his father had disappeared and that no one knew where he had gone. His father had left on work duty with other men, but none of them had returned.
Bruno suggested that the men had been taken to another town and that they would stay there until their work was done. Then he offered to ask Father about the disappearance. Shmuel said that wouldn’t be a good idea. He explained that the soldiers hated the people on his side of the fence. He hated the soldiers as well. Bruno feared that Shmuel might also hate Father.
Bruno changed the subject to tell Shmuel that he’d be leaving in two days and that the following day would be their last chance to meet. Bruno lamented that they’d never gotten a chance to play together and that he’d never gotten to see where Shmuel lived. Shmuel lifted the fence and indicated that Bruno still had a chance to come over. Bruno hesitated but then came up with a plan. Bruno recalled how Shmuel had said they looked more alike after Bruno got his head shaved and suggested that if he had a pair of striped pajamas, he could walk around on the other side of the fence without detection. With Bruno properly disguised, the boys could have one final adventure and look for Shmuel’s father. They agreed to meet at the same time the next day, and Shmuel would bring an extra pair of pajamas.
Analysis: Chapters 17–18
More than a year after moving from Berlin, Bruno and Gretel had both adapted to life at Out-With in a way that Mother never succeeded in doing. Bruno and Gretel each grappled with loneliness and boredom during their first months in Poland. But once they began taking lessons with Herr Liszt and their days became more structured, the siblings adjusted well enough. Bruno had his meetings with Shmuel to anchor his days. As for Gretel, she traded in her dolls and, taking after Father, began obsessively studying maps and newspapers to track Germany’s progress in the fight. In contrast to her children, Mother felt increasingly adrift. Although she enjoyed a flirtatious and possibly adulterous relationship with Lieutenant Kotler, the young soldier’s disappearance left her isolated once again. Bruno noted that she began taking naps at odd hours of the day and that she also began to drink more heavily, frequently claiming the need to have a “medicinal sherry.” Although Bruno doesn’t quite register it, the reader understands that Mother’s behaviors are consistent with depression. Whereas Bruno now wanted to stay at Out-With, Mother felt more desperate to escape than ever.
Read more about the significance of Bruno and Gretel adapting to their new life at Out-With.
A hint of potential division entered Bruno and Shmuel’s friendship when Shmuel announced his hatred of the soldiers. Feeling afraid and desperate after his father’s disappearance, Shmuel finally voiced his pent-up emotions. He expressed his feeling that the soldiers hated him and the others on his side of the fence and that he hated the soldiers in return. Shmuel’s charged comments made Bruno feel defensive. He worried that Shmuel hated Father as well since Father was the head soldier at Out-With. And if Shmuel hated Father, then he might also turn against Bruno. Anxious about this possibility, Bruno tried to steer the conversation in another direction. Although this moment of tension lasted only briefly, it has important implications. Bruno and Shmuel had spent almost a year cultivating a friendship despite their physical separation. In this brief moment, however, the reader sees that something more dangerous than the fence could come between the two boys. That is, they might become separated by the belief that they really are different and that their difference places them in opposition. Bruno sensed just such a possibility, so he quickly changed the subject to preserve their friendship.
Read more about how Bruno and Shmuel’s friendship has its moments of tension and conflict.
The theme of twinning returns once more as the two boys plan Bruno’s disguise for their final adventure, which foreshadows very bad things to come. Following the incident with the lice, which led to Bruno’s head getting shaved, the boys bore a remarkable resemblance to one another. The main differences between them lay in the fact that Shmuel was thinner and wore striped pajamas. As Bruno reasoned, however, if he wore a pair of pajamas himself, then no one would be able to tell the difference between them. His costume would therefore enable him to cross over to Shmuel’s side of the fence in a perfect disguise. To the boys, “it seemed like a very sensible plan and a good way to say goodbye.” To the reader, however, the boys’ plan to make themselves look like twins appears exceedingly dangerous. The phrase “good way to say goodbye” comes across as particularly foreboding. Despite referring to the fact that the boys might not see each other for a while after Bruno’s departure, the phrase also intimates the possibility of a final goodbye—that is, death.
Read more about the symbolism behind the striped pajamas.