The Book Thief

What is the purpose of Death serving as the narrator of this story? What is the symbolism of each book that Liesel finds and steals? Use examples from the text to defend your position.

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The Book Thief Narrator:

Who is the narrator, can she or he read minds, and, more importantly, can we trust her or him?

First Person (Limited)

The Book Thief is narrated by an extremely overworked being who identifies himself as Death. Some readers love Death as a narrator; others not so much. We tend to think it's an interesting choice. Markus Zusak needed a narrator who could provide Liesel's point of view, but also provide information that Liesel, as a young girl in a relatively isolated town, wouldn't know about. He needed a narrator who could provide snapshots of the World War II outside of Himmel Street. Zusak could've just used a third-person narrator, but by using Death the author is able to offer a unique perspective on all the death and dying occurring during this historical period.

Now, Death is not omniscient – he doesn't know and see everything that's going on in the world. He's gets his information just like we do – from his personal experiences and from what he reads and hears about from others. In this story, much of what Death relates to us falls into the second category. His chief source for the story he's telling is The Book Thief, the book Liesel writes about her life.

But, for Liesel's story to make sense to us, Death needs to tell us about what's going on in other parts of Germany, Poland, and Russia during World War II, to provide us with details Liesel would have no way of knowing at the time she's writing her book. Dying is one of the main things going on. He interweaves this larger context with the story of Liesel and the people she loves and loses.

Check out Zusak had to say about why he chose Death as the narrator for The Book Thief:

Well, I thought I'm writing a book about war, and there's that old adage that war and death are best friends, but once you start with that idea, then I thought, well, what if it's not quite like that? Then I thought what if death is more like thinking, well, war is like the boss at your shoulder, constantly wanting more, wanting more, wanting more, and then that gave me the idea that Death is weary, he's fatigued, and he's haunted by what he sees humans do to each other because he's on hand for all of our great miseries. (source)

Now what do you think? Was Death a good choice for the role of narrator? What would the book have been like if it was narrated by a third-person narrator? Or by Liesel?



Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Much of the novel's symbolism derives from the books it features. Check out Liesel's "Character Analysis" for lots of discussion on how these books comment symbolically on Liesel, and how book stealing functions as a symbol of resistance against the Nazi regime.

The book burning scene is important to Liesel, but symbolically, it goes beyond her story. First of all, it's a symbol of the countless other book burning in Nazi Germany. It's a bit of a reduction to call these events "book burnings." As the novel indicates, it's not only books being burned, but also art, pamphlets, anything authored by a Jew, or which speaks favorably about Jewish people.

These burnings don't target a single author, or even a single idea, but the collective body of creative and intellectual work of a large group of people. This goes beyond censorship or protest, and it goes beyond books. For the Nazis, Jewish books symbolize Jewish people. The destruction of these books symbolized their goals, the destruction of the Jewish people. The crematoria, chambers where the bodies of Jewish people were incinerated, are notorious. The book burning in the novel reminds us of those crematoria, and helps keep us from getting too comfortable in the story. It also reminds us that Nazi propaganda techniques included destroying information, as well as spreading it.