Boyne concerns himself with the plight of female characters, though the details of their specific situations are revealed through the lens of Bruno's narration. Father's literal silencing of Mother in most of their conversations is representative of the figurative silencing of women's voices at this point in history, as well as in many times of war. At first, Mother reacts passive aggressively, the only way she can, for example by referring to Father as "some people." When Bruno overhears Mother confronting Father in Chapter Seventeen, she speaks up for herself and demands to leave Out-With. She tells Father, "This is your assignment, not ours. You stay if you want to" (187). At a time when gender roles determined that a wife obey her husband, this distinction between his responsibilities and her own is a bold statement.
Grandmother is outspoken about her strong disapproval of Father's new appointment to Commandant and represents the strongest voice among the female characters, who are the only ones with reservations about what is going on in their country. Maria must keep her silence because of her financial dependence on Bruno's Father and Mother makes small defiant gestures like protecting Pavel, but Grandmother spoke up loud and clear about her disapproval. Unfortunately, because of her position as a woman, she is unable to do anything to stop her son from pursuing his career in the Nazi party.
Childlike Misunderstanding of Tragedy
One of the ways Boyne establishes that the third-person narration is from Bruno's childish point of view is through the use of capitalization and misnaming of specific, recognizable names. For example, Bruno refers to his father's boss as "the Fury"; the reader must extrapolate that this is actually "the Furor," or Adolf Hitler. When Father prompts him to shout "Heil Hitler!" upon leaving the office at the end of Chapter Five, Bruno assumes this notorious Nazi salute is just "another way of saying, 'Well, goodbye for now, have a pleasant afternoon'" (54). Bruno understands that Father's office is "Out Of Bounds At All Times And No Exceptions," a phrase that he has memorized after hearing it many times from his parents, the reader imagines. Bruno's sister, Gretel, is introduced as being "Trouble From Day One" (21). This way of thinking about things so concretely, of making sense of a rule and applying it to all situations, is a characteristic of Bruno that identifies him as a child. The reader is encouraged to take on this childlike point of view through the use of capitalization. Because of the limits of the narrator, the reader is able to approach the horrors of the Holocaust as if he or she has no prior knowledge - much like Bruno. The reader is required to put together details Bruno notices in order to make sense of the larger issues at play.
Timelessness of War and Genocide
In Chapter Three, Gretel tells Bruno that the place they are now living is called "Out-With," and this is what he continues to call it from this point on in the story. It is clearly a misunderstanding of the name "Auschwitz," but by not referring to the concentration camp by its proper name, Boyne avoids specificity to a certain extent. Bruno doesn't understand the derogatory term that Lieutenant Kotler calls Pavel and, later, Shmuel. By not specifically naming the word, Boyne both allows the reader to take on Bruno's childlike perspective and suggests the universality of this interaction. Lieutenant Kotler could be any soldier during any war time, shouting a derogatory term to dehumanize a victim of any genocide. This allows the fable a sense of timelessness, extending beyond the specific situation at Auschwitz.
In the last chapters, Boyne issues a veiled call to action to the reader, who could be living during a time of war or genocide. The most obvious instance is in the ironic tone on the final page of the story, after a devastated Father has been taken away from Out-With: "Of course all this happened a long time ago and nothing like that could ever happen again. Not in this day and age" (216). Boyne means for the reader to consider just the opposite: there are genocides occurring in this day and age, all over the world, and the reader is likely employing various coping strategies to ignore or dismiss them. Bruno's annoyance at being forced to march with the group of Jews in the concentration camp is representative of the disconnect many witnesses to genocide experience. As he is marched through the cold mud and rain, "he longed to be back in his house, watching all this from a distance and not wrapped up in the center of it" (211). This idea is a commentary on the perspective of those who allowed the Holocaust to occur while they remained removed from it, since it did not affect them personally. It applies to all witnesses to genocide in any time or place. The reader is meant to question how easy it is to watch "from a distance," as long as one is not victimized.
The indoctrination of children employed by the Nazi party is most obvious in the character of Gretel. When we first meet her in Chapter Three, she is clearly a child, though a few years older than Bruno. She spends most of her time arranging her dolls and has brought the entire collection from Berlin with her. Significantly, she is the one who tells Bruno that the name of their new home is "Out-With." This misnaming of the specific location marks Gretel as a child at this point, in contrast to the teenager she will grow into by the end of the story. When Bruno points out how young she is in front of Lieutenant Kotler, she responds by snapping at him, "'I'll be thirteen in a couple of weeks' time. A teenager. Just like you'" (74). Her words to Lieutenant Kotler accomplish two things: first, they foreshadow her mental shift as she grows out of childhood; and second, they remind the reader that some of the Nazi soldiers committing horrible actions against the Jews in the concentration camps were indoctrinated teenagers. Finally, Gretel replaces her collection of dolls with maps of Europe given to her by Father, which she updates using the newspapers each day as she reads about developments in the war. Her transition out of childhood naivete is represented clearly in her correction of Bruno's usage of "Out-With" in place for "Auschwitz." It was she who first told him the name of the place, but now she corrects him. Her understanding of the situation is still simplistic and lacks understanding: she has accepted what her Father and Herr Liszt have taught her without much critical thinking.
