The Book Thief

The Book Thief

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The narrator of the novel, the mysterious figure who collects human souls when they die. Death enjoys noticing colors, particularly in the sky, and he is mystified by the contradictory nature of humans—both beautiful and ugly. As World War II continues and he must collect so many souls, he grows weary with his work.

Death Quotes in The Book Thief

The The Book Thief quotes below are all either spoken by Death or refer to Death. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Death Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Alfred A. Knopf edition of The Book Thief published in 2007.
Prologue: The Flag Quotes

Yes, often, I am reminded of her, and in one of my vast array of pockets, I have kept her story to retell. It is one of the small legion I carry, each one extraordinary in its own right. Each one an attempt – an immense leap of an attempt – to prove to me that you, and your human existence, are worth it.

Related Characters: Death (speaker), Liesel Meminger
Page Number: 14-15
Explanation and Analysis:

In this unusual prologue, we're introduced to Death, ostensibly the storyteller behind the book we're about to read. Death isn't the fearsome, chilling figure we might expect--instead, he's thoughtful and oddly human. Death isn't so much an executioner as a historian; his job is to remember and try to relate to the people he's witnessed dying. The book we're about to read, we're told, is about a young woman whose story somehow proves that human existence is "worth it."

What does it mean for existence to be "worth it," especially if it must end in death? The protagonist of this novel will try to find meaning in her life, even as the threat of death--not just death, but annihilation by the Nazis--becomes stronger and stronger. Death seems to admire the people who try hardest to fight him, or whose stories prove that life is valuable even in the face of its inevitable end.

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Part 1: Growing Up a Saumensch Quotes

All told, she owned fourteen books, but she saw her story as being made up predominantly of ten of them. Of those ten, six were stolen, one showed up at the kitchen table, two were made for her by a hidden Jew, and one was delivered by a soft, yellow-dressed afternoon.
When she came to write her story, she would wonder exactly when the books and the words started to mean not just something, but everything.

Related Characters: Death (speaker), Liesel Meminger, Max Vandenburg
Page Number: 30
Explanation and Analysis:

Death continues to narrate the story, foreshadowing many of the key events in the novel. The protagonist, Liesel, is a lover of books and words in general, and has come to find language a matter of life and death-iwords mean "everything" to her.

The story we're about to hear, Death suggests, isn't just about the life of Liesel. It's also about how Liesel comes to recognize that books and words are central to her existence. Furthermore, the passage complicates the question of who, exactly, is telling this story. Death seems to be the narrator, but here it's suggested that Liesel ends up writing her own story--has she assumed the guise of death in order to tell the story of her own life?

Part 1: The Other Side of Sandpaper Quotes

As for the girl, there was a sudden desire to read it that she didn't even attempt to understand. On some level, perhaps she wanted to make sure her brother was buried right. Whatever the reason, her hunger to read that book was as intense as any ten-year-old human could experience.

Related Characters: Death (speaker), Liesel Meminger
Page Number: 66
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, we meet Liesel as she first embarks on a long career of reading. Liesel has just witnessed the death of her brother; soon afterwards, she finds a book called The Grave Digger's Handbook, which she shows to her adopted father, Hans. Hans will go on to teach Liesel how to read books of all kinds, but here Liesel feels her first powerful desire to learn how to read.

Why the urgency of learning to read? The fact that Liesel feels such a desire after her brother's death (and after she's sent to live with new parents) suggests that Liesel sees reading as a way of understanding the mysteries of life: even if she can't control her own destiny, she can at least understood books. Furthermore, the proximity of death (grave-digging) and literature suggests that literature might represent a way to cheat or transcend death--one of the key ideas of the novel.

Part 1: The Smell of Friendship Quotes

Papa would say a word and the girl would have to spell it aloud and then paint it on the wall, as long as she got it right. After a month, the wall was recoated. A fresh cement page.

Related Characters: Death (speaker), Liesel Meminger, Hans Hubermann
Page Number: 72
Explanation and Analysis:

In this idyllic scene, Liesel learns how to read in whatever ways her circumstances allow. In the basement, her adopted father, Hans, shows her how to paint words onto a wall. The beauty of Liesel's lessons is that whenever she runs out of space on the wall Hans can re-coat the wall with paint, allowing Liesel to begin again.

The wall is an interesting symbol, suggesting that Liesel embraces reading because it allows for a "fresh start." Liesel is a young girl, but she's already had a tough life, full of death and tragedy. By mastering the art of reading, she learns how to reinvent herself with the help of writing.

