The Book Thief: Death as Horrific (and Hopeful?), Guest Post by Laura MacDonald

Confession: My name is Laura, I am 22 years old, and I have never seen a scary movie. The point of that confession was to help convey that I am not a fan of horror, in any medium. So, I am going to take the October theme of “Halloween and Horror” and stretch it just a little bit into what I am going to call an exposé on Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief.

Spoiler alert: there will be spoilers. If you haven’t read the book yet though, you should still read it even after you read my spoilers. Another spoiler alert: the narrator spoils it for you half-way through the book anyway.

the-book-thief

The Book Thief is perhaps one of the most beautiful books I have ever read. I am certainly not the first, nor will I be the last, to praise Zusak on the poetics of his writing. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of The Book Thief, however, is that it is narrated by death personified. What could possibly be more horrific than the thought of death, not only personified, but intensely humanized? (See what I did there? That’s the stretch.) In the act of humanizing death, Zusak gives us a compelling, compassionate, and incredibly poetic narrator. As this is not an academic paper, I am going to avoid my own version of finely crafted semi-poetic jargon and present my thesis rather bluntly: I believe that Zusak presents Death in such a way that he is subverting normative perceptions and expectations surrounding the phenomenon of death (side note: I will be using capital-D “Death” to refer to the narrator, while lower-case-d “death” refers to the phenomenon that is the end of life).

As a narrator, Death and his poetic syntax had my attention by page 4 with the lines, “It suffices to say that at some point I will be standing over you, as genially as possible. Your soul will be in my arms. A colour will be perched on my shoulder. I will carry you gently away.” But, I was completely hooked by page 11, “He remained shrouded in his uniform as the graying light arm-wrestled the sky.” I urge you to just take a moment and let that imagery sink in. I got chills. The light arm-wrestling with the sky – brilliant. (I should point out that, for those of you who don’t know, The Book Thief is a work of historical fiction set in Nazi Germany during WWII – a turbulent context that lends itself to the rather aggressive, yet poetic, description). I actually had to put the book down and utter “damn” (in admiration) before moving on. I’m a sucker for poetics. But, while these chills may have been the result of Death’s words, they are not the sort of chills death would normally be expected to induce.

If you Google “number one fear in the world” you will find “death” among virtually every top ten list you come across (public speaking generally falls at number one, death following close behind at number two). Personally, I think that this speaks volumes about humanity. We fear the end of life. Maybe for ourselves, maybe for those we love, but either way what we fear is that definite ending. Death is a sure thing, but you can never really know when it’s going to happen to you.

Zusak subverts the expectation that Death is something inherently terrible. The narrative style of this novel is that of Death narrating the story of a little girl, Liesel Meminger, and interjecting with thoughts of his own every once in a while. One such “little truth” he shares with readers is this: “I do not carry a sickle or a scythe. I only wear a hooded black robe when it’s cold. And I don’t have those skull-like facial features you seem to enjoy pinning on me from a distance” (Zusak 307). Our narrator is making it quite clear that while, yes, his job is to come and collect your soul at the end of your life, he is certainly not the traditional Grim Reaper. The Book Thief’s Death is compassionate – definition: “affected with, characterized by, or expressing compassion; pitiful, sympathetic” (“compassionate”). Not a word I would normally put in the same sentence as death. Sure death can be seen as a relief or a blessing if you are watching a loved one die of cancer, or you are a Jewish prisoner in a concentration camp, but to have the personification of death, who literally travels the world and collects the souls of the dead, feel compassion? I would definitely call that subversive.

As this is a 550 page novel set before, during, and after WWII in Nazi Germany, there are many, many instances of death – making for a myriad of examples I could share to depict Death as compassionate, but I’ve decided I can make my point nicely by sharing just two.

First, a brief glimpse of Death collecting the souls of French Jews in a German concentration camp:

Please believe me when I tell you that I picked up each soul that day as if it were newly born. I even kissed a few weary, poisoned cheeks. I listened to their last, gasping cries. Their vanishing words. I watched their love visions and freed them from their fear. (350)

The way that Death begins his sentence with the word “please,” pleading with readers for understanding, suggests that something we traditionally view as a force that can’t even be reckoned with – you can’t cheat death, no matter what you do, it will get you in the end (I’m looking at you Voldemort) – something to be feared, is just as capable of the full spectrum of human emotions as a human. He also invokes the idea of freedom, stating that he frees these dying men of the fears and horrors that life has bestowed on them.

The death of Rudy Steiner (14-year-old boy and best friend of our protagonist, Liesel), is my second example:

No one.

There was only me.

And I’m not too great at that sort of comforting thing, especially when my hands are cold and the bed is warm. I carried him softly through the broken street, with one salty eye and a heavy, deathly heart. With him, I tried a little harder. I watched the contents of his soul for a moment and saw a black-painted boy calling the name Jesse Owens as he ran through an imaginary tape. I saw him hip-deep in some icy water, chasing a book, and I saw a boy lying in bed, imagining how a kiss would taste from his glorious next-door neighbour. He does something to me, that boy. Every time. It’s his only detriment. He steps on my heart. He makes me cry. (531)

I’ll say it for you: damn.

Zusak gives his readers an entirely different perception of death by personifying Death in such an intensely human way. As a narrator, Death shares things with readers that almost make you forget he isn’t human. I don’t know about you, but when I think about death, I don’t think of it as someone who can feel so deeply for a little boy who should be nothing more to him than just another soul to collect. Death, in this novel, is invested – collecting souls is more than just his day job.

I am once again going to take advantage of the fact that this is not an academic paper and rather bluntly present to you my conclusion: not only is Zusak’s representation of death, through Death, horrific because it subverts expectations, it is also somewhat hopeful. Maybe, if more people read The Book Thief “death” would make fewer appearances on the all those top ten lists.

Works Cited:
“compassionate, adj.”. OED Online. September 2013. Oxford University Press. Web. 28 October 2013.

Zusak, Markus. The Book Thief. New York: Knopf Books, 2006. Print.