Study Guide

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas Themes

  • Family

    From the very beginning of <em>The Boy in the Striped Pajamas</em>, there's a sense of fragmentation and isolation in Bruno's family. He comes home to find his things being packed by the maid, Maria, and his father's in Auschwitz before we even finish the first page. Once they move to the new house, his parents and Gretel more or less fade into the background—we get the sense that Bruno is on his own. A lot. If his father isn't at the concentration camp, he's in his office, and his mom's often napping or taking medicinal Sherries. And Gretel? Only dolls and maps for her, so buzz off. No wonder Bruno longs for a friend.

    Questions About Family

    1. What sort of relationship do Bruno's parents have with each other? How would you describe it? Find evidence in the text to support your answer.
    2. Is Bruno a mama's boy or a daddy's boy? Again, give examples from the text to prove your point.
    3. Do you think Bruno is affected by the looseness of his family unit? Why or why not?
    4. How would you describe the relationship between Bruno and Gretel?

    Chew on This

    Bruno's family is to blame for what happens to him in Auschwitz. If they weren't so closed off to him—and if they were more willing to answer his questions—he never would have gone under the fence.

    In this book, family only hurts you—they either aren't there when you need them, or they get taken from you and leave you heartbroken.

  • Lies and Deceit

    In Bruno's family, lies and deception are why he doesn't know what's going on around him. When he asks his mom why they're moving, for instance, she just says it's for his dad's "important" job. When he asks who the people in the striped pajamas are, his father says they're "not people." Way to be super cryptic, you two. In the end, all the lies lead to Bruno lying about where he goes and what he does in his free time—so while we can't be totally sure, it seems possible that with more transparency in his family, Bruno might have met a different end in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. Bruno and his grandmother are the only ones who question the status quo. Using the text, explain why each of them is willing to do so. What similarities do you notice? How about key differences?
    2. Bruno's mom lies to him about what his dad does for a living. Why does she do this? Remember to look beyond this moment in the book to formulate your answer.
    3. Does anyone not lie in this book? If so, who and why not? If not, what does this tell you?

    Chew on This

    In The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, all the lies told to Bruno do him more harm than good. Lying doesn't protect him at all.

    Bruno wouldn't have been any better off if his parents had told him the truth—the horrors of the Holocaust are incomprehensible to a child, without firsthand experience.

  • Race

    Even though the subject is hardly talked about in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, race is everywhere in this book since it was a major player in the Holocaust—though there were many others, Jewish people were a primary target for the Nazis. In our story, the defining difference between Bruno and Shmuel is that Shmuel is Jewish.

    Although Bruno doesn't realize that the people on the other side of the fence are Jews until close to the end of the novel, he's grown-up hearing propaganda about Germany being the best. How could he not with a Nazi commandant as a father and slews of soldiers always hanging around? This is a kid who's literally had Hitler in his house.

    Questions About Race

    1. Is it believable that Bruno does not know if he is Jewish or not? Use the text to support your answer.
    2. Do you think Gretel can be considered anti-semitic? Why or why not? Again, turn to the book for evidence.
    3. Why do you think Shmuel never talks about being Jewish?
    4. What is the main difference between Jews and Germans in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas?

    Chew on This

    Bruno disguising himself as a Jewish prisoner and getting killed shows how arbitrary prejudice is.

    That Bruno and Shmuel don't talk about race shows that its value is learned instead of innate.

  • Violence

    In general, violence in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is like the elephant in the room—we know it's there, but it's never talked about. We think this is because the book is seen through the eyes of Bruno, a young kid who can't quite comprehend what's going on around him. There are a few instances of public displays of violence and evidence of abuse by Nazis against Jews—specifically against Shmuel and Pavel—but if you know just a bit about the Holocaust, then you know that what isn't shown is way worse.

    Questions About Violence

    1. What is the first instance of violence in the novel? How is it described? How does it set violence up in the book?
    2. What do you think Lieutenant Kotler does to Pavel after he spills the wine on his lap?
    3. Why do you think Bruno doesn't ask more questions about Shmuel's bruises?
    4. What is the point of not showing the violence enacted upon the prisoners in Auschwitz? Does it work for you as a reader? Why or why not?
  • Morality and Ethics

    For such a young boy, Bruno has an impressively strong and sound sense of morality and ethics in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. We don't think it comes from his father (a Nazi), so we can only assume he gets it from the female figures in his life (his mother and grandmother). Bruno, unlike many Nazis, does not view anyone else in his life as less or subhuman. That includes the help—Maria and Pavel—and of course Shmuel, who is Jewish. Bruno is more interested in bonds than differences, and looks for loyalty, trust, and kindness in people—qualities found in any good human being, no matter their race or class.