Part 1: The Heavyweight Champion of the School-Yard Quotes

The day of the announcement, Papa was lucky enough to have some work. On his way home, he picked up a discarded newspaper… and slipped it beneath his shirt. By the time he made it home and removed it, his sweat had drawn the ink onto his skin. The paper landed on the table, but the news was stapled to his chest. A tattoo…
"What does it say?" Liesel asked him…
"'Hitler takes Poland,'" he answered, and Hans Hubermann slumped into a chair.

Related Characters: Liesel Meminger (speaker), Death (speaker), Hans Hubermann (speaker)
Page Number: 74
Explanation and Analysis:

Here the characters first get word that Hitler has invaded Poland. Hans is terrified by this news--but what's equally important is the manner in which he receives it. Hans reads a newspaper story about Hitler's invasion, and he carries it with him for so long that the words print themselves on his body. The image of words tattooed onto a man's body prophesies the Holocaust, during which Jews were forcibly tattooed with their registration numbers. The message is clear enough: Hitler's victory in Poland foreshadowed his even more terrifying "victories" over the Jews in Europe. Furthermore, the passage underscores the power of language--not for the last time, words have a physical presence as well as a metaphorical one.

Part 2: A Girl Made of Darkness Quotes

You see, people may tell you that Nazi Germany was built on anti-Semitism, a somewhat overzealous leader, and a nation of hate-fed bigots, but it would all have come to nothing had the Germans not loved one particular activity:
To burn.
The Germans loved to burn things. Shops, synagogues, Reichstags, houses, personal items, slain people, and of course, books.

Related Characters: Death (speaker)
Page Number: 84
Explanation and Analysis:

As Death narrates the story of Liesel's life, his narration becomes more sober and adult. Liesel is growing up in the time of Hitler and the Nazis, and Death often comments on the horrors of the Holocaust. For now, though, Death makes a series of comments about why, exactly, the Nazis were so successful in Germany. Death's explanation is that the Nazis appealed to an innate desire in the German population--the desire to burn things.

What's so innate about the desire to burn? Perhaps burning is meant to represent the destructive impulse in all human beings: all humans have the potential to destroy, and to enjoy their own acts of destruction. It's not just the Germans who love to burn things, then--it's all humanity.

Part 2: 100 Percent Pure German Sweat Quotes

Although something inside told her that this was a crime – after all, her three books were the most precious items she owned – she was compelled to see the thing lit. She couldn't help it. I guess humans like to watch a little destruction. Sand castles, houses of cards, that's where they begin. Their great skill is their capacity to escalate.

Related Characters: Death (speaker), Liesel Meminger
Page Number: 109
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Liesel and the other people in her community participate in a book-burning. Book burnings were a fixture of early Fascist politics in Germany: Hitler commended the German people for destroying so-called "subversive" literature by Jews and communists. Disturbingly, everybody in the chapter--including Liesel--seems to be enjoying the book-burning.

The passage ties in with Death's earlier comments about humanity's natural propensity for destruction. Ironically, Death is the calm, peaceful character in this novel, and humans are the volatile, often brutal ones. Liesel loves to read, and she has a lot of respect for language--and yet even Liesel has the destructive "spark" inside her: she's a human being.

Part 3: The Mayor's Library Quotes

Books everywhere! Each wall was armed with overcrowded yet immaculate shelving. It was barely possible to see the paintwork. There were all different styles and sizes of lettering on the spines of the black, the red, the gray, the every-colored books. It was one of the most beautiful things Liesel Meminger had ever seen.

Related Characters: Death (speaker), Liesel Meminger
Page Number: 134
Explanation and Analysis:

In this important passage, the mayor's wife introduces Liesel to her library--a place where hundreds of books are displayed on the wall in all their glory. Liesel has seen plenty of books before, but she's never seen so many in one place, other than at book burnings. Here, books are celebrated for their beauty and wisdom--the library is like a church, comforting Liesel in a time of need.

The fact that Liesel is so appreciative of the mayor's wife's library suggests that, in spite of her potential for destructive impulses (as noted by Death previously), she's a gentle, wise person. Liesel knows how to respect beauty, and she understands the importance of protecting words and stories of all kinds.

Part 3: The Struggler, Continued Quotes

For most of the journey, he made his way through the book, trying never to look up.
The words lolled about in his mouth as he read them.
Strangely, as he turned the pages and progressed through the chapters, it was only two words he ever tasted.
Mein Kampf. My struggle –
The title, over and over again, as the train prattled on, from one German town to the next.
Mein Kampf.
Of all the things to save him.

Related Characters: Death (speaker), Max Vandenburg
Related Symbols: Mein Kampf
Page Number: 160
Explanation and Analysis:

In one of the most darkly humorous passages in the novel, Max Vandenburg, a young Jewish man, escapes from the Nazis by carrying around a copy of Mein Kampf. Mein Kampf was Hitler's most famous book--a long, rambling story about his economic and political theories, which was practically required reading for Nazis during the 1930s. Max's friend Walter has arranged for Max to receive train tickets and keys, hidden inside a copy of Hitler's book. Death stops to note the beautiful irony here: Hitler's writings, in which he condemns the Jews in the most withering terms, are being used to save a Jew's life.

