This seems pretty straightforward, right? The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a description of what Bruno sees on the other side of the fence:
He wore the same striped pajamas that all the other people on that side of the fence wore and a striped cloth cap on his head. (10.535)
We're at the midway point in the novel here, and introduced to Shmuel, Bruno's friend on the other side. But there's a catch: Shmuel isn't the only boy who wears striped pajamas, and no, we're not talking about his fellow prisoners. We dig into this big time over in the "Symbols" section, so be sure to check it out, but right now we'll leave you with this: Bruno puts them on, too. And when he does, we're pretty sure he's the boy in striped pajamas the title refers to.
But seriously—hop over to the "Symbols" section pronto. You won't be sorry… though you may never look at jammies the same way again.
Okay, so technically the ending is only one line, but we think it's better served in two, so here you go:
Of course all this happened a long time ago and nothing like that could ever happen again.
Not in this day and age. (20.1322-1323)
Hopeful much? Remember: At this point, we know Bruno has died during an act of friendship along with Shmuel, so we've seen the Holocaust literally destroy two completely innocent children. And this violence feels pretty exceptional, right? That seems to be what these last two lines are crossing their fingers for, anyway.
But while these last two lines read like reassurance, in doing so, they subtly encourage readers to question their validity. They're all, this is true… right? And as readers, as we try to affirm this, we find ourselves thinking ofother genocidal campaigns that have happened since the end of the Holocaust—in Darfur, for instance (though Darfur is only one of many examples). As this happens, we realize that while the scale of the Holocaust may not have been repeated, the violent instincts underlying it are alive and well.
Are you a history buff? If so, then you're probably sitting pretty when it comes to World War II in this story. See, there are war stories in which it's all about the nitty gritty details of war—think: specific battles, dates, routes, and such—and then there's The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, a book that is all about World War II… and yet concerned with the war itself very little.
This is because, at its heart, this book is more invested in humanizing the Holocaust—the atrocity World War II is most known for—than specific details. Which is good, because it's main character is nine years old. And nine-year-olds aren't exactly known for the battle smarts. To humanize the Holocaust, the book steers clear of tactics and politics, instead honing in on how it impacts two young friends.
That said, it's worth knowing a bit about World War II just so you have a sense of what the time was like, so if you're not familiar, check out our guide. And while the book isn't super concerned with historical details, it is concerned with two locations: Berlin and Auschwitz. So let's check them out.
We don't spend a good deal of time in Berlin in this story, but it's where Bruno and his family are from, and for this reason, it really matters setting-wise. Berlin is in Germany, and prior to Nazi rule, was home to a large Jewish population. Unfortunately, though, it was also the capital of the Reich, and as such, riddled with Nazi propaganda and violence against Jewish people.
Knowing that this is where Bruno comes from makes it easier to understand how little he comprehends what he sees in Auschwitz—though plenty of violence unfolded in Berlin, concentration camps were built elsewhere. Plus, he comes from a place that, on a governmental level, is pretty much devoutly anti-Semitic.
On the flip side, though, for our main man, Berlin represents comfort. His family has a very nice home there, and it's where Bruno's friends are—he has absolutely no beef with Berlin. It's his happy place, and importantly, his happy place is in his past.
When Bruno and his family move to Auschwitz, the setting changes both physically and tonally. Bruno's new house is smaller and duller; there are no markets, no restaurants, and no families or children around to interact with. Berlin this most definitely is not.
Interestingly, in Berlin Bruno lives pretty blissfully unaware of the horrors being committed against Jewish residents, and he does the same in Auschwitz to a degree as well, despite living literally next to a concentration camp. And not just any concentration camp, either—one of the biggest and most notorious camps of them all.
If in Berlin we only see Bruno's nice little life, though, once he moves to Auschwitz we get glimpses of life on the other side of the fence. The people there are starving and gray, missing their families and forced into tattered clothes. Bruno may not quite get it, but for us as readers, it's super clear that life on the other side is hardly living at all.
You don't have to be a historian of the Holocaust to understand the events surrounding The Boy in the Striped Pajamas—most of the action takes place near Auschwitz, but the book generally steers clear of nitty gritty details like dates, names, procedures, weapons, and geography. On top of that, the language is simple (we're talking nine-year-old levels of complicated) for the most part, with short dialogue and a pretty to-the-point approach.
Quick: What's your neighbor's name? You know it, right? Yeah, we thought so—it's just kind of how things go with neighbors. You live next to someone long enough, and you're bound to know their name.
Well, unless you're Bruno and Gretel.
In The Boy With the Striped Pajamas, Bruno and Gretel are uprooted from their home in Berlin and move (along with their parents and hired help) to a house in Poland right next to Auschwitz, one of the largest concentration camps of the Holocaust. As far as neighbors go, this would be a tough one to miss—after all, it's filled with starving people, all wearing the same drab clothing and Star of David armbands, who are constantly corralled and yelled at by soldiers.
Because of this, the fact that neither Bruno nor Gretel can say Auschwitz, instead calling it Out-With, says a lot. These two clearly don't understand where they are—Bruno even thinks he's still in Germany until Shmuel clues him in. Plus, Bruno and Gretel think Out-With is the name of their house—not the concentration camp that lies on the other side of the fence. They may literally be neighbors with the horrors of the Holocaust, but the bubble of privilege they live in as the children of Nazis remains pretty impenetrable.