    Questions About Morality and Ethics

    1. Who do you think teaches Bruno the difference between right and wrong? How do you know?
    2. Would you say that Bruno's father is a bad man? Why or why not? Use the text for evidence.
    3. Does anyone try to explain to Bruno why Jewish people are put in concentration camps? Point to evidence in the text.

    Chew on This

    Of all the characters, Bruno and his grandmother have the highest level of morality and ethics.

    Gretel is an example of a child with a corrupt sense of morals.

  • Friendship

    When Bruno is forced to leave Berlin in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, one of his main complaints is that he also has to leave his three best friends. To make matters worse, when he gets to the new house in Auschwitz, there are no other families or children around. Ugh—so long, social life. When he meets Shmuel, though, a kid on the other side of the fence, it's the beginning of a beautiful—albeit short-lived—friendship.

    Despite their many differences, these two form a bond that transcends race, and even fences—so much so, that when asked if he still wants to go back to Berlin, Bruno confidently says no. In a world governed by hatred, Bruno and Shmuel show that friendship can thrive even in darkness.

    Questions About Friendship

    1. What is Bruno's first reaction to Shmuel? How does his understanding of Shmuel change over time?
    2. What do Bruno and Shmuel have in common? What is different about them?
    3. Do you think Bruno would be friends with Shmuel if there were children on his side of the fence? Why or why not?
    4. Why do you think Gretel is okay with not having any friends? What makes her different from Bruno in that sense?

    Chew on This

    If it weren't for the Holocaust, Bruno and Shmuel wouldn't be friends.

    Both Bruno and Shmuel need friendship to distract themselves from their loneliness.

  • Freedom and Confinement

    Perhaps surprisingly, in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, freedom and confinement apply to Shmuel and Bruno. Both are in places they were forced to go to, and both can't leave. Of course the gigantic difference is that Shmuel is in a concentration camp and Bruno is in a house. Shmuel is drastically confined—first to his house, then to a shared room, then a train, and eventually in Auschwitz. Bruno, however, has the freedom to walk out of his house when he wants and does not fear for his life.

    In their confinement, though, both boys struggle with loneliness. And in the unlikely friendship they form, they both find a bit of freedom from their isolation. Now if you'll excuse us, someone must be cutting onions in the vicinity.

    Questions About Freedom and Confinement

    1. How does Bruno's confinement in Auschwitz differ from that of Shmuel's? Don't limit yourself to physical differences—use the text to dig into emotional and psychological differences, too.
    2. Would you say that Bruno lives in a sort of prison? Why or why not?
    3. What do you make of Bruno giving up his freedom to join Shmuel on his side of the fence? What is the author trying to say with this?
    4. Do you believe Shmuel ever has a chance at freedom? Explain.

    Chew on This

    Bruno and Shmuel's confinements are ultimately too different to be considered comparable.

    Having Bruno as a friend is a way for Shmuel to mentally escape Auschwitz and attain a sort of freedom.

  • Warfare (The Holocaust)

    The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is set during World War II, primarily right next to Auschwitz, one of the biggest concentration camps in the Holocaust. And yet, when it comes to Bruno, our main character, there's only one instance in which he confront mortality: when his grandmother dies.

    While warfare isn't particularly visible on Bruno's side of the fence, on Shmuel's side, it's a totally different story. Shmuel's mother's "taken away," his grandfather "disappears," and then one day, his father doesn't come back from work. When your entire people are systematically under attack, it's safe to say that war is being waged against you—which is exactly the case for Shmuel and the other prisoners held in Auschwitz.

    Questions About Warfare (The Holocaust)

    1. How are the boys and men described who live on the other side of the fence? How about on Bruno's side? Where can you see the impact of war in both of these populations?
    2. How do we first find out that Shmuel and his family are Jewish? What is Bruno's reaction (if any)?
    3. Why do you think Boyne decides to include images of the Star of David and the Swastika in the novel?
    4. What differences are there between Jews and non-Jews in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas?

    Chew on This

    By omitting gory details about warfare and the Holocaust, Boyne downplays the importance of the event.

    In this book, apathy is violence in its own right.