The passage is a great, literal example of the power of language and books. Even if Mein Kampf itself is an evil, racist book, Death suggests that the fact that it is a book, in and of itself, has helped rescue Max from Nazi persecution. In the novel, books--even Mein Kampf--are powerful things, to be used for either good or evil.

Part 4: A Short History of the Jewish Fist Fighter Quotes

With the rest of them, he stood around the bed and watched the man die – a safe merge, from life to death. The light in the window was gray and orange…

"When death captures me," the boy vowed, "he will feel my fist on his face."

Related Characters: Death (speaker), Max Vandenburg (speaker)
Page Number: 189
Explanation and Analysis:

In this flashback scene, Death describes Max watching his own uncle die a slow, painful death. The scene is tragic, because Max's uncle is in so much pain, and seems to think of death as a relief, not a punishment. And yet Max doesn't agree: he vows that when he dies, he'll fight bravely, right up to the end.

Peculiarly, Death isn't insulted by Max's words--on the contrary, he seems to respect Max for valuing life so highly, to the point where he'd be willing to punch Death in the face. Death knows that he's inescapable, yet he likes it when human beings stand up for themselves--he's like a teacher who gives the highest grades to the students who aren't scared to say they disagree with him. Here Death also shows his typical penchant for noting colors as people are dying.

Part 4: Pages from the Basement Quotes

During that week, Max had cut out a collection of pages from Mein Kampf and painted over them in white… When they were all dry, the hard part began… he formulated the words in his head till he could recount them without error. Only then, on the paper that had bubbled and humped under the stress of drying paint, did he begin to write the story.

Related Characters: Death (speaker), Max Vandenburg
Related Symbols: Mein Kampf
Page Number: 223
Explanation and Analysis:

Max takes his copy of Mein Kampf and paints over the pages, rewriting it with a new, gentler set of words. He paints over the pages of the book--much like Liesel and Hans painting over the walls they'd covered in words--and then he proceeds to write his own story.

The message here is clear: Max is dealing with a horrible, hateful book by Adolf Hitler, and yet he uses the power of language to cancel out Hitler's words and replace them with something better. Language gives Max incredible power: he "defeats" hateful speech, albeit within the confines of one copy of Mein Kampf. Max's victory, then, is small but important: he proves that Hitler isn't a God; he's just a man, whose hateful words can be replaced with beauty and art.

Part 5: The Gambler (A Seven-Sided Die) Quotes

Liesel, however, did not buckle. She sprayed her words directly into the woman's eyes.
"You and your husband. Sitting up here." Now she became spiteful. More spiteful and evil than she thought herself capable.
The injury of words.
Yes, the brutality of words.

Related Characters: Liesel Meminger (speaker), Death (speaker), Ilsa Hermann
Page Number: 262
Explanation and Analysis:

Things have gotten rough for Liesel's family. They run a laundry service, but in the hardships of the war, most of their customers have abandoned them. Now, the family's final customer, the Hermann family, has canceled as well: Liesel's family has no source of income left. Liesel's sudden spitefulness here seems somewhat unjustified, as Ilsa continues to treat Liesel kindly and invites her to keep visiting her library, and even gives her another book--but Liesel is overcome with anger when she compares the Mayor's circumstances to her own.

The scene reminds us that words are by no means a tool for good--on the contrary, one can use words for all sorts of purposes, good and bad (as we've often been reminded through the symbol of Mein Kampf). Liesel allows her emotions to run away with her here, using her words to criticize Ilsa and hurt Ilsa deeply.

Part 5: The Whistler and the Shoes Quotes

He laughed. "Good night, book thief."
It was the first time Liesel had been branded with her title, and she couldn't hide the fact that she liked it very much. As we're both aware, she'd stolen books previously, but in late October 1941, it became official. That night, Liesel Meminger truly became the book thief.

Related Characters: Death (speaker), Rudy Steiner (speaker), Liesel Meminger
Page Number: 292
Explanation and Analysis:

Rudy is by now well aware that Liesel steals books form Ilsa's library. He seems to understand that Liesel steals these books because of her love for literature, and because she wants to prove to herself that she's adult enough to take matters into her own hands, whether or not Ilsa Hermann allows her in the library.

The passage is interesting because it suggests that words become most "real" when two people share them. Ilsa had already stolen several books, but strangely, it's not until Rudy gives her the title "Book Thief" that she begins to think of herself as one.

