The Book Thief

Summary and Analysis of Prologue

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Death introduces itself as the book's narrator and describes its work: after one dies, Death carries one's soul off from one's corporeal body. Death describes itself as affable, yet not nice; in discussing this work, Death is candid, noting that the reader is going to die, but that this is "nothing if not fair." In the prologue, Death acquires a cynical, sarcastic, and bluntly dark tone in addressing the audience and describing its work. Throughout the rest of the book however, Death's narration is less affected and can best be described as "third person subjective": Death will convey the dramatic events of the story of Liesel Meminger with occasional analysis.

Death explains that it deliberately tries to notice colors -- as opposed to bodies and people -- in its line of work as a way of distracting itself from the survivors, whom Death considers to be more tragic than the actual dead. Death introduces the story of a "perpetual survivor," later identified as Liesel Meminger, and briefly reveals the three episodes in which Death interacts with Liesel. Death thus foreshadows three key events expanded later in the book in the following three parts of the prologue.

BESIDE THE RAILWAY LINE [Described in Part One]

Death describes the blinding white of the snow and paints a small scene of two guards, one mother and daughter, and one corpse on the ground by a stopped train. The guards argue over what to do with the corpse. Death tries to focus on the snow but becomes curious about the girl and instead waits. The girl is described as "the book thief." Although not revealed here, the daughter is Liesel.

THE ECLIPSE [Part Nine]

A plane has crashed, and a boy with a toolbox -- later revealed to be Rudy Steiner -- arrives first at the scene. Liesel, the book thief, arrives next, and even though "years had passed," Death recognizes her. The boy takes a teddy bear out of his toolbox and puts it on the pilot's chest, and a crowd appears. The pilot's face appeared to be smiling; Death calls this a "final dirty joke," "another human punch line." Death carries off the pilot's soul and sees a momentary eclipse. Death says it has seen millions of these while carrying off souls, more than it cares to remember. Although not explained here, the pilot is an American who has just participated in an air raid; the Rudy, Liesel, and the rest of crowd has just come from bomb shelters.

THE FLAG [Part Ten]

Death: "The last time I saw her was red." This is the fiery sky of a massive bombing raid. Death finds piled bodies stuck to the street and rhetorically asks if fate or misfortune glued them there. Sardonically, Death answers its own question: "Let's not be stupid. / It probably had more to do with the hurled bombs, thrown down by humans hiding in the clouds." Death finds the book thief kneeling among rubble, clutching a book. Death wants to console her, but "that is not allowed." Instead Death follows her; she drops the book and Death later takes it from a garbage truck. Death: "I would keep it and view it several thousand times over the years."

Death explains that these three colors -- red, white, black -- most resonate with its memories of Liesel, and draws them on the page as a dash of red, a circle of white, and a swastika for black. These are the colors and symbols of the Nazi flag; the implication is that Nazism is responsible for the deaths in these three episodes.

Finally, Death explains that it carries a small legion of stories of perpetual survivors like Liesel, and that each one is "an attempt -- an immense leap of an attempt -- to prove to me that you, and your human existence, are worth it."

Death cautions the reader that it is not a violent or malevolent entity, that it is instead a "result." On a practical level, death is a biological process, the "result" of the end of a living being's metabolic processes. Yet in the frame of this novel, Death implies that it exists as a result of humanity's actions, that Death is kept busy by men who kill other men. The capacity of men to do evil, along with the capacity of men to do good, is a central theme of The Book Thief, and Death is both fascinated and conflicted by these extremes. Hitler and Stalin represent one extreme, Liesel and Hans Hubermann another. The novel invites the reader to consider the "worth" of humanity along with Death.