The Book Thief by Markus Zusak tells the story of a young girl named Liesel Meminger living in Nazi Germany during World War II. The novel touches on themes of love and loss, and is narrated by Death, giving it a unique and haunting perspective. Perhaps most significantly, The Book Thief explores the immense, sometimes contradictory power of language, including that of the printed word. Zusak demonstrates how language was used to devastate Jewish, Romani, and other minority groups in Europe, yet also serves as a tool with which to engender love, kindness, and compassion in a cruel world. Ultimately, the latter use triumphs, cementing Zusak’s message that words and books can heal, nourish, and restore.

The novel’s primary conflict lies in the struggle of its protagonist, Liesel Meminger, against the society in which she lives, a struggle that results in her own need to establish a sense of personal identity. That identity, threatened by the hardships of life with her foster family, cruelty towards Jewish and other groups of people, and the loss of loved ones, depends upon how well she learns to use and exploit language to resist the wrongs she bears witness to.

The inciting incident occurs when Liesel's brother dies on the train to Munich, as she is taken to her new foster family. This traumatic event sets the tone for the rest of the novel, highlighting the fragility of life and the harsh realities of the time. The incident also hints at motivations that will drive Liesel forward. At her brother’s grave, she steals a book dropped by a gravedigger, The Grave Digger’s Handbook. Her theft, although she is unable to read, signifies a desperate attempt to snatch power in a world in which she feels powerless, a “lost, skinny child.” It is her first step to finding her identity, and Liesel is compelled to find it through the power of language and books. 

Throughout the novel’s rising action, Zusak illustrates how words can engender love and happiness. When Liesel arrives at the Hubermann’s, she is vulnerable, defensive, and alone. She is plagued by nightmares of her dead brother and suffers the quiet humiliation of being unable to read. It is only when Hans Hubermann starts teaching her to read that Liesel opens up to her new family. Through Liesel’s friendship with Max, she discovers that words can help someone experience a world they cannot physically see or touch. Max, in symbolic resistance to social conditions and the misuse of language, creates a book for Liesel by painting over the pages of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. The pages are transformed from the hateful words of Hitler to something intended to spread joy, love, and growth. 

Subsequent events continue to emphasize this message, suggesting that language and books can unify a community in a loving way during times of strife. Liesel steals books from Frau Hermann’s library, but Frau Hermann keeps a window open, permitting the theft, helping her retain a connection to a son she lost in World War I. During the air raids on Himmel Street, the neighbors shelter in a basement, where Liesel reads to the group, transporting them to a different world. Liesel’s use of words to change perceptions reveals her growing sense of agency and power. She is evolving from the little girl who could not read to her classmates to a person who uses words and books books as a shield, and, ultimately, as a weapon.

As the novel reaches its climax, words become instruments of rebellion and salvation. Liesel tears up pages in a book after seeing Max paraded through town with other Jewish prisoners because she blames words for Max’s suffering. The symbolic tearing of the pages emphasizes Liesel’s desire to eradicate Hitler’s hate-mongering speech. At the same time, she is compelled to write her own story in a blank book, a work that saves her life during bombings that end the lives of almost all her loved ones. Her identity is determined, demonstrating that she has become a brave woman with a strong sense of justice, an identity interwoven with literacy and the use of language.

In the novel’s falling action, Liesel is rescued from the rubble, and Death saves her book, which rescuers had tossed into the garbage, highlighting the immortality of words. Zusak again emphasizes how language can unite and connect people when Liesel returns to Himmel Street to find her books and is reunited with Max. 

As the novel reaches its resolution, Liesel is with Death, many decades later, and Death tells her how he saved and read her book. Death, by using Liesel’s words to narrate this story, allows the novel to come full circle, beginning with Liesel’s journey as an illiterate child, moving through her growth into a young woman who writes her own story, and ending with her as an old woman learning that her words will live forever. There is an immortality inherent in language and literacy, the conclusion suggests, and their capacity for good endures.