Part 5: The Floating Book (Part II) Quotes

In truth, I think he was afraid. Rudy Steiner was scared of the book thief's kiss. He must have longed for it so much. He must have loved her so incredibly hard. So hard that he would never ask for her lips again and would go to his grave without them.

Related Characters: Death (speaker), Rudy Steiner
Page Number: 303
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Rudy Steiner does something recklessly brave: after Viktor Chemmel throws Liesel's book into the cold water of the river, Rudy jumps in and saves it from destruction. After achieving his goal, Rudy asks Liesel for a kiss. As he's done so many times before, it's here that Death notes the truth: Rudy loves Liesel desperately, to the point that he is frightened that she might kiss him back.

Death doesn't give many details about the seemingly contradictory nature of this sentiment--instead, he encourages us to respect Rudy's feelings, even if we can't understand them entirely. Rudy is an almost noble character because of the sacrifices he's willing to make for Liesel (he risks his life and ends up in cold water here, after all). Rudy is brave but also nervous--the juxtaposition of Rudy's brave decision to jump into the river and his fear of Liesel's kiss makes us understand how deeply he must love her.

Part 6: Death's Diary: The Parisians Quotes

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 the sky as it turned from silver to gray to the color of rain. Even the clouds were trying to get away.

Sometimes I imagined how everything looked above those clouds, knowing without question that the sun was blond, and the endless atmosphere was a giant blue eye.

They were French, they were Jews, and they were you.

Related Characters: Death (speaker)
Page Number: 350
Explanation and Analysis:

In this poignant passage, Death describes the devastation of the Holocaust. In the face of so much violence and horror, Death maintains that he is gentle with his victims as he leads them away from their lives--it's as if they've suffered so much in life that death is a sweet relief.

The passage further underscores the paradox of Death the character. Death is actually the kindest and most reasonable character in the novel--a stark reminder of the terrors of the Holocaust, which far overshadow the terrors of dying. Death further asserts his status as a wise, perceptive character when he claims that the Holocaust victims were "you"--which is to say, they were human beings, the same as we the readers.

As usual, Death takes note of the colors of the sky as he carries away human souls, but here his imagery is especially significant. The sun is "blond" and the sky is a "giant blue eye"--ominous symbols for the racist "Aryan ideal" of Hitler and the Nazis.

Part 7: The Sky Stealer Quotes

She didn't dare look up, but she could feel their frightened eyes hanging on to her as she hauled the words in and breathed them out. A voice played the notes inside her. This, it said, is your accordion.
The sound of the turning page carved them in half.
Liesel read on.

Related Characters: Death (speaker), Liesel Meminger
Related Symbols: The Accordion
Page Number: 381
Explanation and Analysis:

During an air raid, the people of Himmel Street are gathered underground in the air raid shelter. In the frightened silence, Liesel reads a book aloud to comfort the people around her--just like Hans would play his accordion to comfort Liesel herself. Liesel has grown a great deal over the course of the novel: when we first met her, she was frightened and just beginning to learn how to read--now, though, she's mastered the art of reading, and by the same token, she's learned how to take care of herself and others.

The passage confirms the relationship between literature and wisdom. Learning to read isn't just a useful skill--it's a way for human beings to take control over their own lives and maintain a sense of peace and calm. Literature has a function similar to that of music: it calms people in their times of need--here, for instance, it calms others during the threat of a bombing.

Part 7: The Long Walk to Dachau Quotes

Just give him five more minutes and he would surely fall into the German gutter and die. They would all let him, and they would all watch.

Then, one human.
Hans Hubermann…
The Jew stood before him, expecting another handful of derision, but he watched with everyone else as Hans Hubermann held his hand out and presented a piece of bread, like magic.

Related Characters: Death (speaker), Hans Hubermann
Page Number: 393
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Hans sees a huge group of Jews being led off to their deaths in concentration camps. Hans is amazed that the other Germans watching the horrific spectacle don't do anything to comfort or console the Jews. Almost without realizing it, Hans offers an elderly Jewish man some bread.

What does Han's action accomplish? It doesn't save the Jewish man--he's whipped brutally and then, presumably, sent back to the camp (and Hans himself is whipped as well). And yet Hans's generosity reminds the Jewish man that he's not an animal, but a human being. In this way, Hans's actions are enormously valuable: they undermine the program of the Holocaust by treating Jews like ordinary people, not the hideous scapegoats Hitler wanted them to be.

Part 8: The Hidden Sketchbook Quotes

Yes, the Führer decided that he would rule the world with words. "I will never fire a gun," he devised. "I will not have to."

