Study Guide

The Book Thief Themes

By Markus Zusak

  • Love

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    The Book Thief focuses on characters who are learning to love in the face of great hatred. There is also romantic love in the novel. Of course, it's an innocent childlike romance that tragedy cuts short. The novel is set in a Nazi Germany, where giving another person something as seemingly small as a crust of stale bread or even a smile could be seen as act of immense kindness. These acts almost always involve penalty. To love in such a harsh world is both a necessity and a triumph for the characters of The Book Thief.

    Questions About Love

    1. Does Liesel love Rudy romantically? Is there romantic love between Max and Liesel?
    2. Why does Liesel love Hans so much?
    3. How is Hans' accordion connected to the idea of friendship?
    4. What makes Walter love Max enough to risk his life for him?
    5. Is Death a loving character? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Liesel begins to love Max when he gives her The Standover Man.

    Death is the most loving character in the novel.

  • Literature and Writing

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    The title suggests that literature and writing will be an important theme of this novel. The Book Thief is framed by various other books, not the least of which is protagonist Liesel's memoir, The Book Thief. The novel also shows the destruction of literature and writing, as dramatized by the burning of Jewish creative and intellectual products in a book burning to commemorate Adolph Hitler's birthday. Max Vandenburg, a Jew hiding from the Nazis, gets a small revenge for this by painting over the pages of Hitler's own book, Mein Kampf, and writing stories for Liesel over top of them. Overall, the novel seems to demonstrate the power that words of friendship have to overshadow words of hatred.

    Questions About Literature and Writing

    1. Which is your favorite of Liesel's books, and why? Which do you think is her favorite?
    2. Why does Liesel decide to write about her life? Why does Max?
    3. How is Hitler's book, Mein Kampf, used in the novel? How do you feel about this use?
    4. Why does Liesel tear up a book in Ilsa Hermann's library?

    Chew on This

    Writing saves Liesel's life, literally and figuratively.

    Reading becomes a way for Liesel to help others and gives her a sense of purpose.

  • War

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    The Book Thief is steeped in war. It's set primarily between 1939 and 1943 in Nazi Germany. Both the Holocaust and World War II are going on at this time. Warfare shapes the characters' lives and impact their choices. The narrator of the tale, Death, doesn't take kindly to war. Because of it, he can't get a vacation, or even a slow day. This gets us into some controversial territory. Some would argue that the Allies had to make war on Germany in order to stop the Holocaust and Hitler's plan to take over the world. While Death doesn't suggest an alternative to war in situations such as this, he does raise the questions through his anti-war stance.

    Questions About War

    1. Does this novel increase your knowledge of World War II? Why or why not?
    2. Have you learned anything surprising about World War II?
    3. What are some of the battles being fought in Molching? Do they comment on the larger war around the town?
    4. Do you think that the Allies were justified in their bombing campaign against Germany? Why or why not?
    5. Do any of the characters fight internal wars? If so, which ones, and what are they battling?
    6. How does Death feel about war?

    Chew on This

    When Hans gives bread to a Jewish man, he's performing an act of resistance against the war.

    In spite of the civilian tragedies, bombing Germany was necessary to stop the war.

    There are always non-violent solutions. The Allied bombings of Germany were not justified.

  • Mortality

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    Death, The Book Thief's narrator, keeps us constantly focused on mortality. To be clear, this Death has nothing to do with why people die. Rather, he exists because people die. He has the task of separating their souls from their bodies and carrying those souls away. Death lets us know from the beginning pages that this is a tragic story. Set during World War II and the Holocaust, we witness the deaths of many innocent people. Death tells us that most of the characters we come to love will die by the end of the book. Who survives in the novel? That's the big surprise Death saves for the ending. We'd be remiss to give it away here. So, open up that book. And don't forget to look at the pictures!


    Questions About Mortality

    1. What is Death like in this novel? Did he surprise you? Why or why not?
    2. Did Zusak make a good choice casting Death as a narrator?
    3. What do you think of Death's conception of dying? How does it compare with other ideas you have or have heard about?
    4. Will Death ever be able to take a vacation?

    Chew on This

    The novel makes the argument that dying is easier than living with the loss of a loved one.

    The Book Thief is important in our understanding of the complexities of World War II because of its focus on mortality.

  • Identity

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    Identity is a tricky business in Nazi Germany, especially if you are Jewish. In order to stay alive, a Jewish person has to stay hidden, and being hated and persecuted takes a big toll on a person's identity, especially when it's combined with starvation, physical abuse, and the worst living conditions imaginable. For most of the characters, the situation makes guilt a huge part of their identities. A wrong move can result in instant death for loved ones, not to mention one's self. The novel's non-Jewish characters refuse to be identified as Nazis and forge new identities from friendship, love, and resistance to injustice.

