Theme - Mrs. Cable

Themes – quotations can be found on the shmoop web-site
The Book Thief - Theme of Love
The Book Thief focuses on characters who are learning to love in the face of great hatred.
There is also romantic love in the novel. Of course, it's an innocent childlike romance that
tragedy cuts short. The novel is set in a Nazi Germany, where giving another person
something as seemingly small as a crust of stale bread or even a smile could be seen as act of
immense kindness. These acts almost always involve penalty. To love in such a harsh world
is both a necessity and a triumph for the characters of The Book Thief.
Questions About Love
Does Liesel love Rudy romantically? Is there romantic love between Max and Liesel?
Why does Liesel love Hans so much?
How is Hans's accordion connected to the idea of friendship?
What makes Walter love Max enough to risk his life for him?
Is Death a loving character? Why or why not?
Chew on This
Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.
Liesel begins to love Max when he gives her The Standover Man.
Death is the most loving character in the novel.
The Book Thief - Theme of Literature and Writing
The title suggests that literature and writing will be an important theme of this novel. The
narrator emphasizes the power of words and language. Ironically Death infuses life into
language as he creates poetry from the experiences he records.
The story opens with Liesel stealing a book and near the end deaths steals Liesel’s book only
to give it back to her when she dies.
The Book Thief is framed by various other books, not the least of which is protagonist Liesel's
memoir, The Book Thief.
The novel also shows the destruction of literature and writing, as dramatized by the burning
of Jewish creative and intellectual products in a book burning to commemorate Adolph
Hitler's birthday. Hitler in a sense is the ultimate book thief, stealing the books and lives of
Jewish people. Max Vandenburg, a Jew hiding from the Nazis, gets a small revenge for this
by painting over the pages of Hitler's own book, Mein Kampf, and writing stories for Liesel
over the top of them. Max keeps creativity alive by using Hitler’s book to re-tell his own
story. This is a small act of defiance and demonstration of self-determination.
The story also shows that even in the poorest situations books can be created as gifts. Max
created a book for Liesel. Hans and Liesel paint words on the basement walls. Liesel brings
scavenged newspapers home for Max for the crossword which keeps his mind engaged.
Even in the hardest times, stories can be read to bring hope. Liesel reads to the people in the
bomb shelter and “soon a quietness started bleeding through the crowded basement.” “A
voice played the notes inside her. This, it said, is your accordion.” After the air raid, Frau
Holtzapfel negotiates a deal that stops her spitting on Rosa’s door and offering her coffee
ration if Liesel will go and read to her two days a week. Liesel’s visits to Ilsa Hermann’s
house to read, gives some life or purpose to Ilsa. Rudy rescues a book from the Amper river
to please Liesel and to overturn the meanness of a bully. Liesel is the only survivor of the
bombing of Himmel Street because she was in the basement writing her own story. “She was
desperately holding onto the words who had saved her life.”
Overall, the novel seems to demonstrate the power that words of friendship have to
overshadow words of hatred.
Questions About Literature and Writing
1. Which is your favorite of Liesel's books, and why? Which do you think is her
2. Why does Liesel decide to write about her life? Why does Max?
3. How is Hitler's book, Mein Kampf, used in the novel? How do you feel about this
4. Why does Liesel tear up a book in Ilsa Hermann's library?
Chew on This
Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.
Writing saves Liesel's life, literally and figuratively.
Reading becomes a way for Liesel to help others and gives her a sense of purpose.
The Book Thief - Theme of War
The Book Thief is steeped in war. It's set primarily between 1939 and 1943 in Nazi Germany.
Both the Holocaust and World War II are going on at this time. Warfare shapes the
characters' lives and impact their choices. The narrator of the tale, Death, doesn't take kindly
to war. Because of it, he can't get a vacation, or even a slow day. This gets us into some
controversial territory. Some would argue that the Allies had to make war on Germany in
order to stop the Holocaust and Hitler's plan to take over the world. While Death doesn't
suggest an alternative to war in situations such as this, he does raise the questions through his
anti-war stance.
Questions About War
1. Does this novel increase your knowledge of World War II? Why or why not?
2. Have you learned anything surprising about World War II?
3. What are some of the battles being fought in Molching? Do they comment on the
larger war around the town?
4. Do you think that the Allies were justified in their bombing campaign against
Germany? Why or why not?
5. Do any of the characters fight internal wars? If so, which ones, and what are they
6. How does Death feel about war?
Chew on This
Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.
When Hans gives bread to a Jewish man, he's performing an act of resistance against the war.
In spite of the civilian tragedies, bombing Germany was necessary to stop the war.
There are always non-violent solutions. The Allied bombings of Germany were not justified
The Book Thief - Theme of Mortality
Death, The Book Thief's narrator, keeps us constantly focused on mortality. To be clear, this
Death has nothing to do with why people die. Rather, he's exists because people die. He has
the task of separating their souls from their bodies and carrying those souls away. Death lets
us know from the beginning pages that this is a tragic story. Set during World War II and the
Holocaust, we witness the deaths of many innocent people. Death tells us that most of the
characters we come to love will die by the end of the book. Who survives in the novel? That's
the big surprise Death saves for the ending. We'd be remiss to give it away here. So, open up
that book. And don't forget to look at the pictures!
Questions About Mortality
1. What is Death like in this novel? Did he surprise you? Why or why not?
2. Did Zusak make a good choice casting Death as a narrator?
3. What do you think of Death's conception of dying? How does it compare with other
ideas you have or have heard about?
4. Will Death ever be able to take a vacation?
Chew on This
Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.
The novel makes the argument that dying is easier than living with the loss of a loved one.