Related Characters: Death (speaker)
Page Number: 445
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we're introduced to Adolf Hitler, or rather a fictionalized version of him, as presented by Death (who is retelling a story Max has written for Liesel). In the story, Max emphasizes that Adolf Hitler's great power was the power of language: long before he became the Fuhrer, he decided that he'd never fire a gun, preferring to use words like bullets. Sure enough, Hitler used his oratorical might to inspire Nazis and others to fight for him.

There's nothing inherently good or evil about language--it's just a "neutral multiplier" of the speaker's intentions. A good person like Liesel can use words to extend her goodness to other people--but by the same token, an evil man like Hitler can, and did, use language to extend his evil ideas and cause real harm.

The best word shakers were the ones who understood the true power of words. They were the ones who could climb the highest. One such word shaker was a small, skinny girl. She was renowned as the best word shaker of her region because she knew how powerless a person could be WITHOUT words.
That's why she could climb higher than anyone else. She had desire. She was hungry for them.

Related Characters: Death (speaker), Liesel Meminger
Page Number: 446
Explanation and Analysis:

This section comes from Max's sketchbook, which he has left behind for Liesel, and which Death now summarizes for us. A word shaker, in Max's story, is a person who uses the power of language, either for good or for evil (Hitler is the first one mentioned in the story). The girl in this passage--clearly Liesel herself--is adept at using language to help other people, precisely because she remembers a time when she didn't know how to use language at all (at the beginning of the novel, she couldn't read).

Liesel's power to do good is directly tied to her linguistic abilities. She feels a sincere desire to extend her aid to others--even if they're Jews or other so-called "undesirables." As we've already seen, Liesel knows how to use books and words to provide comfort and support to other people.

Part 9: The Snows of Stalingrad Quotes

The brother shivers.
The woman weeps.
And the girl goes on reading, for that's why she's there, and it feels good to be good for something in the aftermath of the snows of Stalingrad.

Related Characters: Death (speaker), Frau Holtzapfel, Michael Holtzapfel
Page Number: 471
Explanation and Analysis:

In this moving chapter, Liesel goes to read for Frau Holtzapfel and her son Michael, who's recently retuned from Stalingrad. Stalingrad was the site of one of the longest and most wretched battles of World War II, during which hundreds of thousands of Russian and German soldiers died in the fighting and the cold. Michael has returned from Stalingrad alive but severely injured, and his brother had his legs blown off and died. In the face of this tragedy, Liesel goes on reading to Michael and his mother. Death explains that Liesel continues to read because it feels good to be doing something, particularly something positive for others, when surrounded by so much horror. By reading, even during the saddest hours of World War II, Liesel asserts the power of language--but also the power of optimism and cooperation. In doing so, she brings happiness, or at least a measure of comfort, to the Holtzapfels; a powerful reminder of the good that language can do when placed in the right hands.

Part 9: One Toolbox, One Bleeder, One Bear Quotes

The human heart is a line, whereas my own is a circle, and I have the endless ability to be in the right place at the right time. The consequence of this is that I'm always finding humans at their best and worst. I see their ugly and their beauty, and I wonder how the same thing can be both. Still, they have one thing I envy. Humans, if nothing else, have the good sense to die.

Related Characters: Death (speaker)
Page Number: 491
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Liesel and Rudy see a dying pilot who's crash-landed. Rudy and Liesel treat the pilot with kindness--they can't save his life, but they give him a gift (a teddy bear) before he goes away with Death. Death is amazed by what he's just witnessed: humans are capable of incredible acts of war and destruction, and yet they're also clearly capable of immense acts of selflessness and kindness.

As he's stated before, Death can't wrap his head around the contradictions of the human spirit. As the novel reaches an end, and Liesel becomes more mature, Death becomes less of an authority figure, gracefully yielding his place to humanity. Death closes with a paradoxical comment--he envies humans for their ability to die. Death brings closure and (presumably) peace to all humans, but no one is there to bring those things to Death himself. Perhaps the point is that humans, precisely because they're mortal, have such desperate, volatile natures, able to do both good and evil. Death, who is immortal, can never entirely understand what humans do.

Part 10: The Ninety-Eighth Day Quotes

It was explained to me that in the end, Michael Holtzapfel was worn down not by his damaged hand or any other injury, but by the guilt of living.

Related Characters: Death (speaker), Michael Holtzapfel
Page Number: 503
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Michael Holtzapfel hangs himself. Michael has survived the horrors of the Battle of Stalingrad, but he suffers from a serious case of survivor's guilt. He can't stand being alive when so many other men he knows (particularly his own brother) have died--and as a result, he ends his life.

Michael is unique among the characters in the novel. While many suffer from guilt, only Michael gives in and takes his own life--just another example of how the horrors of war come in many forms. Michael's suicide reminds us of the importance of facing death with bravery and conviction, as Max and Liesel have thought about. While some consider suicide an "easy way out" or a cowardly action, one could also argue that Michael, too, is facing death on his own terms.