Natural vs. Unnatural
The theme of unnaturalness, especially as it relates to Auschwitz and the Holocaust generally, is introduced in Chapter Six. Instead of answering Bruno's question about whether she likes it at Out-With, Maria describes how much she loved the garden at the house in Berlin. Bruno takes this as an indirect answer to his question, since it is in such stark contrast to the atmosphere at Auschwitz. The theme of the Holocaust being unnatural arises again in Chapter Eleven, when Mother protests the move to Out-With by saying, "...as if it's the most natural thing in the world and it's not, it's just not..." (124). The Nazis used the argument that the Aryan race was "naturally" superior to all others, using the idea of natural dominance as justification in exterminating the Jewish population. But Boyne turns this assumption on its head, pointing out throughout the story just how "unnatural" the atmosphere and situation at Out-With really is.
Justification of Evil Actions
Boyne embeds questions and key ideas about the nature of human interaction into the characters' conversations in order to draw the reader's attention to larger issues. For example, Father assures Bruno that the Jews on the other side of the fence are "not people at all" - this is how he justifies to himself killing them at Auschwitz (53).
Maria's description of how kind Father has been to her serves as a commentary on the mental and emotional justification for Nazi soldiers generally, who might do kind deeds and appear to be wonderful people in other parts of their lives, while simultaneously carrying out the extermination of Jews.
Bruno's betrayal of Shmuel in front of Lieutenant Kotler is representative of the many people who betrayed their Jewish neighbors and friends during the Holocaust in similar ways, by simply being complacent. By distancing himself from Shmuel because he is afraid of the consequences of associating with the boy, Bruno contributes to Shmuel's punishment for a crime he did not commit: stealing food. The way Bruno considers his actions immediately following the event reflects a personal disconnect: "He wondered how a boy who thought he was a good person really could act in such a cowardly way toward a friend" (174). He feels ashamed of himself, but does not take action to right the wrong. When Shmuel finally returns to meet him at the fence, his face covered in bruises, Bruno apologizes. His words could have easily come from any of the Germans who fell in line with the Nazis and didn't speak up for the Jews during the Holocaust.
Another example of the theme of complacency is when Lieutenant Kotler attacks Pavel for accidentally spilling the wine on him. The narrator only states that, "What happened then was both unexpected and extremely unpleasant. Lieutenant Kotler grew very angry with Pavel and no one - not Bruno, not Gretel, not Mother and not even Father - stepped in to stop him doing what he did next, even though none of them could watch" (148-49). This omission of detail makes the interaction representative of all acts of violence against Jews at the hands of Nazis and, in fact, against the oppressed group in any genocide throughout history. Bruno and his family represent the bystanders who were repulsed by did not act to stop the violence.
The most obvious boundary in the story is the fence dividing Bruno's side of Out-With from Shmuel's side. But Boyne calls into question the arbitrary boundaries that got each boy to his side of the fence: most importantly, that between Jews and "Opposites." Shmuel serves as a mirror character for Bruno; they were born on the same day, and Bruno declares, "We're like twins" (110). The symbols of the Star of David and the Nazi Swastika, which are never named, come to represent the arbitrary boundary that allowed the Nazis to exterminate other human beings. In Chapter Twelve, Shmuel describes how he came to have to wear his Star of David armband and draws the symbol in the dirt. Bruno points out that his Father wears one, too, and draws the Nazi symbol in the dirt on his side of the fence. The key difference between them is that Shmuel is Jewish and thus a member of the oppressed group in this genocide, while Bruno happens to be German and thus a member of the oppressing group. When Bruno tells Shmuel that Father also wears an armband, Shmuel observes, "Yes, but they're different, aren't they?" (127).
The use of Shmuel's point of view further blurs the boundary between the two boys. When Bruno has put on the pajamas and turns around to show Shmuel what he looks like, "It was almost (Shmuel thought) as if they were all exactly the same really" (204). Boyne puts the indication of Shmuel's point of view in parentheses in order to imply that while the thought is Shmuel's, it is also a commentary on the situation generally. Once Bruno puts on the pajamas he looks no different from Shmuel, but really, the distinction made between the Jews and the Germans is arbitrary and erroneous, since they are all human beings.
At the core of this story is the question of what constitutes human nature. It especially emerges through the different characters' actions and personalities. While Shmuel and Bruno represent the childlike capacity for good and kindness, Lieutenant Kotler and Father demonstrate man's ability to execute unbelievable cruelty. In a story about the Holocaust, this question of how humans are inclined to treat one another and react in tragic situations is at the forefront.
Boyne seems to suggest that humans are constantly choosing how to treat themselves and others, rather than pointing to an inherent tendency for good or evil. Even at a young age, Bruno is able to change his perspective regarding live at "Out-With" throughout the course of the story. In contrast, Gretel chooses to become indoctrinated and wrapped up in the evil of the Nazi brainwashing.
The theme of innocence is tied to that of Bruno's childlike misunderstanding of the tragedy through which he is living. His innocence prevents him from understanding, in the last chapters, the fate he is about to experience in the gas chamber. As he is marched along with the other prisoners, "he wanted to whisper to them that everything was all right, that Father was the Commandant, and if this was the kind of thing that he wanted the people to do then it must be all right" (210). Bruno is, of course, completely wrong: this is the sort of thing Father wants the Jews to do, but there is nothing "all right" about it. The very character in whom Bruno has faith is the one who is bringing about the deaths of so many, his own son included.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Maria's mother worked for Bruno's grandmother as a seamstress. When she became ill, Bruno's father took care of her hospital bills, and later, her funeral. He then offered Maria a place in his household, which included room and board.