Admittedly, it was a few years ago when I read the novel that I’m going to be discussing today. Nonetheless, I will cast my mind back to the truly unforgettable story that is ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’. Whilst many have criticised certain levels of inaccuracy within the novel, they have quite possibly overlooked Boyne’s intention to stun the reader, rendering them appalled at not only the brutality of the Holocaust, but the tragic events, occurring between Shmuel and Bruno, as a result of their innocence and naivety.
Nine-year-old Bruno is our protagonist of ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’. The novel begins with his maid, Maria, packing his belongings, as she informs him that they are moving away from Berlin because of his father’s job. Bruno believes that their move was at the hand of “The Fury”, who has plans for his father. Bruno’s sister, Gretel, informs him that they have moved to a place called “Out-With” and the pair observe from their window the people on the other side of the fence, who were all wearing “a pair of grey striped pajamas with a grey striped cap on their heads”. It is clear that many of the family are not satisfied with the move, such as Bruno and Maria. However, they refrain from voicing their opinion, despite naive Bruno, who is becoming increasingly bored and begins to miss his grandparents.
Despite the fact that his parents have forbade exploration, Bruno decides to go on an adventure. He soon spots a little boy sitting on the opposite side of the fence, who introduces himself as Shmuel. Shmuel is from Poland but Bruno is eager to suggest that “Germany is the greatest of all countries”. Boyne particularly highlights the all too real theme of indoctrination here, especially as he follows up with the statement that Germany is “superior”. Bruno and Shmuel’s friendship gradually begins to flourish, but it is evident that Bruno is far too ignorant and naive, with regards to the events occurring at “Out-With”.
Bruno later asks his sister Gretel about the people on the other side of the fence, as his growing curiosity wonders why he and Shmuel cannot play together on the same side. She informs them that they are Jews, but Bruno fails to understand how they are different, unintentionally elevating the truth held by any moral being, which should eradicate religious, racial, social and cultural divides. However, Gretel’s response to what they are, if they are not Jews, is that they are “the opposite”. Whilst this indicates further indoctrination and innocence, as well as a real unawareness of the truth, Boyne perhaps criticises the citizens conforming to the Nazi regime. Ironically, Gretel refers to them as “the opposite”, which connotes ‘the other’ and the outcast- it would’ve been more expected for Gretel to label the Jews as “the opposite”. In turn, Boyne may actually subtly imply ‘Untermensch’, the name given to Jews, during the Holocaust, which means subhuman. This ironically suggests that it is in fact the German citizens that are “the opposite” and the ‘Untermensch’, rather than the Jews, as a result of their inhumane acts of injustice.
Later on, it is discovered that Bruno and Gretel have lice, therefore Bruno’s father decides to shave his head. A few weeks later, Bruno’s father informs him that “The Fury” must keep him at “Out-With” but Gretel, Bruno and his mother must return to Berlin. Bruno soon rushes to Shmuel to tell him the news and the pair arrange to meet the next day. Shmuel meets Bruno at the fence with a set of striped pyjamas and Bruno slips under a gap in the fence. As a result of his shaved head, Bruno notes that he looks just like Shmuel, thus allowing him to blend in. Just as Bruno turns to leave, the soldiers gather everyone, but Shmuel calms Bruno, by informing him that it is just another regular march. The crowd of people are herded into a chamber and the door is sharp locked. Whilst the crowds of people become frantic and chaotic, Bruno and Shmuel hold hands. The chamber becomes dark.
In typing the plot summary, I struggled to hold my composure. Once you’ve read ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, it is a novel that will most-certainly stay with you. Most notably, the third-person narrative, from the perspective of Bruno, allows the reader to become particularly naive and vulnerable, despite our insight into the true horrors of the Holocaust. This is further heightened by the childish lack of understanding, for example Boyne’s inclusion of “The Fury” and “Out-With”, in order to channel Bruno’s innocence.
Strikingly, the relationship between Bruno and his father parallels the relationship between the conforming German citizens and Hitler. The connection is most apparent as Bruno’s father is referred to with capitalisation- “Father”- which bears great similarities to ‘Führer’, despite the fact that Boyne never makes direct reference to such a word, as well as elevating a sense of power, as though it is a title of superiority and prestige. Additionally, Bruno’s father,a domineering figure, reigns over his family, continuously silencing his wife and instilling fear in his fellow officers. Most obviously, “Father” also alludes to “Fatherland”, as Hitler is the “Father” of Germany. However, the innocence and naivety of Bruno mirrors that of the German public, especially the aspects of indoctrination and perhaps even curiosity, yet the citizens were unable to voice such thoughts.Paradoxically, where Bruno is limited in knowledge, he is free in opinion (to a certain extent), even if he is unable to alter the events to occur, much like the German people.
What was your most-startling moment of ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas? Whilst the final chapter between Shmuel and Bruno is the first that comes to mind, could it be when Bruno betrays Shmuel, in failing to own up to giving him food?