Part 10: Ilsa Hermann's Little Black Book Quotes

The sun stirs the earth. Around and around, it stirs us, like stew
On Munich Street, she remembered the events of the previous week there. She saw the Jews coming down the road, their streams and numbers and pain. She decided there was a word missing from her quote.
The world is an ugly stew, she thought.
It's so ugly I can't stand it.

Related Characters: Liesel Meminger (speaker), Death (speaker)
Page Number: 519
Explanation and Analysis:

As World War II and the Holocaust go on, Liesel becomes increasingly disillusioned with the human race. She sees everything that humans are capable of: the murders that they commit, the innocent people they torture, etc. Liesel isn't sure how to comprehend so much brutality. In the end, she thinks of a book she read, in which the author described the world as a stew. Liesel amends the text and describes the world as an "ugly" stew--a horrible mishmash of ugliness and evil.

Liesel has a way with words, and in her time of emotional crisis, words again allow her to make sense of the world--even if this just means describing it in all its horror. Liesel seems to be losing her faith in humanity, and therefore her faith in life--a faith that's previously led to her to provide comfort to the lonely and suffering.

She tore a page from the book and ripped it in half.
Then a chapter.
Soon, there was nothing but scraps of words littered between her legs and all around her. The words. Why did they have to exist? Without them, there wouldn't be any of this. Without words, the Führer was nothing…
What good were the words?

Related Characters: Death (speaker), Liesel Meminger
Page Number: 521
Explanation and Analysis:

There's no reason why words have to be good--and in this passage, Liesel realizes the truth about words in the most disillusioning way imaginable. At the height of World War II, Liesel sees the evil that words have wrought everywhere around her. Even Hitler, she knows, used words to manipulate people into enacting his evil ideas. Words, she concludes, are too dangerous to be worth it--they end up hurting people more than they help people.

It's a mark of how depressed and resentful Liesel has become that she's about to turn her back on books--the very things that have given her so much pleasure and joy in life. In her misery, Liesel (perhaps understandably) forgets about all the good that books are capable of achieving--the people they're capable of inspiring and the lives they're capable of improving, including Liesel's own.

Epilogue: The Handover Man Quotes

I wanted to tell the book thief many things, about beauty and brutality. But what could I tell her about those things that she didn't already know? I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race – that rarely do I ever simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant.

Related Characters: Death (speaker), Liesel Meminger
Page Number: 550
Explanation and Analysis:

As the novel ends, Death confronts the same paradoxes that he and the other characters have been confronting throughout the novel. How is it possible, he wonders, that human beings are capable of incredible evil, but also incredible acts of selflessness and kindness? While Death doesn't provide an answer to his question, he decides to simply accept this reality for what it is (to just "estimate" it): it's possible in the same sense that it's possible for words to be used for moral and immoral purposes. A word is nothing by itself--just a sound, or a few scratches on a piece of paper. But when words are moved around and manipulated for a cause, they can achieve anything, right or wrong. The same is true of human beings. Human nature is a complex thing, neither entirely good or bad, ugly or beautiful. Death, despite his immortality, is still fascinated and perplexed by these contradictions. It's because Death fails to understand humanity that he continues to study humans closely--especially humans like Liesel who embrace the power of life and language in all its ambiguity.

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Death Character Timeline in The Book Thief

