The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

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Gender Roles Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Innocence and Ignorance  Theme Icon
Boundaries  Theme Icon
Family and Friendship  Theme Icon
Nationalism  Theme Icon
Gender Roles Theme Icon
Complicity Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Gender Roles Theme Icon

The perpetuation of traditional gender roles is present throughout the novel, and contributes to much of the misinformation and miscommunication between the characters. Father is the definitive patriarch of the family, and he is in charge of what the entire family does and where they go. Bruno aspires to be as big and strong as his father, but also feels conflicted in his relationship with his father because of how he appears to treat Mother, the maid, Maria, and Grandmother, who vehemently abhors Father’s role in the Nazi army.

Mother often disagrees with Father’s choices, but as the woman in the relationship, when Father makes a decision, she knows she must follow it. She has taken to passive-aggressively complaining about “some people” in the household when she is upset, a moniker that Bruno has come to realize means “Father.” When she is unhappy at Auschwitz, Mother takes many “naps” and drinks “medicinal sherries,” showing that she is attempting to sedate herself to escape her misery, as she has no real agency or power of her own. Though it is never explicitly stated, it is insinuated that Mother engages in an affair with nineteen-year-old Lieutenant Kotler, an act of subversion towards Father, and one of the only ways in which Mother is able to exercise her will. Eventually, Father consents to letting the family move back to Berlin, but only after what has been almost a year of convincing, and likely a product of his problematic relationship with Mother: Father is to remain at Auschwitz while Mother takes the children back to Berlin.

Maria, the maid, feels conflicted regarding Father’s character, as she knows of the horrors he orchestrates at Auschwitz, but cannot forget the kindness he has shown towards her and her late mother. As a servant, she knows she cannot express her feelings without being thrown out of the house, and she only reveals them to Bruno when no one else is listening, in an attempt to make him understand the nuances of his Father’s nature. Grandmother, on the other hand, has no difficulty making it known how atrocious she thinks Father’s new role as Commandant is. She proclaims that she would rather “tear her eyes from her head” than look at Father in his new uniform. Grandfather berates her for speaking her mind, and Father continually counters her arguments against Hitler and the Nazi regime. Grandmother dies before she can reconcile with her son, and her disapproval seems to have no effect on his life choices.

The adult women in the novel, bound by their traditional gender roles, each have their own negative opinions regarding Father’s role at Auschwitz, but they are disregarded due to their secondary status to men. This lack of regard leads to a breakdown of communication—Mother does not discuss what Father does with Bruno, or why they are truly moving to Auschwitz, likely because she is too depressed about her inability to have a say in the matter. Grandmother’s opinions are dismissed as well, and this fact is never discussed or explained to Bruno. Most of the women are therefore completely silent in their opposition to Auschwitz and the Nazi agenda as a whole. This sexism does not excuse their complicity, but it does show how the Nazi philosophy of prejudice and hatred extended in many directions at once, so that even “pure Aryan” women were made to be submissive and act out traditional gender roles, having little to no say in real decision-making. Within the novel, this leads to a lack of communication that keeps Bruno ignorant, and ultimately causes his death when he has no idea what he is getting himself into when he crawls under the fence.

Gender Roles ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Gender Roles appears in each chapter of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Gender Roles Quotes in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

Below you will find the important quotes in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas related to the theme of Gender Roles.
Chapter 1 Quotes

“It’s a very important job,” said Mother, hesitating for a moment. “A job that needs a very special man to do it. You can understand that, can’t you?”

Related Characters: Mother (speaker), Bruno, Father
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

Bruno comes home from school one day to find the family maid, Maria, packing his belongings into wooden crates. When he enters his mother's bedroom to ask why Maria is doing this, he finds the family butler, Lars, packing up Mother's belongings as well. Mother takes him downstairs and explains that the entire family—Bruno, Mother, Father, and Bruno's sister, Gretel—is moving away from Berlin. Mother tells Bruno that Father has a very important job, and that the man who employs him has a new, special job for him away from the city. 

Mother's hesitation to tell Bruno more about his father's new "special job"—serving as the commander of a concentration camp—speaks to both her own discomfort about the job and to the sheltered world in which Bruno and Gretel are kept. Despite the fact that she is not happy with the prospect of moving her family to a Nazi concentration camp, her role as a woman (and her complicity with the Nazi regime) makes her submissive to the commands of her husband, a high-ranking officer in Hitler's army. As a young child, Bruno is both protected from the grim nature of his father's job, and expected not to ask too many questions, as his parents seem to want to keep him ignorant and innocent of the realities of Germany at the time. Mother and Bruno's subordination to Father's orders is also indicative of traditional gender and family roles favored by the Nazi party.


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Chapter 2 Quotes

“We don’t have the luxury of thinking,” said Mother. “…Some people make all the decisions for us.”

Related Characters: Mother (speaker), Bruno, Father
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

Bruno's family travels to their new home (in the concentration camp of Auschwitz, where his father will serve as commander) far away from Berlin. He is upset to see how different the new home, and location, is from their house in the center of the city.

