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Essay Questions The Boy In The Striped Pajamas

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas continues a literary tradition of exploring the evils of the Holocaust through the eyes of a child. In the same vein as Jerry Spinelli's Milkweed, this novel contrasts the dichotomy of man's inhumanity to man with man's capacity to care and love.

Author John Boyne has said that he believes that the only way he could write about the Holocaust respectfully was through the eyes of a child. He does so masterfully in this novel, demonstrating how Bruno and Shmuel maintain the innocence of their childhood in spite of what is happening around them. Boyne acknowledges that the only people who can truly comprehend the horrors of the Holocaust are those who lived through it. Boyne's novel gives a voice to the victims, especially the millions of innocent children who perished at the hands of the Nazis.

What makes The Boy in the Striped Pajamas so effective is that rather than examining the big picture of the Holocaust and its atrocities, the novel instead focuses on individual relationships and gives readers an intimate portrait of two innocent boys seeking the same thing: friendship. Readers are cautioned, however, that even though the novel is about two nine-year-old boys, the novel is most definitely not geared toward this age group. The novel's devastating conclusion is not only beyond children's ability to comprehend but also in defiance of their worldview.

Interestingly, Boyne classifies The Boy in the Striped Pajamas as a fable, a story that bears a moral lesson. This is a fitting category for the novel as it imparts many lessons. Among these valuable lessons, perhaps the most significant is the final sentence which suggests that "nothing like that could ever happen again. Not in this day and age." It forces readers to confront the grim reality that hatred, discrimination, and intolerance remain potent forces in the world. Readers consequently consider their own prejudices and actions, perhaps wondering if they have been guilty of mistreating others. Additionally, some may even consider what their role might have been in the Holocaust: bystander, resister, perpetrator, or victim.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas has received much acclaim. The novel won two prestigious awards in Boyne's native Ireland: Children's Book of the Year and People's Choice Book of the Year. In addition, the book was short-listed for numerous awards, including the Ottakar's Children's Book Prize, the British Book Award, the Paolo Ungari Prize, and the Border's Original Voices Award. Additionally, the novel spent 80 weeks at number one in Ireland and topped the New York Times best-seller list. The film adaptation, released by Miramax in 2008, received many independent film awards and much critical praise.

  • 1

    The experiences of women during wartimes have historically differed from those of men. How does Boyne use the character of Mother to explore this issue?

    Father's literal silencing of Mother in most of their arguments and conversations is representative of the figurative silencing of women's voices in many times of war. At first, Mother reacts passive-aggressively, for example by referring to Father as "some people." She copes with the situation at Out-With by having an affair with Lieutenant Kotler. Father finds out and removes the young soldier, which sends Mother into a depression. She takes many afternoon naps, Bruno observes, and drinks what she calls "medicinal sherries." When Bruno overhears Mother confronting Father in Chapter Seventeen, she speaks up for herself and demands to leave Out-With. She tells Father, "This is your assignment, not ours. You stay if you want to" (187). At a time when gender roles determined that a wife obey her husband, this distinction between his responsibilities and her own is a bold statement.

  • 2

    Boyne uses the tool of dramatic irony throughout the story. How does it manifest in the final chapters of the novel?

    When the boys get rounded up and forced to march into the gas chamber with the group of Jews, Bruno is worried he won't be home in time for dinner and asks Shmuel if the marching usually goes on for long. Shmuel answers, "I never see the people after they've gone on a march. But I wouldn't imagine it does" (211). The reader knows that the reason he never sees the people is because they are being marched to their deaths in a gas chamber, but neither Shmuel nor Bruno is aware of this tragic information. As Bruno is marched along with the other prisoners, "he wanted to whisper to them that everything was all right, that Father was the Commandant, and if this was the kind of thing that he wanted the people to do then it must be all right" (210). Bruno is, of course, completely wrong: this is the sort of thing Father wants the Jews to do, but there is nothing "all right" about it. The very person in whom Bruno has faith is the one who is bringing about the deaths of so many, his own son included. The room they arrive in "felt completely airtight" (212), something that is comforting to Bruno because he has been feeling wet and cold outdoors during the march. In fact, the room is airtight because it is a gas chamber. The reader has all doubt removed when the door to the chamber is slammed shut and the people in it gasp loudly. Bruno assumes "it had something to do with keeping the rain out and stopping people from catching colds" (213). When the boys die, they are holding hands, and the narrator doesn't specify whether they ever realize what is happening.