The timeline below shows where the character Death appears in The Book Thief. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Prologue: Death and Chocolate
Death Theme Icon
Color, Beauty, and Ugliness Theme Icon
The narrator, Death, explains that he has a fair and sympathetic nature, and he carries away souls as... (full context)
Death Theme Icon
Death explains that it is the humans that survive – that are left behind when others... (full context)
Prologue: Beside the Railway Line
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Death associates his first encounter with the book thief with the color white. The scene occurs... (full context)
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Death explains that he made a mistake and allowed himself to become interested in the girl.... (full context)
Prologue: The Eclipse
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Death associates the next scene with the color black. It is night, and there is a... (full context)
Prologue: The Flag
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Death thinks of the color red for his last encounter with the book thief. Bombs have... (full context)
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Death associates the book thief with a full spectrum of colors, but mostly with the colors... (full context)
Part 1: Arrival on Himmel Street
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Death returns to the first, "white" scene of the train in the snow. A woman is... (full context)
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...the light." Liesel greets him like a friend, but then she wakes up and sees Death as he takes her brother's soul. The train stops and Liesel and her mother carry... (full context)
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Death continues to narrate, though he is no longer an eyewitness. Liesel and her mother board... (full context)
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...to Himmel Street, where her new family, the Hubermanns, live. "Himmel" means "heaven" in German. Death muses over the irony of this, as Himmel Street is in a poor, shabby part... (full context)
Part 1: Growing Up a Saumensch
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Death mentions a few details about characters and events that will come up later in the... (full context)
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...long time teaching Liesel how to roll a cigarette, which puts her more at ease. Death gives a few facts about Hans: he is a house painter, plays the accordion, and... (full context)
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Death then describes Rosa: she does washing and ironing for a few wealthy families, is a... (full context)
Part 1: The Kiss (A Childhood Decision Maker)
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Death introduces some of the other characters that live on Himmel Street: the Nazi-supporting Frau Diller,... (full context)
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Death gives some facts about Rudy: he is blond, blue-eyed, and always hungry. People think he... (full context)
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Rudy starts to spend time with Liesel at school too, and Death implies that he is already in love with her. One day the two children taunt... (full context)
Part 1: The Jesse Owens Incident
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Death begins to tell the story of the "Jesse Owens Incident," which occurred before Liesel's arrival... (full context)
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Death explains the politics of Alex Steiner, who is a member of the Nazi Party but... (full context)
Part 1: The Other Side of Sandpaper
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Death then describes a similarly defining incident for Liesel. One day in May there is a... (full context)
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...but she says she wants to learn to read it. Hans decides to teach her. Death remarks on how lucky it was that Hans found the book first instead of Rosa,... (full context)
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...on "S" until she thinks of saumensch. Hans draws a stick figure of Liesel, which Death recreates. They say goodnight and Liesel lies awake, thinking of words. (full context)
Part 2: A Girl Made of Darkness
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Death explains that this will be the story of the book thief's second crime, more than... (full context)
Part 2: The Joy of Cigarettes
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...at last. When they are done Hans points out the colors of the sky, which Death admires him for. Liesel finally reveals her brother's name, Werner, to Hans. (full context)
Part 2: Hitler's Birthday, 1940
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...and pin it up. Both the Hubermann children are at home for the event, and Death introduces them. Trudy is built like Rosa, and is mostly quiet. Hans Junior is a... (full context)
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...instead. Hans Junior keeps arguing and finally calls his father a coward and storms out. Death explains that he will later die fighting the Soviets at Stalingrad. In the house everyone... (full context)
Part 3: The Mayor's Library
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...is relieved, and thinks that maybe Frau Hermann didn't see her stealing after all (though Death assures the reader this is not the case). (full context)
Part 3: Enter the Struggler
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Death changes the setting of the story to a storage room in Stuttgart, Germany. There is... (full context)
Part 3: The Attributes of Summer
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...library. She won't let Rudy walk with her, and they curse at each other (which Death says is a sign of their love). In the mayor's library Liesel gets to sit... (full context)
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...Hermann finally speaks and says he was her son, who died during World War I. Death reveals that since her son died, Ilsa Hermann has made herself suffer by enduring the... (full context)
Part 4: The Accordionist (The Secret Life of Hans Hubermann)
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Max stands in the kitchen and asks Hans if he still plays the accordion. Then Death brings the story back to World War I, when Hans was fighting in France. He... (full context)
Part 4: A Short History of the Jewish Fist Fighter
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...was disappointed by how submissive he seemed. Max vowed to fight till the end, which Death can't help admiring. (full context)
Part 4: Liesel's Lecture
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Death emphasizes the danger of the situation in the Hubermann household now. Max sleeps in Liesel's... (full context)
Part 4: Pages from the Basement
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The Standover Man has both words and pictures, and Death recreates it exactly in the text. In his book Max is a bird, the story... (full context)
Part 5: The Floating Book (Part 1)
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Death describes a future scene with Rudy, where he is diving into the cold Amper River... (full context)
Part 5: The Gambler (A Seven-Sided Die)
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Death apologizes for spoiling the ending, but he says he has little interest in mystery. Now... (full context)
