The Book Thief

The Book Thief

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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.
Death Theme Icon

Death himself is the narrator of The Book Thief, and the setting is Nazi Germany during World War II, so there is a constant feeling of danger and suspense in the story. The narrator also reveals the fates of most of the characters beforehand, particularly the details of their deaths. This creates a different kind of suspense, where the reader knows some of the story's end but still wants to know how the characters arrive there.

Most of the characters deal with the death of a loved one, and they then struggle with survivor's guilt. Liesel's brother dies at the start of the story and his death haunts her throughout. Hans Hubermann helps Max Vandenburg because of his debt to Max's dead father, Ilsa Hermann grieves for years for her dead son, and Michael Holtzapfel commits suicide over guilt for surviving the war when his brother did not. In the end the many deaths of the novel become overwhelming and the reader is given a glimpse into the mind of Death, who is weary of working, horrified by war, and "haunted by humans."

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Death ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in The Book Thief related to the theme of Death.
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 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 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 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 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 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.

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.