The Book Thief

Discuss the theme of isolation and abandonment and how it is illustrated in Liesel, Rudy, Max, and Rosa.

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Abandonment and Survivor's Guilt

In the prologue, Death explains that it is not the dead, but the heartbroken survivors of the dead that it cannot stand to look at. Different characters treat abandonment and guilt in different ways. Michael Holtzapfel survives the Battle of Stalingrad, but is unable to stand his guilt over living when his brother Robert died and ultimately commits suicide. Ilsa Hermann becomes a quiet, sullen woman after her only son is killed in 1918, yet Liesel brings her happiness and she urges Liesel not to make the same mistake she did by suffering for the rest of her life.

In World War I, Hans' friend Erik Vandenberg saves Hans' life by volunteering him for a written assignment on the day everyone in the regiment is sent into battle. Erik dies, and Hans feels guilty over Erik's death because Erik had a young son: Hans transmutes this guilt into a promise to help Erik's widow and ultimately saves the life of Erik's son Max. Max too feels guilty over leaving his family to hide from the Nazis. For him, the price of living "guilt and shame."

Death describes Liesel as the "perpetual survivor": she loses her mother, brother, Hans, Rosa, and Rudy, among others. Liesel is traumatized over the death of her younger brother and the realization that her mother has been persecuted by the Nazis. Liesel initially feels abandoned because her mother gave her up for adoption; she later realizes that her mother did this out of love, to save her daughter's life. After seeing Max be sent to a concentration camp, Liesel is able to turn her despair into writing the story of her own life. At the end of the novel, Death remarks that Liesel has experienced both beauty and brutality, suggesting that Liesel was ultimately able to come to terms with the fact that the human condition necessarily involves both suffering and happiness after having experienced extreme versions of both.