The Power of Words
Words and stories hold tremendous value in the novel, which suggests that they are among the most powerful ways in which people connect with one another. Numerous examples of the ways words connect people turn up throughout the story. Learning the alphabet and how to create words is how Liesel and Hans Hubermann begin to develop their deep bond. Later, Liesel’s descriptions of the weather outside to Max also help to establish a bond between them. The greatest gift Max gives Liesel in the novel is words in the form of the “The Word Shaker,” the story he writes for her. In it, he suggests that words are the most powerful force there is, indicated by the fact that Hitler uses words and not guns or money or some other instrument to take over the world. The story essentially dramatizes the way Liesel has used words to create a refuge for herself in the midst of Nazism, and Max was able to find shelter in her words as well. Liesel later uses words to calm her neighbors during the air raids by reading from her book, and she gives Frau Holtzapfel some comfort with her private readings to her. Ultimately, it’s Liesel’s words in the book she leaves behind after the bombing that establish the emotional connection Death feels to her, and the novel itself creates a connection between the reader and the characters of the story.
Although the novel doesn’t explore the idea as deeply, it also makes clear that words hold the power to spread ideas, and it suggests that power can be dangerous. Again, Max suggests this notion in the book he leaves for Liesel when he says Hitler used words to conquer the world. It’s quite a statement given the amount of suffering we see as a result of Hitler’s control, and it shows that something as insubstantial as words can have drastic real-life consequences. The book burning Liesel witnesses also raises this idea. The Nazis burned books to keep people away from certain ideas, as if those ideas would spread like an infection. They clearly feared those ideas, like the one in the book Liesel steals that a Jew could be a hero, because they could undermine the Nazi ideology and therefore the party’s control over Germany.
The Kindness and Cruelty of Humans
The novel shows the varying degrees of people’s kindness and cruelty, from the slight to the most extreme examples. Among the small acts of kindness we see are Ilsa Hermann inviting Liesel into her library and Rudy giving the teddy bear to the dying pilot represent the kind end of the spectrum. On the other hand, we see similar acts of cruelty, such as Viktor Chemmel’s and Franz Deutcher’s treatment of Rudy. We also see far more dramatic examples of each. The Hubermanns commit a great act of kindness in hiding and caring for Max. They keep him alive at great risk to themselves and always treat him with the utmost respect. Notably, they care for him not only physically by providing food and shelter but also emotionally, making him feel like a part of the family. Liesel in particular is kind to Max, and the two develop a strong bond. Given the political context of the time, with hatred and violence against Jews being rampant, Max clearly finds Liesel’s kindness to be extraordinary. Meanwhile, the concentration camps linger unseen in the background of the book as the most extreme example of cruelty.
One scene in particular juxtaposes the two extremes of human behavior. In it, Hans Hubermann tries to help one of the Jews being marched through town on the way to Dachau. One particular Jewish man is weak and clearly suffering from hunger and exhaustion, and Hans impulsively rushes to him and gives him a piece of bread. It’s a small act, but it shows great kindness. It lets the Jewish man know that not only does Hans not hate him for being Jewish, but he also pities him and wants to ease his suffering. Immediately after, one of the Nazi soldiers mercilessly whips Hans and the Jewish man. The act is cruel to begin with, but its cruelty is heightened by the fact that it comes in response to Hans’s kindness.
The Dualities of Nazi-era Germany
From the moment Rudy paints himself black to emulate Jesse Owens, we see that characters often have two faces, or sides. While on the surface Rudy appears to be an ideal Aryan, so much so that the Nazis try to recruit him into a special training center, inside he emulates an African-American, which directly contradicts Nazi ideology. Max, meanwhile, does something like the reverse. When he travels from Stuttgart to Molching, he poses as a non-Jewish (or gentile) German, calmly reading MKPF, while on the inside he is a terrified Jew who finds the book abhorrent. The book Max later writes, which on the outside bears the cover of MKPF, but the pages of which have been transformed to Max’s story of resistance against the regime, also embodies this theme of duality.
The Hubermanns are part of the theme as well. Once they begin hiding Max, they lead double lives. They pretend to be law-abiding citizens to their friends and neighbors, while inside they harbor their dangerous secret. Hans instructs Liesel about this behavior after he slaps her for saying she hates Hitler in public, explaining that she can feel as she likes in the house, but in public she must behave in a certain way. In fact, duality is a theme of life in general for Liesel and Rudy. Both spend a great deal of time engaged in typical teenage activities like playing soccer in the street. But these moments are broken up with events like the parade of Jews through town, or the bombings that threaten and ultimately destory Himmel Street. The theme suggests that appearances don’t always reflect reality, and also signifies how, in the oppressive political climate of Nazi Germany, many people must express their humanity in secret, subversive ways. Naturally this theme also ties in with the theme of extreme kindness and cruelty that people are capable of, and the two often intertwine.
The Responsibility of the Living to the Dead
Because many of the characters in the novel have lost family members, many wrestle with the survivor’s guilt of continuing to live while their loved ones do not. Hans feels he owes his life to Erik Vandenburg, who indirectly saved him during World War I. As a result, he believes he is responsible for caring for Erik’s family in any way they need, and the offer Hans makes to Erik’s widow is the reason that Max Vandenburg seeks refuge with the Hubermanns in the first place. Max has his own feelings of responsibility. When he arrives at the Hubermanns’ house, he is so consumed by guilt over having left his family, presumably to die, that he can barely function. Similarly, Ilsa Hermann is wracked with grief over the death of her son. Liesel is plagued by nightmares of her dead brother.
Over the course of the novel, these characters slowly overcome their guilt, and come to realize that their greatest responsibility to the dead is to go on living. Thus, when Liesel returns to Frau Hermann’s house thank her, she feels her dead brother’s approval. And when Frau Hermann begins helping Liesel by leaving books for her, she is able to move past the pain of her dead son. The exception is Michael Holtzapfel, who is overcome with guilt for having lived while his brother died. When Michael’s mother refuses to go to the bomb shelter, Michael interprets this as a rebuke of his own willingness to save himself from the bombs. He can’t take the guilt much longer and commits suicide soon after.