    Questions About Identity

    1. Do you identify with any of the characters? Which ones and why? If you don't identify with any of them, why not?
    2. How does Jessie Owens factor into Rudy's identity?
    3. How does Liesel's identity change when she meets Max? How about Rosa's?
    4. How does Max's identity change during the Holocaust?

    Chew on This

    Max's identity as the Jewish fist fighter helps him survive the Holocaust.

    Until she meets Liesel, Ilsa Hermann's entire identity is built around the death of her son.

  • Criminality

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    The Book Thief might challenge our ideas about crime and criminality. What if the laws of the land require its citizens to commit crimes against humanity? That's what's going on in Nazi Germany during most of the novel. Our main characters decide to err on the side of kindness and love, regardless of what the laws say. Liesel's stealing of books and her and Rudy's other adventures in thievery could be seen as symbolic of the way everything is topsy-turvy in this society. One must steal and break the law in order to maintain a basic positive humanity. These courageous characters risk everything, day and day again, to resist unjust laws.

    Questions About Criminality

    1. Is it wrong for Rudy and Liesel to steal food? Why, or why not?
    2. Would Liesel have stolen from Ilsa Hermann if she was actually afraid of her?
    3. How does the idea of book thievery shape the novel?
    4. Based on what you've read in The Book Thief, is breaking the law ever justified?
    5. Are there any unjust laws where you live? If so, what are they and why are they unjust? What can you do about it?
    6. Have you ever felt like a criminal? If so, why? Did you deserve to feel that way, or not?

    Chew on This

    The Book Thief does a good job of showing how laws can be used to commit crimes.

    Liesel's book stealing is justified because she uses the books to help herself and others.

  • Language and Communication

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    In many ways, Hitler's rise to power was made possible by... words. Hitler relied on mass communication technology to convey its message of hate and to mobilize a nation in its service. But, The Book Thief focuses on using language to heal, to save, and to fight against injustice.

    It expresses a belief in the power of language to make a positive difference in the world. It recognizes the extreme power language contains. The novel shows us the very best and very worst ways language can be used.

    Sprinkled with German words and phrases, the novel also helps us feel the friendliness and beauty that this language can embody. This is important because after World War II and the Holocaust, German was seen as a language of hate and fear. This book argues that it's not about the language you speak in, or even the words you use, but how you use those words that's important.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. Why can't Liesel tell Rosa and Rudy the way she feels about them? Why is she more successful in communicating her feelings to Hans and Max?
    2. What do Ilsa Hermann's bathrobes communicate?
    3. Why does Rosa have such a drastic mode of communicating? Why does she become gentler?
    4. How do you see radio and newspapers being used in the novel?
    5. How would it feel to live in a place where there are constant sirens signaling air raids?
    6. What is the effect of the use of German in the book? Do the German words and passages make things confusing? Do they make the story feel more authentic? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Liesel's biggest failure is her failure to communicate her love to Rudy when he is alive.

  • Suffering

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    You'll notice suffering from page one of The Book Thief. Cold, hunger, emotional and physical abuse, guilt, the horror of the battlefield – all these play heavily into the suffering of the characters. Set primarily in Nazi Germany during the Holocaust, suffering is the rule, not the exception. The novel doesn't enter the concentration camps and focus on the immense sufferings occurring there. Instead, these camps are a dark shadow coloring everything in horror and fear. Suffering and guilt over the loss of loved ones is also a major focus in The Book Thief.

    Questions About Suffering

    1. What are the various forms of suffering we encounter in the novel? Have you experienced any of these?
    2. If a reader doesn't know much about the Holocaust, does the novel adequately express the suffering Jews experienced during the Holocaust? Why or why not?
    3. Is guilt connected to suffering in The Book Thief? Why or why not?
    4. What are some sites of intense suffering in the novel?
    5. How do the main characters cope with suffering?

    Chew on This

    Learning to comfort and aid those who are suffering is a big part of Liesel's development as a person.

    The novel argues that trying to ease suffering is the noblest of causes.

  • Courage

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    The characters in The Book Thief exhibit great courage in the face of great adversity. It takes courage for the Hubermanns to take in Max Vandenburg, a young Jewish man. It takes extreme courage for Max to make the trip to their home in the first place, and even to trust them.

    As the characters grow and change, courage becomes a bigger and bigger factor in their lives. In fact, it becomes a life-sustaining attribute and a testament to their positive humanity. The courage to resist unjust laws and practices and to display their resistance publicly, even in small ways, makes these characters an inspiration to many readers.

    Questions About Courage

    1. Who's the most courageous character and why? Who is the least courageous character?
    2. What gives Max courage?
    3. What are some courageous moments in the novel?
    4. What is your most courageous moment? What would you like it to be? Do you know, or have you heard of anyone you thought was particularly courageous? Can you connect that with The Book Thief?

    Chew on This

    Rudy's teddy bear is a symbol of his courage.