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Symbols in The Book Thief

Instructor: Shelley Vessels

Shelley has taught at the middle school level for 10 years and has a master's degree in teaching English.

When you read a story and there's an object that evokes a certain emotion or meaning, you're likely coming across a symbol. In 'The Book Thief,' there are three distinct symbols that keep popping up in the plot that hold great meaning.

Understanding Symbols

What does it mean to you when you see a cake with candles? Or, how about a lighted tree with ornaments? Or, even a dozen red roses? These are symbols of happy times: birthdays, holidays, love. Symbols are objects that are used in literature to represent something deeper, to add to the overall feeling of a piece.

Symbolism can be something that a writer develops over time, like illustrating the love between a grandmother and a grandchild with the symbol of their favorite lunch together: grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup. However, sometimes symbols are things that are more familiar in a particular culture, as in the example of the dozen red roses. If a scene involves a character purchasing a bouquet of flowers for another character, the reader recognizes the love that those roses represent.

In The Book Thief, there are three major symbols that keep popping up in the storyline to represent something deeper.

The Accordion

In The Book Thief, the accordion means comfort to Liesel. It's the instrument that the kind Hans Hubermann plays, and he breaks it out during the most interesting times: when Liesel first arrives, after Liesel realizes that her mother is never returning, and when Alex Steiner reports to war. It signifies comfort and compassion to those who Hans plays for.

Accordion
accordion

This instrument that Hans inherits from Max's father in the First World War becomes a part of Hans's identity. Besides being a painter and having a foul-mouthed wife, playing an accordion is what Hans is known for. And, when Hans goes away to be part of the air raid cleanup crew, Rosa comforts herself by sleeping with the accordion. It's as if Hans is right by her side.

Bread

Giving someone something to eat - particularly bread - in this novel is a symbol of great empathy. The first time readers meet Max is when he's hiding in the storage room, and his friend, a Nazi, risks everything to give him a small piece of bread, fat, and three carrots before his journey to Himmel Street. His friend tells Max that it's the best he can do during these difficult times.

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