When Bruno tells Mother that he thinks moving was a bad idea, she replies with this quote: that "Some people" make all the decisions for the family. Mother frequently uses the phrase "Some people" to refer to Father. In this quote, Mother is explaining that, as a woman and a child, she and Bruno are subordinate to the decisions of Father, the patriarch of the family. In effect, they not only can't voice their concerns, but that they aren't even allowed to think them—their role is simply to obey. This idea of complete obedience is further reinforced when, as she speaks, Mother begins to unpack boxes, showing Bruno that even though he (and she) are unhappy with their new situation, the family is there to stay whether he likes it or not.

The idea of simply accepting situations and following orders also serves as a larger criticism of Nazi Germany in general. After the war, many Nazi soldiers defended their actions by claiming that they were only "following orders" as they carried out the horrors of the Holocaust. In this way, Boyne uses Mother's insistence that she has to listen to father as well, as Bruno's innocence and ignorance, to represent the blindness with which many soldiers followed Hitler's orders, and in so doing perpetrated the horrors of the Holocaust.

Chapter 6 Quotes

“Bruno, if you have any sense at all, you will stay quiet and concentrate on your schoolwork and do whatever your father tells you. We must all just keep ourselves safe until this is all over. That’s what I intend to do anyway. What more can we do than that after all? It’s not up to us to change things.”

Related Characters: Maria (speaker), Bruno, Father
Page Number: 65
Explanation and Analysis:

After a few days at Auschwitz, Bruno encounters Maria and asks her how she feels about the family's move. Maria avoids any chance Bruno gives her to speak ill of his Mother and Father, and instead tells him that he must follow his parents' wishes. Bruno goes on to complain that his father has made a "terrible mistake" in moving the family.

In this quote, Maria tells Bruno that he is not allowed to constantly state how he feels. As a young child who is still figuring out the world and his social situation, Bruno has difficulty with processing and containing his emotions. (Furthermore, he is rather rich and spoiled, and so is used to getting his way when he complains.) Maria, who is better versed in the political and social situation in Germany, knows that one wrong, overheard sentence can have someone thrown in jail, or worse. As a maid, her livelihood is at the mercy of Mother and Father—she is not only a woman, but also a social inferior to the Nazi couple. If she were to be found speaking ill of the family, or found to have encouraged any such thoughts in Bruno, Maria could potentially be fired or more harshly punished.

While Maria's fearful silence seems totally justified, it also means that she becomes unwillingly complicit in the crimes that her employer (Father) is perpetrating. She would endanger herself if she spoke out, but she endangers many more by remaining silent. This shows the very difficult choices that faced everyone in Nazi Germany—except for those who could still remain as ignorant and innocent as Bruno.

Chapter 17 Quotes

He paused for a moment and looked out the window to his left—the window that led off to a view of the camp on the other side of the fence. “When I think about it, perhaps she is right. Perhaps this is not a place for children.”

Related Characters: Father (speaker), Bruno, Gretel, Mother
Related Symbols: Out-With, The Fence
Page Number: 190
Explanation and Analysis:

One day, Father calls Gretel and Bruno into his office. He explains that he and Mother have been discussing the possibility of returning to Berlin, though he himself would remain at Auschwitz to command the camp. In this quote, Father expresses that Mother has told him that she did not think Auschwitz was a suitable location to raise her family. 

This quote is a rare moment of introspection by Father, a character whom the reader hears about but seldom sees speak. Father is largely characterized as a cold person, a figure whom Bruno longs for more time with and respects, but is also somewhat scared of. Furthermore, as a commander of a concentration camp, Father oversees the torture, starvation, and murder of thousands of people each day. At Mother's urging, he comes to understand that this kind of environment could be toxic to his children. This moment of reflection shows that while he is capable of extremely horrific acts of war, he simultaneously harbors compassion for his family. The stark mental divide many Nazis held between their work and their personal lives was something psychologically studied after the Holocaust, as men who otherwise seemed like decent, moral human beings could commit atrocities while staying sane and otherwise "normal."

Chapter 20 Quotes

Of course all this happened a long time ago and nothing like that could ever happen again.
Not in this day and age.

Page Number: 216
Explanation and Analysis:

A few months after Father realizes what happens to Bruno, World War II ends. When the Allied soldiers come to arrest him for his war crimes, he gives himself up, and no longer cares what they do to him. 

This quote represents the crux of Boyne's reason for writing the allegorical tale of Bruno and Shmuel. After a tragedy, people tend to claim that such an event will never happen again, though centuries of wars and genocides show that this is not the case. A mass genocide on the scale of the Holocaust is an important reminder of just how dangerous prejudices between groups in society can be. It is crucial that all of humanity remember the horrors of the Holocaust so that it never happens again. But as with everything in history, some things can become forgotten by later generations, for whom the sadness and fears of war are not as fresh—and then the cycle of violence and complicity continues. This last line of the novel serves as a warning: this story, though set in the 1940s, could potentially happen anytime, anywhere, if people do not put friendship and common humanity before hatred and prejudice.