Is Captain Beck a hero or a villain? Are his final actions excusable in any way?
Beck has attributes of both a hero and a villain, but he can most accurately be described as a hero placed in an impossible situation. First of all, he repeatedly helps Vianne's family and those around them, therefore ensuring that they survive the first years of the war when Vianne was struggling to find money and resources. When Sophie falls ill he buys medicine that saves her life; when he receives extra ration cards as a high-ranking military officer, he shares his food with the family. Furthermore, when the Nazis come to round up the foreign-born Jews of the village, he informs Vianne ahead of time that she should hide Rachel during the day, therefore protecting her- even though she is caught in the end, Beck takes every possible course of action to prevent that. In spite of his golden intentions and altruistic actions, however, his final allegiance is clearly to his country, not to those around him. Although he cares deeply for Vianne and her family, and has grown to see them as his friends, he also realizes that if he does not find the British soldier hiding in her cellar and report him to the authorities, he will lose his position and likely be sent to a more dangerous one, therefore endangering his life and potentially taking away his own family's sole source of income. He is loyal to his own family and also to his country- in some capacity he believes that what Hitler is doing is right, and that it is his duty to fight the war for Germany the best that he can. His final actions are not excusable- he does betray a woman who had come to be his friend, as he knows that if the soldier is in her basement she will be punished for harboring an enemy- but they are explainable, because he goes to find the soldier to help his country in the war effort and to ensure his own position. Captain Beck is not a bad man- he is a good man faced with an impossible decision, who made the best choice that he could.
Explain the different ways in which Vianne and Isabelle resist the Nazi rule, and what this reveals about their characters.
Isabelle's rebellion is considerably more direct than Vianne's- at the beginning of the novel, when still in her sister’s village, she passes flyers in the village square that advertise the resistance movement and encourage villagers to join. When she moves to Paris she joins even more directly, hiding fallen British and American fighter pilots in her father’s apartment and helping smuggle them over the border into Spain, a journey that she completes dozens of times over the course of the war. Vianne’s rebellion is much quieter, and begins much later in the novel. She is resistant to revolution until halfway through the book, and even when she begins rebels on a much lower scale- at first hiding only her Jewish neighbor in her basement, and then hiding the neighbor’s son and disguising him as her own child. Later, she helps hide a few dozen Jewish children from the village in the local church’s orphanage to save them from the final Nazi roundup. Vianne hides her work from the village, determined not to let anyone know what it is she’s doing, while Isabelle assumes an entirely false identity, one where everyone in her circle knows her job. Isabelle’s method of resistance reveals her rebellious personality and her thirst for justice; she is determined to right the wrongs of the world and doesn’t care if doing so harms her. She is also extremely brave and extremely confident, willing to take enormous risks to correct authority that she sees fault in. Vianne’s method of resistance reveals that she is considerably shyer, much more withdrawn from the world. She is less confrontational and is unwilling to confront injustice directly most of the time, as she lacks the pure grit that her sister does, and is considerably more trusting of authority- she is willing to give those in power the benefit of the doubt, where Isabelle is immediately resistant to and wary of anyone with power.
Explain the irony of the book’s ending. How are the fates of each character ironic in their own way?
While Isabelle undergoes dozens of dangerous missions for the French Resistance and spends several months in a concentration camp, she dies only days after arriving back home in her sister’s village, of disease and malnutrition- death only coming after she had escaped the danger of the war. A similar breed of irony is true for the fates of Antoine and Sophie- both of them are also war survivors, living through prisoner of war camps, starvation and disease, but both succumb to cancer, a very ordinary cause of death, years after the end of the war. Finally, at the end of the novel Vianne is asked to accept an award in honor of her dead sister, a medal of recognition for her bravery during the war. While Vianne was reluctant to join the resistance movement in the first place, and rebelled on a much smaller scale than her sister, it is she that accepts this award of bravery for Isabelle.
How do the characters show hope and light in the face of darkness and brutality?
Isabelle and Vianne are pillars of strength for each other throughout the entire novel. While they bicker at first when forced to live with each other, they quickly begin to rely on each other for mental and emotional support. Vianne admires Isabelle’s work for the resistance and praises her bravery, and Isabelle admires the steadfast loyalty and devotion Vianne has to her daughter. Isabelle and Gaetan’s romantic relationship also gives the two hope for the future, and allows them a scrap of happiness in the face of the war. Furthermore, Vianne seeks happiness and light in her children- first in Sophie, trying to stay strong and gather resources so that her daughter might have a better life, and later in Ariel, the neighbor’s son who she adopts to save from the Nazis. For them Vianne rebels and fights the Nazi occupation, in order to give them a better life after the war. She finds the strength to get out of bed each day and fight the challenges that face her, from starvation to grief to abuse, in her children, and they give her hope to continue living. Finally, Isabelle finds strength in her father, a veteran of WWI who knows the horrors of war and still manages to join the Nazi resistance- and who later sacrifices himself to save her. She fights through the horrors of Ravensbrück concentration camp in the memory of her father, not wanting him to have died in vain, and refuses to give up information about the Resistance even when tortured, wanting to show the same unshakable strength that her father did.
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