  • 3

    Why might Boyne have chosen to use a limited third-person narrator in the telling of this tragic story?

    The limited narrator presents a childlike perception; Bruno thinks about things concretely and tries to make sense of rules and then apply them to all situations. For example, Bruno understands that Father's office is "Out Of Bounds At All Times And No Exceptions," a phrase that he has presumably memorized after hearing it many times from his parents. The reader is encouraged to take on this child-like point of view through the use of capitalization and the misnaming of specific people and places. Bruno refers to his father's boss as "the Fury"; the reader must extrapolate that this is actually "the Furor," or Adolf Hitler. Because of the limits of the narrator, the reader is able to approach the horrors of the Holocaust as if he or she has no prior knowledge - much like Bruno. The reader is required to put together details Bruno notices in order to make sense of the larger issues at play.

  • 4

    How does Boyne bring the past into the present to create a sense of timelessness around the Holocaust?

    The name "Out-With" is clearly a misunderstanding of the name "Auschwitz," but by refusing to name the concentration camp, Boyne avoids specificity to a certain extent. Bruno doesn't understand the derogatory term that Lieutenant Kotler calls Pavel and, later, Shmuel. By not specifically naming the word, Boyne suggests the universality of this interaction. Lieutenant Kotler could be any soldier during any war time, shouting a derogatory term to dehumanize a victim of any genocide. This provides the fable with a sense of timelessness, extending beyond the specific situation at Auschwitz. In the last chapters, Boyne issues a veiled call to action to the reader, who could be living during a time of war or genocide. The most obvious instance is in the ironic tone on the final page of the story, after a devastated Father has been taken away from Out-With: "Of course all this happened a long time ago and nothing like that could ever happen again. Not in this day and age" (216). Boyne means for the reader to consider just the opposite: there are genocides occurring in this day and age, all over the world, and the reader is likely employing various coping strategies to ignore or dismiss them.

  • 5

    Discuss how the character of Gretel demonstrates the Nazi's indoctrination of children.

    When Gretel is first introduced in Chapter Three, she is clearly a child, though a few years older than Bruno. She spends most of her time arranging her dolls and has brought the entire collection from Berlin with her. Significantly, she is the one who tells Bruno that the name of their new home is "Out-With." When Bruno points out how young she is in front of Lieutenant Kotler, she responds by snapping at him, "'I'll be thirteen in a couple of weeks' time. A teenager. Just like you'" (74). Her words to Lieutenant Kotler foreshadow her mental shift as she grows out of childhood. Eventually, Gretel replaces her collection of dolls with maps of Europe given to her by Father, which she updates using the newspapers each day as she reads about developments in the war. Her transition out of childhood naivete is represented clearly in her correction of Bruno's usage of "Out-With" in place of "Auschwitz." It was she who first told him the name of the place, but now she corrects him. Her understanding of the situation is still simplistic and lacks understanding: she has accepted what her Father and Herr Liszt have taught her without much critical thinking.

  • 6

    One of the ways the Nazis defended their abhorrent actions against Jews was by arguing that the Aryan race was naturally "superior" to others. How does Boyne counter that claim?

    Boyne introduces the theme of the natural world versus the unnaturalness of Auschwitz and the Holocaust in general. Instead of answering Bruno's question about whether she likes it at Out-With, Maria describes how much she loved the garden at the house in Berlin. Bruno takes this as an indirect answer to his question, since it is in such stark contrast to the atmosphere at Auschwitz. The theme of the Holocaust being unnatural arises again in Chapter Eleven, when Mother protests the move to Out-With by saying, "...as if it's the most natural thing in the world and it's not, it's just not..." (124). The Nazis used the argument that the Aryan race was "naturally" superior to all others, using the idea of natural dominance as justification in exterminating the Jewish population. But Boyne turns this assumption on its head, pointing out throughout the story just how unnatural the atmosphere and situation at Out-With really is.