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Death reveals that the die they have been rolling is actually seven-sided, and this last side... (full context)
Part 5: Sketches
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...comes downstairs and finds Max asleep, and she looks at two pages of his book. Death recreates a picture of Hitler "conducting" a crowd in song with the heil salute, and... (full context)
Part 5: Three Acts of Stupidity by Rudy Steiner
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Death lists the three stupid acts and then goes on to describe them. The first involves... (full context)
Part 5: The Floating Book (Part II)
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...victory, so he lingers in the freezing water. He asks Liesel for a kiss, but Death thinks he is also afraid of her kiss because he loves her so much. Death... (full context)
Part 6: Death's Diary: 1942
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Death describes himself a little; he doesn't carry a scythe, or wear a black robe unless... (full context)
Part 6: Thirteen Presents
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Liesel sits and talks to Max, but he keeps sleeping for days. Death visits Himmel Street, but he doesn't take Max's struggling soul, and he doesn't see Liesel.... (full context)
Part 6: Fresh Air, an Old Nightmare, and what to do with a Jewish Corpse
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...of her own nightmares and Max's. Liesel and Rudy ride away on their bikes, and Death implies that Ilsa left the window open on purpose, hoping that Liesel would return. (full context)
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...bed a few more days, and then returns to the basement. Liesel is happy, but Death knows that bombs are coming soon. (full context)
Part 6: Death's Diary: Cologne
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Death describes the Allies' bombing of Cologne, Germany, and the five hundred souls he gathered up.... (full context)
Part 6: Death's Diary: The Parisians
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Death describes the sky as "the color of Jews," and he sadly talks about the souls... (full context)
Part 7: Champagne and Accordions
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...could never play like her Papa. This is the best period of Liesel's life, but Death warns that the bombers are coming. (full context)
Part 7: The Trilogy
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The carnival begins and Rudy wins the first race by a huge margin. Death points out that Rudy is now both talented at school and athletics. Rudy wins the... (full context)
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...Max to his sketchbook and Liesel to The Dream Carrier. After she finishes the book Death jumps ahead to her next stealing endeavor, as she is alone in the mayor's library.... (full context)
Part 7: The Sound of Sirens
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Death muses on the lives of these people, and wonders whether they deserve pity or deserve... (full context)
Part 7: The Long Walk to Dachau
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The group of Jews passes down Munich Street, and Death sees them as a procession of death-colors. Each of them is starved and despairing. The... (full context)
Part 7: The Idiot and the Coat Men
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Death labels Hans as "the idiot," and describes him sitting at the kitchen table, waiting for... (full context)
Part 8: Dominos and Darkness
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...into the kitchen and ask what will happen to Rudy. Alex Steiner looks desperate and Death implies that he has refused to let them take his son. Death wonders what would... (full context)
Part 8: The Thought of Rudy Naked
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Death describes Rudy's experience of a week before, when he was taken out of class and... (full context)
Part 8: The Hidden Sketchbook
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The second part of the book is an illustrated fable called The Word Shaker, and Death recreates the pages. The story begins with Hitler discovering the power of words, and then... (full context)
Part 9: The Cardplayer
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...the cigarettes he won with the other men. Reinhold despises him for his charity, and Death implies this will lead to Reinhold's end. (full context)
Part 9: The Snows of Stalingrad
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Liesel returns to Frau Holtzapfel's house to find her sitting in a state of shock. Death describes how her son, Robert, died by having is legs blown off and then suffering... (full context)
Part 9: One Toolbox, One Bleeder, One Bear
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...points out a crashed plane near the Amper River. Rudy runs towards it even as Death himself comes for the pilot. Liesel catches up with Rudy and they survey the fire,... (full context)
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Death takes the pilot's soul and he sees the sky eclipse with the shape of a... (full context)
Part 9: Homecoming
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...he sits with Liesel while she sleeps. Liesel enjoys three months of happiness then, but Death forebodes that it will not last. (full context)
Part 10: The End of the World (Part I)
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Death gives another glimpse of the character's ultimate fates – Himmel Street will be bombed, and... (full context)
Part 10: The War Maker
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...the funeral for Michael Holtzapfel, Liesel reads The Dream Carrier to Frau Holtzapfel as usual. Death describes how busy he is with the Allies' bombing of Hamburg. Hitler is starting to... (full context)
Part 10: Confessions
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...kiss her then, and she realizes she has always loved him, but again nothing happens. Death says Rudy has a month to live. (full context)
Part 10: Ilsa Hermann's Little Black Book
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Death explains that Ilsa has given Liesel not just a book, but a reason to see... (full context)
Part 10: The Rib-Cage Planes
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Liesel is finished with her book by the time Death comes for Himmel Street, but she is still in the basement. Death wonders what she... (full context)
Part 10: The End of the World (Part II)
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...time, and most of the residents of Himmel Street are sleeping when the bombs fall. Death describes how he takes the souls of Tommy Müller, Frau Holtzapfel, Frau Diller, the Fiedlers,... (full context)
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...she'll never drink champagne again. The men from the LSE take her away then, and Death sees The Book Thief in the rubble. He rescues it as it is thrown into... (full context)
Epilogue: Death and Liesel
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Death describes the world as a factory run by humans, and his job is to carry... (full context)
Epilogue: Max
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After the war, after Death has come for Hitler, Alex Steiner reopens his shop and Liesel starts to spend a... (full context)
Epilogue: The Handover Man
Death resumes his musings. There are a few stories that he collects to distract himself from... (full context)