The Book Thief is important in our understanding of the complexities of World War II
because of its focus on mortality.
The Book Thief Theme of Identity
Identity is a tricky business in Nazi Germany, especially if you are Jewish. To stay alive, a
Jewish person must stay hidden. Being hated and persecuted takes a big toll on a person's
identity, especially when it's combined with starvation, physical abuse, and the worst living
conditions imaginable. For most of the characters, the situation makes guilt a huge part of
their identities. A wrong move can result in instant death for loved ones, not to mention one's
self. The novel's non-Jewish characters refuse to be identified as Nazis and forge new
identities from friendship, love, and resistance to injustice.
Questions About Identity
1. Do you identify with any of the characters? Which ones and why? If you don't
identify with any of them, why not?
2. How does Jessie Owens factor into Rudy's identity?
3. How does Liesel's identity change when she meets Max? How about Rosa's?
4. How does Max's identity change during the Holocaust?
Chew on This
Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.
Max's identity as the Jewish fist fighter helps him survive the Holocaust.
Until she meets Liesel, Ilsa Hermann's entire identity is built around the death of her son.
The Book Thief - Theme of Criminality
The Book Thief might challenge our ideas about crime and criminality. What if the laws of
the land require its citizens to commit crimes against humanity? That's what's going on in
Nazi Germany during most of the novel. Our main characters decide to err on the side of
kindness and love, regardless of what the laws say. Liesel's stealing of books and her and
Rudy's other adventures in thievery could be seen as symbolic of the way everything is topsyturvy in this society. One must steal and break the law in order to maintain a basic positive
humanity. These courageous characters risk everything, day and day again, to resist unjust
Questions About Criminality
Is it wrong for Rudy and Liesel to steal food? Why, or why not?
Would Liesel have stolen from Ilsa Hermann if she was actually afraid of her?
How does the idea of book thievery shape the novel?
Based on what you've read in The Book Thief, is breaking the law ever justified?
Are there any unjust laws where you live? If so, what are they and why are they
unjust? What can you do about it?
6. Have you ever felt like a criminal? If so, why? Did you deserve to feel that way, or
Chew on This
Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.
The Book Thief does a good job of showing how laws can be used to commit crimes.
Liesel's book stealing is justified because she uses the books to help herself and others.
The Book Thief - Theme of Language and Communication
In many ways, the Holocaust was a war fought with words. It relied on mass communication
technology to convey its message of hate and to mobilize a nation in its service. But, The
Book Thief focuses on using language to heal, to save, and to fight against injustice. It
expresses a belief in the power of language to make a positive difference in the world. It
recognizes the extreme power language contains. The novel shows us the very best and very
worst ways language can be used. Sprinkled with German words and phrases, the novel also
helps us feel the friendliness and beauty that this language can embody. This is important
because after World War II and the Holocaust, German was seen as a language of hate and
fear. This book argues that it's not about the language you speak in, or even the words you
use, but how you use those words that's important.
Questions About Language and Communication
1. Why can't Liesel tell Rosa and Rudy the way she feels about them? Why is she more
successful in communicating her feelings to Hans and Max?
2. What do Ilsa Hermann's bathrobes communicate?
3. Why does Rosa have such a drastic mode of communicating? Why does she become
4. How do you see radio and newspapers being used in the novel?
5. How would it feel to live in a place where there are constant sirens signaling air raids?
6. What is the effect of the use of German in the book? Do the German words and
passages make things confusing? Do they make the story feel more authentic? Why or
why not?
Chew on This
Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.
Liesel's biggest failure is her failure to communicate her love to Rudy when he is alive.
The Book Thief - Theme of Suffering
You'll notice suffering from page one of The Book Thief. Cold, hunger, emotional and
physical abuse, guilt, the horror of the battlefield – all these play heavily into the suffering of
the characters. Set primarily in Nazi Germany during the Holocaust, suffering is the rule, not
the exception. The novel doesn't enter the concentration camps and focus on the immense
sufferings occurring there. Instead, these camps are a dark shadow coloring everything in
horror and fear. Suffering and guilt over the loss of loved ones is also a major focus in The
Book Thief.
Questions About Suffering
1. What are the various forms of suffering we encounter in the novel? Have you
experienced any of these?
2. If a reader doesn't know much about the Holocaust, does the novel adequately express
the suffering Jews experienced during the Holocaust? Why or why not?
3. Is guilt connected to suffering in The Book Thief? Why or why not?
4. What are some sites of intense suffering in the novel?
5. How do the main characters cope with suffering?
Chew on This
Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.
Learning to comfort and aid those who are suffering is a big part of Liesel's development as a
The novel argues that trying to ease suffering is the noblest of causes.
The Book Thief - Theme of Courage
The characters in The Book Thief exhibit great courage in the face of great adversity. It takes
courage for the Hubermanns to take in Max Vandenburg, a young Jewish man. It takes
extreme courage for Max to make the trip to their home in the first place, and even to trust
them. As the characters grow and change, courage becomes a bigger and bigger factor in their
lives. In fact, it becomes a life-sustaining attribute and a testament to their positive humanity.
The courage to resist unjust laws and practices and to display their resistance publically, even
in small ways, makes these characters an inspiration to many readers.
Questions About Courage
1. Who's the most courageous character and why? Who is the least courageous
2. What gives Max courage?
3. What are some courageous moments in the novel?
4. What is your most courageous moment? What would you like it to be? Do you know,
or have you heard of anyone you thought was particularly courageous? Can you
connect that with The Book Thief?
Chew on This
Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.
Rudy's teddy bear is a symbol of his courage.