The Book Thief

The Book Thief

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Color, Beauty, and Ugliness Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Death Theme Icon
Words and Language Theme Icon
Books Theme Icon
Stealing and Giving Theme Icon
Color, Beauty, and Ugliness Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Book Thief, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Color, Beauty, and Ugliness Theme Icon

When he takes a soul, Death remembers the color of the sky to distract himself from his grim work. He begins the story with the colors of his three meetings with Liesel, the book thief – white, black, and red – and combines these to form the Nazi flag, which hangs over the story like the colors of the sky. Later Liesel acts similarly to Death in describing the sky to Max when he is trapped inside.

Death sees the full spectrum of colors in the sky, which he connects to beauty and ugliness, and the extremes of humanity. He cannot decide if mankind is truly good or evil, beautiful or ugly, and in the end he finally accepts that it can be both at once. The book Mein Kampf represents this self-contradictory nature. It is a book of ultimate hatred and ugliness, but Max paints over it and makes a beautiful story about his friendship with Liesel. By the novel's end Liesel begins to see the spectrum of humanity as well, just as she so uniquely described to sky the Max. When Death finally takes her in her old age, he wants to explain the beauty and ugliness of people to Liesel, but then he realizes that she already knows.

Color, Beauty, and Ugliness ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Color, Beauty, and Ugliness appears in each chapter of The Book Thief. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Color, Beauty, and Ugliness Quotes in The Book Thief

Below you will find the important quotes in The Book Thief related to the theme of Color, Beauty, and Ugliness.
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: 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 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 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 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 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: 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.

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.