What role do books play for Liesel, Hans, Max, and in the novel as a whole?
In a time when literature came under suspicion if it was not supportive of the Nazi regime, books are a form of protest and escape for the characters. For Liesel, books are a refuge from her harsh and often chaotic environment as well as a means of empowerment, of transforming her situation of helplessness into one of strength, where she is able to help others. Books are instrumental to her bonds with Max and Hans, both of whom win her trust through the act of reading and being read to. But books can also be dangerous, as Liesel learns at the bonfire. The power of the ideas contained in books can incite crowds to violence, and can make ordinary people commit horrible acts. Towards the end of the novel, the knowledge of the potential evil in literature makes Liesel destroy a book.
Books are additionally a weapon of resistance. Max smuggles his false identity card in a copy of MKPF, which he pretends to read on the train to avoid detection as a Jew. Later, he paints over the pages of MKPF and writes his own story over Hitler’s whited-out words. It’s a practical act as he lacks access to fresh paper and writing utensils, but it’s also a strongly symbolic one. The copy of Hitler’s autobiography, initially a powerful tool of fascism, is first neutralized, then transformed into a tool of peace.
What is the effect of having the book be narrated by Death? How would it be different if it were narrated by Liesel, Hans, or Max?
Death, the narrator of the book, is nearly omniscient, which allows the scope of the story to move from the specific to the general. Like a camera zooming in for a close-up, then pulling back for a wide-angle shot, Death moves from focusing on a tiny detail in the Hubermanns’ basement to the overall action across the continent, and even the world. He is also able to move forward and backward in time, flashing back to Hans’s experiences in World War I, and forward to several years after World War II. In this way, the reader is constantly reminded that the story is much bigger than just the experiences of one character, one family, or even one town. Events are contextualized against the larger context of politics and history. The narrator is able to make sweeping statements about human nature since he has such an all-encompassing perspective.
Were the book narrated by a single, human character like Liesel, Max, or Hans, its perspective would be much more limited. The book would feel more intimate, and smaller in its concerns. There would be much the narrator wouldn’t know about the larger context shaping his or her experience, and specific events, such as the parades of Jews through town, would feel confusing to the narrator unless specifically explained. The narrator also would not understand other characters’ motivations, and would not be able to give the reader as much insight into how the neighborhood functioned as a whole. The book would read as one person’s experience of a specific historical time period rather than a meditation on war and mortality in general.
Why is it significant that Max is Jewish?
Readers of The Book Thief may be familiar with fictionalized and non-fiction accounts of World War II from the viewpoint of the Allies or of European Jews who were forced into hiding during the conflict. Because this novel is written from the point of view of the Germans, readers may find themselves sympathizing with characters that were historically on the other side. Were there no Jewish characters in the book, it might be tempting to believe that Jews and Germans suffered equally during the war. Max’s presence serves to remind the reader of the vast difference between the Jewish experience of the Holocaust and the German experience of wartime privations. Whenever we find ourselves feeling sorry for Liesel and her family, Max’s presence reminds us that others had it much, much worse. It expands the scope of the novel from one family’s story to the story of millions who were forced into hiding and sent to concentration camps. The fact that Max is Jewish and develops a strong bond with Liesel also underscores the shared humanity between all the characters in the book.