  • 7

    What purpose does Father's transformation at the end of the story serve?

    In the final pages of the story, Father realizes that Bruno has gone to the other side of the fence and must have been killed in a gas chamber. When the atrocities that he has been routinely committing against other people's children happen to his own child, he has a different perspective on the situation. Until that point, he has been convincing himself that the Jews are not real people. He assures Bruno that the Jews on the other side of the fence are "not people at all" - this is how he justifies to himself the systematic killing of them at Auschwitz (53). Maria's description of how kind Father has been to her serves as a commentary on the mental and emotional justification for Nazi soldiers generally, who might do kind deeds and appear to be wonderful people in other parts of their lives, yet also are responsible for the extermination of Jews.

  • 8

    How does Boyne use specific actions to represent the larger idea of complacency with regard to the Holocaust?

    Bruno's betrayal of Shmuel in front of Lieutenant Kotler is representative of the many people who betrayed their Jewish neighbors and friends during the Holocaust in similar ways, simply by being complacent. By distancing himself from Shmuel because he is afraid of the consequences of associating with the boy, Bruno contributes to Shmuel's punishment for a crime he did not commit: stealing food. The way Bruno relates to his actions immediately following the event reflects a personal disconnect: "[he] wondered how a boy who thought he was a good person really could act in such a cowardly way toward a friend" (174). He feels ashamed of himself, but does not take action to right the wrong. When Shmuel finally returns to meet him at the fence, his face covered in bruises, Bruno apologizes. His words could have easily come from any of the Germans who fell in line with the Nazis and didn't speak up for the Jews during the Holocaust. Likewise, when Lieutenant Kotler attacks Pavel for accidentally spilling the wine, the narrator only states that "[what] happened then was both unexpected and extremely unpleasant. Lieutenant Kotler grew very angry with Pavel and no one - not Bruno, not Gretel, not Mother and not even Father - stepped in to stop him doing what he did next, even though none of them could watch" (148-49). This omission of detail makes the interaction representative of all acts of violence against Jews at the hands of Nazis; it also can be universalized to the oppressed group in any genocide throughout history. Bruno and his family represent the bystanders who were repulsed by did not act to stop the violence.

  • 9

    The fence between Bruno and Shmuel is a literal boundary, but it serves a figurative purpose as well. Discuss how the fence functions as a symbol of arbitrary boundaries between people.

    The most obvious boundary in the story is the fence separating Bruno's side of Out-With from Shmuel's side; but Boyne calls into question the arbitrary boundaries that got each boy to his side of the fence: most importantly, that between Jews and "Opposites." The symbols of the Star of David and the Nazi Swastika, which are never named, come to represent the arbitrary boundary that allowed the Nazis to exterminate other human beings when the boys draw them in the dirt on either side of the fence. In Chapter Twelve, Shmuel describes how he came to have to wear his Star of David armband and draws the symbol in the dirt. Bruno points out that his Father wears one, too, and draws the Nazi symbol in the dirt on his side of the fence. The key difference between them is that Shmuel is Jewish and thus a member of the oppressed group in this genocide, while Bruno happens to be German and thus a member of the oppressive group. When Bruno tells Shmuel that Father also wears an armband, Shmuel observes, "[yes], but they're different, aren't they?" (127).

  • 10

    Boyne uses a third-person narrator to tell the story mostly from Bruno's perspective. At times, the perspective shifts to represent Shmuel's point of view. What is the purpose of this tactic?

    Shmuel serves as a mirror character for Bruno; they were born on the same day, and Bruno declares, "[we're] like twins" (110). The use of Shmuel's point of view functions as a way to blur the boundary between the two boys. When Bruno has put on the pajamas and turns around to show Shmuel what he looks like, "[it] was almost (Shmuel thought) as if they were all exactly the same really" (204). Boyne puts the indication of Shmuel's point of view in parentheses in order to imply that while the thought is Shmuel's, it is also a commentary on the situation generally. Once Bruno puts on the pajamas he looks no different from Shmuel, but really, the distinction made between the Jews and the Germans is arbitrary and erroneous, since they are all human beings.

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