When Bruno asks Gretel what the name Out-With means, she says:
"Out with the people who lived here before us, I expect." (3.124)
On one hand, this is just further evidence of how oblivious these two are about what's going on around them. But on the other hand, it's a pretty poignant statement about what's going on around them, even if Gretel doesn't intend it as such: In the Auschwitz concentration camp, the Nazis are killing the Jews, trying to get them 'out' of the world. So while the name of Bruno and Gretel's new home is technically Auschwitz, Out-With speaks pretty aptly to what is being done there.
Have you ever heard the phrase the eyes are the window to the soul? Well, in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, we can flip this around: In this book, the window is an eye of Bruno's soul. Yes, that feels a little awkward to say, but hang with us.
After moving to Auschwitz with his family, Bruno has no clue that his new neighbor is one of the biggest, baddest concentration camps in the entire Holocaust. He's only nine-years-old, after all, and it's not like anyone in his family would ever tell him (for more on this, read up on Bruno's parents in the "Characters" section). Plus, he's way more concerned about having left his friends and fancier house behind—you know, kid concerns.
In Bruno's room, however, there's a window. Check out what happens when he finds it:
He put his face to the glass and saw what was out there […] his hands stayed by his sides because something made him feel very cold and unsafe. (2.95)
Through the glass window, Bruno sees the prisoners and buildings of Auschwitz—and the more he looks, the more he wants to understand what they're doing and who they are. The window, then, represents a loss of innocence for our main man (er, boy). As he looks through it and his comprehension grows, we understand that something is shifting deep inside him—what he sees makes "him feel very cold and unsafe." And importantly, he doesn't just pull down the blinds or look away.
After seeing the prisoners through his window, Bruno starts to question what's going on. He gets his sister, Gretel's, input, and while she's not exactly a reliable source of information, as her attention is easily drawn back toward her dolls, an important distinction between the siblings emerges: Bruno stays curious. The more he asks, the more he knows, and although he never understands everything, after looking through the window the first time, Bruno is no longer content to live in ignorance, either.
The fence separating Bruno's family's house from Auschwitz might seem like a pretty straightforward symbol: It's a fence, so it keeps things apart. Next, please.
But not so fast. Let's take a look at this fence, shall we? We're told:
There was a huge wire fence that ran along the length of the house […] the fence was very high, higher even than the house they were standing in […]. (4.162)
A picket fence this most definitely is not—if anything, it seems more like a cage; it's that all encompassing and inescapable. Which, of course, is its purpose: keeping the prisoners of Auschwitz right where the Nazis wants them—away from everyone else, and ready to do whatever it is the Nazis desire at the drop of a hat.The fence, then, represents the terrible work of the Holocaust.
The fence isn't just about what's on the other side, though; it's also about the side Bruno lives on with his family. On their side, nobody openly questions what happens within the camp, and instead Bruno and the rest of his family basically just keep on keeping on, despite the plight of their neighbors. In this way, the fence draws our attention to the sharp contrast between the lives unfolding on each side of the fence—one filled with freedom and plenty, and the other destroying people one day at a time.
While people like Bruno's father and Gretel are perfectly content on their side of the fence—making it clear they see Jewish people as different from them (otherwise they would not be cool with the fence)—when Bruno meets Shmuel, he'd love to cross over to play with him. But he can't. The fence keeps the boys apart for the vast majority of their friendship, making it clear to readers that forming friendships across ethno-religious lines under Nazi rule is no easy feat.
In fact, to say it's no easy feat is really an understatement: When Bruno does cross the fence, disguising himself as a camp prisoner in order to help Shmuel look for his father, he's forced into a gas chamber along with his friend. In Auschwitz, crossing the fence can literally kill you. Yikes.
Come on, admit it: You spent a bunch of this book periodically scratching your head and wondering why it was named after Shmuel, Bruno's friend who wears the striped pajamas. And then, when you got to the end, you suddenly found yourself with something in your eye as you watched Bruno put them on and sneak under the fence to help his friend find his father.
For much of the story, the striped pajamas are a reminder of the differences between Bruno and Shmuel's lives—differences that can ultimately be traced to Shmuel's Jewish identity and the Nazis' gross injustices against him and his people. His clothes are a visible reminder that he—and everyone around him—is imprisoned, taken from their homes and forced into a terrible situation they have little power to escape. When Bruno asks Shmuel why everyone on his side of the fence wears the pajamas he replies:
"That's what they gave us when we got here […] they took away our other clothes." (14.883)
Clothes are a mode of self-expression, a means of letting the world know who we are. Taking people's clothes and forcing them into tattered uniforms is a way of attacking their individual identities—it literally strips them of the ability to share who they are visually. The Nazis, of course, had other ways of controlling their prisoners, but the striped pajamas are one that Bruno, at the age of nine, recognizes as different. It's a clue to him that something is off on the other side of the fence, even if he can't quite grasp what it is.
The striped pajamas in this book signal more than just the death of self-expression and individual identity—they represent death itself. And friendship. After all, Bruno puts a pair on and sneaks to the other side to help Shmuel look for his dad, an act of true love and support. In doing so, though, he loses his own individual identity, and is seen by the soldiers as one of the imprisoned masses, which is how he finds himself standing in the gas chamber holding hands with his friend.
Yeah, we may never wear striped pajamas again…
There are books that are all about pop culture and references, and then there are books about an unlikely friendship between two nine-year-old boys, that are way more concerned with characters than the world around them. This is one of those books.