The Book Thief Themes

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  • 0:04 What Is a Theme?
  • 0:30 Literacy and Power
  • 1:38 Love and Hate in Human Nature
  • 2:41 Death, Dying, and Grief
  • 3:21 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Shelley Vessels

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

Themes run throughout a story and connect events and ideas together. In ''The Book Thief'', there are a few major themes that stand out as the underlying messages of the story's plot.

What Is a Theme?

In every story, there are themes, which are underlying messages of the story that a reader puts together like a puzzle. Themes are often presented in a way that allows people to get different shades of meaning from them, depending on the perspective the reader brings to the book.

An author won't come out and tell you exactly what the themes of a story are; a reader needs to piece them together as they read. Let's see if the following themes in The Book Thief match up to the ones you came up with as you read.

Literacy and Power

A theme that stands out from the beginning is literacy and power. While language initially is a struggle for the main character, Liesel, it becomes one that empowers her and allows her to quietly rebel against Hitler's regime. Liesel's mother was too poor to educate her properly and, as a result, she couldn't read well, a fact that becomes well-known to Liesel's schoolmates. They taunt her for her inability to read.

However, through lessons with her foster father, Hans, she learns to write on the back of sandpaper. And when they run out of sheets of sandpaper, Liesel, Hans, and Max, a Jew hiding in the Hubermanns' house, begin painting words on basement walls.

Max also paints over the pages of Mein Kampf, Hitler's autobiography and his outline of plans for the Nazi Party. Through the process of writing his story over Hitler's, Max is bringing a silent revenge against Hitler.

Because books were banned by the Nazi Party, Liesel's ability to read her own collection, Ilsa Hermann's personal library, and the books Liesel steals, including the one from the Nazi bonfire, gives her a quiet power over Hitler. Liesel can read and write what she wants (secretly, of course), and it gives her some control over a life she has had little control over.

Love and Hate in Human Nature

There is a clear juxtaposition during Hitler's reign, one that shows the best of human nature and the absolute worst. During a time where Hitler's beliefs created bullies, large and small, readers are able to see examples of people who resisted the culture of the time and remained good, kind people.

The worst in people trickles down from the Hitler's SS Army when they stripped Jews and other 'enemies of the state' of civil rights, often taking them away to camps. Readers see the beginnings of this thinking in the teenage bullies Viktor Chemell and Franz Deutcher and their cruel treatment of Liesel's friend, Rudy.

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