What is lost when one dies? Although it seems that his/her passionate soul disappears, the ones who mourn them still feel the person’s presence like a sweet fragrance in the air. The hair clip of a young girl holds the memories of her caring smile. The medals of a fallen soldier will still shine enough to remember his or her loyalty. During times of war, the smell of death lingers constantly, reminding citizens to focus towards bright love in the darkness that surrounds their country. Historic authors such as Markus Zusak incorporate the relationship between violence and compassion through the eyes of their narrators. Relayed by Death himself, The Book Thief shows how vulnerability brings Death closer to humans, yet he stays strictly passive, magnifying the reader’s sympathy for the characters in the novel. Set during the Holocaust, Death demonstrates no power of what unfolds, reveals his intrigue for the complicated minds of the characters, and becomes emotional and human.
Specifically, Death lacks the abilities to control the storyline, because his meticulous task is to steal all of the deceased bodies. He is on a tight schedule with no time to alter the destiny of the characters, as Claire Rosser writes about in her review of the novel. She discusses that, “[t]he narrator is a Being who is with humans at the moment of death, who carries their souls away. (…) It’s a busy time for the narrator, of course, in the middle of a world war, with bombing, the concentration camps, and all the death and destruction” (Rosser). While Death stands by, young children, like Liesel Meminger, are dealing with the scary events that rush so quickly in front of their inexperienced lives. He is not capable of saving dying Germans or killing harmful enemies. Therefore, everything that happens to the characters is their destiny, making the reader feel more sympathy for the atrocities of the Holocaust that Death does not initiate. Even though one would usually want to blame death for ruining lives and digging graves, this alternative Death is powerless. In addition, the soldiers suffering through the Second World War face ultimate decision making. During their travels by truck, Death silently watches them fight over a seat that they do not realize will be their doom: “One seat, two men, a short argument, and me. It kills me sometimes, how people die” (Zusak 464). As jobs are assigned, the other soldiers are risking the chance that their lives could end just based on where they sit in a truck. Death becomes the wallflower, tagging along for the ride. The characters control what they do and where they go, while the narrator sits on the side lines waiting to be assigned the job of carrying dead souls. Consequently, readers cannot accuse Death for the death of the characters. It is all up to the choices they make. Thus, Death is silent throughout the novel, designating his inevitable appearance solely for picking up dead spirits that chose the wrong path.
Not only does Death stay out of the way of the characters’ lives, Death discovers more about the humans he fears so much, as Liesel’s story is told. Her thievery of Germany’s books casts a haunting effect on Death, and while reading her adventurous journey, her reactions confuse him. The narrator monitors Liesel’s reactions to the deaths of her friends, and he comments particularly on her appearance. Though the aftermath of the bombing is traumatic enough, Death sees Liesel search for her family. He says:
“It amazes me what humans can do, even when streams are flowing down their faces and they stagger on, coughing and searching, and finding. (…) I realized at that moment that she was not wearing any shoes. What an odd thing to notice right then. Perhaps I was trying to avoid her face, for the book thief was truly an irretrievable mess” (Zusak 536-537).
Struggling to reunite with her family, Liesel uses her courage to find their bodies. Death notices her irregular qualities, showing that Liesel is his immediate target of interest. He never seems to get bored of the book thief, and her choices help him to conclude more about humans. Even as he is foreign to the humanist choices of the characters, Death is intoxicated by Liesel’s power. The story she writes gives him clues about the astonishing perseverance of the characters. Death is drawn to her, although her strong mind is void of the thought of giving up and dying. Also, in a review of the novel, Karen Breen describes Death’s attraction to Liesel. She writes: “In his many travels around the continent, Death becomes mesmerized by Liesel Meminger after her brother dies and she’s given over to a foster father (…) Death attempts to understand the dueling human compulsions toward great evil and great generosity” (Breen). That is to say, humans are complex characters; it would be quite difficult for Death to fully comprehend the motives of the characters he observes. With invisible eyes, Death’s attention stays glued to Liesel during her life. Liesel finds comfort in the words she reads, although she steals these books from other people. She chooses to solve her frustration with the war by making “her” books speak loudly for those who feel silent and hopeless. In the most perplexed manner, Death watches her riskiness and gradually becomes less afraid of Liesel. All in all, he is scared of the compelling characters he sees, yet Liesel becomes his muse as he starts understanding the human race.
