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The Book Thief: The Characters And The Themes

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The Book Thief is about a girl named Liesel, who grew up in Molching, Germany during World War ll. After Liesel’s brother dies, her mum sends her to live with foster parents, Hans and Rosa. Amidst the novel, Liesel steals numerous books but does not know how to read. Hans observes Liesel’s theft and teaches her how to read and how to make sense of the letters. Rosa and Hans are German, but they do not approve of the Nazi regime. They secretly fight against it by hiding a Jewish man, Max in their basement. Their actions remain a secret until Hans assists a Jew who struggles to keep up with a Jewish group when they are being marched to a concentration camp. Nazi soldiers see this and whip both the struggling Jewish man and Hans. Hans and Rosa begin to worry that the occurrence will draw suspicion to their family and that Max is no longer safe in the basement so, Hans sends him on his way. Once Max leaves, Liesel is given a book that he made her called ‘The Word Shaker’. Max wrote about his friendship with Liesel and promised that they would be reunited. Hans becomes drafted into the German army but ends up breaking his leg, so, he is sent home to recover. Max was not able to escape the Nazi’s and Liesel sees him marching through town one day to the concentration camp. Towards the end of the novel, Molching is bombed where Hans, Rosa and Liesel’s best friend Rudy are all killed. Liesel escapes the bombing and once the war ends and the Jews are freed, Max goes to find Liesel and they are reunited (Foist, 2018).


Two extremely powerful themes that are represented throughout the novel The Book Thief, these are, The Power of Words and The Kindness and Cruelty of Humans (SparkNotes, 2016). The theme ‘The Power of Words’ is displayed throughout the book. There are many examples of how the power of words can attribute to one’s survival. Liesel reading gently to the masses that are with her in the bomb shelter, Max and his connection with Liesel through words giving him the will to live, Max gifting Liesel a book named ‘The Word Shaker’ and Hitler’s birthday celebrations where books are being burned to prevent the spread of propaganda and education are all examples of how the author communicates just how powerful words can be when characters are put into a pressurised situation. All characters in the novel are under an immense amount of pressure being as it is World War II and all find some relief in the written word. The Kindness and Cruelty of Humans is another theme which explores how humans during the wartime, turn from being kind and gentle to be aggressive and cruel to one another. An example of this is from the mayor’s wife, Ilsa Herman. Liesel has the job of doing her laundry. Ilsa allows Liesel to read her books, without Liesel knowing that Ilsa is watching her. Ilsa begins to interact with Liesel and shows compassion and concern towards her even though she is not of the same social status as herself. An example of cruelty is where Max is being marched to a concentration camp. Liesel sees Max and runs over to him to talk to him. A Nazi soldier begins to whip Max and also whips Liesel. The Nazi soldier does not care that he is whipping Liesel. His cruelty is evident through his blatant disregard for someone even of his race. An important thing to note is that we must learn from history and events which are told in this story. Not all Germans can be said to be horrible, aggressive and murderous. There were German’s that were decent humans and did not believe in the plight of Hitler and what he stood for.


During the time of World War II, gender roles for men and women were very different from that of today. Wartime requirements increased employment demands for both male and female workers. Wartime economy created job opportunities for women in industries that used to traditionally belong to men. Male workers interpreted the completion of physically challenging tasks by women as an intrusion on ‘their’ work (The National WWII Museum, 2016).

Women in Nazi Germany were to serve and support their family whilst the men were indefinitely in charge and had to protect their family. Hitler stated that this ‘way’ was the ‘natural order’ and said women were ‘equal but different from men’. Hitler believed that women’s lives were to revolve around the children, kitchen, church and to reproduce for the Aryan race (BBC, 2019).

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Gender Roles

The four main characters of The Book Thief, Liesel, Hans, Max and Rosa, all challenge traditional gender stereotypes throughout the whole novel. Liesel is active, in terms of running, fighting and playing with boys. Liesel frequently challenges male authority and stands up for what she believes in. Hans is caring, considerate and not depicted as the role model in his family. This description of Hans is the opposite of what a man would likely be considered as during World War II. Even so, Hans is firm and has a strong moral character when he is putting his life and the lives of others at stake. Max, the Jew expresses his emotions and cries in front of Liesel. Again, this is not a typical stereotype for a man living during World War II and instead challenges traditional ways of humans under pressure. Rosa is portrayed as a cold, demanding women who is the main source of income and authoritarian for the family, instead of being caring, gentle, soft and maternal as what would be expected in these times from women (Pop Culture Pug, 2017).

Social Pressure

Two characters in the novel that endure an immense amount of pressure are Liesel and Hans. Liesel faces numerous complications to see her bravery and to keep fighting through her emotional pain. At the beginning of the novel, Liesel has her family taken away from her when her brother dies, as her mother leaves her to foster parents. For countless years while Liesel is staying with Hans and Rosa, Liesel has to remain strong and not be crushed by all of the stress, horror and death in Germany. Liesel puts people she has never met before, such as Jews before herself and risks getting whipped and executed by helping them. Liesel is a character that faces pressure each day during the war and finds it hard to find hope for an end (School Work Helper, 2018). Hans is under pressure when Max knocks on his door. Hans has the duty and responsibility to protect him because of a promise he made to Max’s father in World War I. All Jewish people were to go into concentration camps, so, with Hans risking his life and his family’s safety by hiding Max in the basement, he is under a lot of pressure to keep the Nazi’s away from his house. The family faces constant pressure as they are visited many times by Nazi soldiers looking for Jews. If found, Hans would face death. Rosa also puts Hans under pressure by not wanting Max there because she fears for her family (School Work Helper, 2016).

Discuss Voices

The voice of the narrator is ‘death’. Death appears throughout the book and can be anywhere at anytime. Death has various powerful phrases within the novel, and this is seen as effective during wartime and makes you consider the reality of war. We mainly hear the voice of German’s both for and against the war. It is hard to hear Max’s voice because he is a Jew and is hiding. In the novel, the voice of the weak is not as strong. We hear the voice of Hans a lot as he has a conscience and constantly thinks about the consequences of his actions and what would happen to his family. He also becomes active in the war and describes his experiences thoroughly.

The author, Markus Zusak was very creative in telling The Book Thief story. The themes and messages from the novel are valuable to the modern-day, lessons and life. Is war good? Is war productive? To what extent can books influence our lives? Does one good deed, in turn, deserve another and to what extent? Books are a great source of education as they broaden our views and allow us to explore and make meaningful choices. Having Death as the narrator is very powerful, it forces you back to the reality of war. The way death speaks about war and death is hard-hitting for readers. Death puts things into perspective and into a context that you cannot ignore or shy away from. A final message of the novel is that death is always looming and is a part of life, and it will find you when the time comes.

There have been many lessons learnt from World War II, and The Book Thief showcases how a dictator such as Hitler was able to oppress and control a nation through words. We also learn not to judge a book by its cover, not all German’s are evil. The Book Thief showcases how cruel the acts of war were and how people can rise above when under enormous pressure. The Book Thief describes how strong the influence of an authoritarian like Hitler can be. World War II serves as a reminder of how powerful one man can be, to take the lives of so many in his hands.

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The Book Thief: The Characters And The Themes. (2021, August 23). Edubirdie. Retrieved September 27, 2022, from
“The Book Thief: The Characters And The Themes.” Edubirdie, 23 Aug. 2021,
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