The novel ‘The Book Thief’, by Markus Zusak is an exceptional work of fiction that has a very specific historical context. The novel is based on the experience of a nine years old girl, Liesel, who lives in Germany during the span of World War II. The most brilliant aspect of the novel is that the entire plot of the novel is narrated by death, which uses the life and experiences of Liesel to explain the atrocities and vagaries inflicted upon the people during the war. In terms of the characters in the novel, Liesel is definitely the protagonist but death is also a very important character in the novel which is presented in the form of a frustrated character who is bored of his routine job. This essay tends to examine the novel in terms of how the character of the death is envisaged in the plot, how the death himself perceives his job, and how the death has a definite perspective regarding his job with respect to the humans.
Death’s character, his opinion of the ‘Job’ and relationship with humans
The novel deliberately uses the death as a narrator to explain some of the extremely human-like attributes evident in the death’s character. There are some specific instances in the novel which prove that the death is also moved by some typically human feelings indeed. Firstly, the concept of finding a meaning in the routine work is definitely a human characteristic as humans generally get bored of monotonous work regimes. Secondly, the death expresses his work to be extremely haunting to him as most of the times (during the world war) he has to extract the soul of those humans who were the maimed survivors or ‘leftover humans’ of a human action of destruction. He directly his work to the human acts of destruction, “I guess humans like to watch a little destruction. Sand castles, houses of cards, that’s where they begin” (Zusak 109). The death expresses the presence of various human-like emotions in him but is totally deprived of any natural humanity which makes him say, “I’m haunted by humans”. Thus, specific human-like emotions are knit into the character of death so that the readers can perceive the positive side of him as well his inclination towards human miseries. Finally, he also raises a question on the human nature of being subdued by the complacency to obey the orders, irrespective of their rationality, "They had no qualms about stealing, but they needed to be told" (Zusak 274). Here, the death has raised a question on the inhuman acts committed by the followers of Hitler and their ignorance about the cultural destruction they were actually doing. Thus, the novel has strategically woven the death’s character to expose flaws in the alleged human conduct of war.
Death is the narrator for the entire plot of the novel and his mindset is portrayed in a way similar to that of a person who is tired of doing his monotonous job. However, in the case of death, the job is to take away the souls of human beings. He is also disappointed by being associated with the end of life for a human but has no other thing to do, “Imagine smiling after a slap in the face. Then think of doing it twenty-four hours a day” (Zusak 211). The novel presents the agony of the death who is behaving like any other human in seeking some change from his boring work by doing some value-oriented activities along with his work. Thus, the death assimilates the stories of some very courageous humans and this extra work along with his ‘job’ gives him an opportunity to have some variety of experiences. He is particularly interested in the story of the protagonist, Liesel, whom he considers highly courageous because of her experiences and her personality as an individual who has been through a lot of vagaries during the war. He also describes his inclination towards gathering such courageous stories as a m of adding some worth to his dull work as, "to prove to myself that you, and your human existence, are worth it" (Zusak 4). This unique aspect of gathering human stories gives a rather peculiar shade to the character of death as he seeks hope and optimism by collecting such specifically courageous stories of people like Liesel. Thus, death’s viewpoint of his job, as envisaged by the novel, is crafted to be similar to that of humans.
Thus, it can be inferred that the novel explicates this unique relationship of the death with humans where he is to understand, collect, and preserve the various emotions of the humans when he encounters them for the end of life. However, in spite of the fact that the death possesses all these human-like qualities, he is still not a human and is bound to conduct his duty of taking their souls away. He also equates his arrival in the lives as a result of the acts of human destruction, “The bombs were coming—and so was I” (Zusak 335). The narrative of the novel also gives a brief clue about the association of death and the afterlife of humans, although death eventually evades any discussion related to it but indirectly ratifies the trueness of the concept of the afterlife too. This aspect of the death is explained by his statement where he uses the names of all dead people to suggest his association with the afterlife, “Their drivers were Hitlers and Hubermanns, and Maxes, killers, Dillers, and Steiners” (Zusak 88). Therefore, death’s relationship with humans is not explained to be a cause of their end but as a result of their miseries and hardships.
Thus, it can be concluded that the novel intends to convey some of the universal truths via using the death as the narrator. For example, the notion of heaven and hell are totally negated by him as he considers that living a good life or a bad one is a blessing or punishment in itself. Also, the novel uses the death as the narrator to depict that even the death seems intrigued by the human acts of destruction and laments over the worsened state of humans and their pain. The novel has clearly established a relation between the death and humans to shed some insight on the atrocious acts during the World War and the suffering of the victims of Hitler’s nihilism in Germany.
Zusak, Markus."The Book Thief". Illustrated Reprint edition: Pennsylvania State University press, 2005.Print.