In addition to Death’s confusion, Zusak utilizes the personification of his narrator to give him human-like qualities, shaping Death more like a human than Death thinks. Writer John Green explains in his review of The Book Thief how Death’s narration incorporates surprising fondness as he reads about Liesel’s life. He declares that, “[t]his is no Grim Reaper- we have here a kinder, gentler Death, who feels sympathy for his victims” (Green). Accordingly, the concept of death usually is described with themes of the Grim Reaper and hell. Instead, Zusak is able to oppose the conventional idea of death, injecting humanity in the narrator. The feelings of love and admiration for the dying characters infuse colour in Death. He participates in the mourning of passed loved ones. Although there is darkness and gloom during the war, Zusak focuses on the thought that Death just wants to bring the dead souls to a happier place. He knows his job is a crucial part of the journey out of life, but Death is considerate of the ones he picks up. Also, Death reveals his emotion towards the deaths of the characters. As Liesel’s friend Rudy is dying, Death reflects on his jovial personality, unveiling his tenderness for the young boy:
“On many counts, taking a boy like Rudy was robbery- so much life, so much to live for- yet somehow, I’m certain he would have loved to see the frightening rubble and the swelling of the sky on the night he passed away. He’d have cried and turned and smiled if only he could have seen the book thief on her hands and knees, next to his decimated body. He’d have been glad to witness her kissing his dusty, bomb-hit lips. Yes, I know it. In the darkness of my dark-beating heart, I know. He’d have loved it all right. You see? Even death has a heart” (Zusak 242).
With regards to the fact that Death is literally sucking the life out of Rudy, there is so much compassion for the boy. Death feels badly for the life Rudy will not be able to have, including playful risk-taking and moments of true love. Even though violence is striking citizens all over Germany, the concerned narrator realizes that the colours and atmosphere of the war would have been tolerable for Rudy, with Liesel beside him. Death knows the power of love, and he displays his vulnerable side. Contrary to stereotypes, Death’s role of the narrator forces his personal emotions and feelings towards the characters to be visible.
Above all, Death cannot puppeteer the characters in Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, but he follows along, observing their lives and deaths like a bystanding human. He is curious of the choices that they make, and vulnerable to the fact that no matter how hard he tries, he can never choose for the characters. However strict his job is, Death always softens his heart for Liesel’s delinquency, and Rudy’s jovial distinction, even after they die. The impact of a person’s death is enough to reshape the way one views the cycle of life. Does the empty body of a corpse mean all emotion has seeped out of their bones? Saying that passion is slaughtered out of a deceased body is an ignorant concept because only by dying can one know what happens after death. However, dying people must be optimistic that as their breaths subside the true warmth and compassion that steered their lives, day by day, never gets destroyed. Thus, the ones who live on this cold-blooded earth can remember, even in times of hatred and violence, the powerful hearts of those who died. These hearts will continue to beat… unliving, forever.
Breen, Karen. “Best children’s books of 2006”. Rev. of The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak. Kirkus Reviews 74.23 (1 December 2006): 16. Gale Database. Web. 20 March 2015.
Green, John. “Fighting For Their Lives.” Rev. of The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak. The New York Times Book Review. (14 May 2006): 26. Gale Database. Web. 20 March 2015.
Rosser, Claire. “Kliatt.” Rev. of The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak. Kliatt 41.3 (May2007): 30. Gale Database. Web. 20 March 2015.
Zusak, Markus. The Book Thief. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. Print.
2018 Update: I wanted to share this because “The Book Thief” is currently in the works for a musical adaptation!!! Check out this video from Playbill.com for a recently released song (with the charming Luca Padovan playing Rudy and the elegant Isabella Russo as Liesel!!!) 🙂