Literature is a voyage of discovery that illuminates the reality of our human condition. One such voyage is Markus Zusak’s (2005) novel, The Book Thief, which takes us on a journey to the many complex aspects of our unpredictable human nature; our inclinations towards violence, generosity and love. This coming of age novel, set during one of the darkest times in Nazi Germany revolves around the tormenting life of a young girl named Liesel Meminger. Despite being traumatised by her past pains of losing her beloved brother and witnessing some of the cruellest human acts of modern history, Liesel is surrounded by the endless love of her foster parents; Hans and Rosa and is driven towards seeing the beauty in the world by them as well as by her curious loyal friend, Rudy; and the resolutely kind-hearted Jew hidden in her basement, Max. The novel delves into the heart of our humanity and shows that even during the worst times, humans have the capacity to sustain the love, hope and compassion they have for one another. Zusak effectively presents this altruistic perspective of humanity, through the contrast between the characters and the setting, symbolism and contradicting thoughts of a distinctive narrative voice- Death.
Zusak employs the juxtaposition between the character and setting to present an altruistic perspective on humanity and convey that even in a traumatic street full of misery and destruction the characters in it have the potential to unleash its remarkable beauty. Despite being set during a time period where Germany was overpowered by the rampant hatred and bitterness towards Jews, Liesel’s “silver eyed” (pg.573), loving foster father, Hans Hubermann magically brings love and beauty to the world. In one moment of the novel, as the Jews were being vigorously marched down the streets from Molching to Dauchau, another Jewish concentration camp, Hans Hubermann commits a great act of courage and kindness by impulsively handing a piece of bread to an exhausted Jew; “The Jew stood before him, expecting another handle of division, but he watched with everyone else as Hans Hubermann held his hand out and presented a piece of bread, like magic” (pg. 421). This is an extraordinary moment in the novel and emphasises to the reader that such small acts of kindness during difficult times can be so valuable and memorable. The Hans’ actions as well as “the brute strength of the man’s gentleness” (pg.37) juxtaposes with the war-stricken setting the reader is presented with. Nazi values were promoted by a totalitarian government, led by a compelling leader, Hitler and people carried out acts that would now be considered dehumanising, but we are also still consistently seeing unbelievable acts of kindness and generosity. The stark contrast between an awfully distressing setting and a selfless character such as Hans Hubermann, conveys the intricacy of our human nature. The novel emphasises the darker side of humanity, this being the ultimate despair but most importantly highlights the selflessness of humans and our ability to still express human generosity and love during a time of human war.
Symbolism is embodied in the novel and reflects the utter complexity of our human nature, pin pointing our best and worst qualities. Han’s Accordion and Hitler’s Mein Kampf are both symbolic in the novel as they represent both the beauty and (unpleasantness ??) in the world and shows how these qualities can also be noticeable in humans. Mein Kampf is a powerful political manifesto that clearly symbolises the utmost worst qualities of our human nature, showing how a man has the capability to motivate a whole nation to outrageously dehumanise and discriminate the Jewish population. In the novel, the book is epitomised as a shield that protected the reputation of families as it allowed them to hide the struggle in accepting the callous acts that were occurring at the time. This is showcased when Hans’ son comes to visit the family and blames him as being “pathetic” for being “against” the “Fuhrer”, while accusing Liesel for not reading Mein Kampf, “And what trash is this girl reading? She should be reading Mein Kampf” (pg. 113). Thus it alerts the reader that many people in Germany, like Hans Junior were caught by the power of Hitler’s words and influenced to feel hatred for their loving families. However, our capacity to be so cruel and inhumane is completely juxtaposed with the (virtuous?) symbol of the Hans’ accordion. The accordion is a significant object that was inherited by Hans after Erik Vandenberg, Max’s father died and signifies his capability to bring kindness and happiness to others. After the bombings of Himmel street, Liesel goes to Hans corpse with the accordion and imagines him playing it, “The bellows breathed and the tall man played for Liesel Meminger one last time as the sky was taken from the stove” (pg 573). The power of the accordion is enhanced in this truly breath-taking moment as the reader is encouraged to imagine Hans’ enlightening soul. Likewise, it symbolises the human capacity for hope and tolerance during an unfortunate and heart-breaking situation. Therefore, through the symbolism in the novel we can see humanity’s ability to be so hopeful, compassionate and loving under the shadow of a looming immoral society like Nazi Germany.
Zusak also manipulates an unusually omniscient narrative point of view- death, to present the duality of our human nature, encouraging the reader to view Nazi Germany through the conflicted mind of our peculiar narrator. In the novel, Death is constantly looming over us as he goes“about his business…handing souls to the conveyor belt of eternity”(p.23) and faces both the loveliness and ugliness of our human soul. He is completely shocked by the darker side of humanity, this being our attachment to greed, violence and torture. Similarly, this is reinforced through the novel’s setting where Death is exposed to the “living hell” (p.26) of Nazi Germany as he encounters … However, Death is also mesmerised by our remarkable human “beauty”. He is admired by Liesel’s family, especially by their love and kindness towards each other, their resilience and by their generosity towards a Jew; Max. The contrast between such aspects of human kind is evident in Death’s closing thoughts,
I wanted to tell the book thief many things, about beauty and brutality… I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race – that rarely do I ever simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words so damning and so brilliant… (p.584)
Death’s confusion about our human nature suggests that it is no simple thing and that in society we are still questioning how humans have the capacity to conduct such atrocious acts but on the same hand also have an extraordinary amount of good qualities in them. Likewise, in the last line of the novel Death confesses that “he” is “haunted by humans” (p.584). This encapsulates the powerful message that the extent for the human race to be so touching and brutal is complex enough to haunt a narrator like Death that haunts us humans. Deaths commentary enables the reader to realise that most importantly, being human means to rise above such “brutality” and ugliness and to love and trust ‘beautifully’.
Overall, Markus Zusak’s (2005) novel, The Book Thief, presents an altruistic perspective of humanity, highlighting the shades of good and bad that co-exist within humans, suggesting our complexity in many ways. He weaves juxtaposition in the novel by presenting selfless characters like Hans that commit astonishing acts of kindness and generosity in contrast to the traumatic setting of Nazi Germany. The symbolism of Mein Kampf and Hans’ accordion represents our ability to be both cruel and compassionate. The real creativity of the novel lies in the way, Zusak manipulates a distinctive and peculiar narrative voice- Death, who is perplexed by our unpredictable human nature, suggesting that the human race has the ability to be both beautiful and brutal. As a whole, the novel celebrates how we humans are able to withstand the love, compassion and generosity we have for one another during one of the darkest times in history. Perhaps Death is reminding us to continuously carry our altruism because “at some point in time, I will be standing over you, as genially as possible. Your soul will be in my arms. A colour will be perched on my shoulder. I will carry you gently away”(pg.4).