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."
Death Quotes in The Book Thief
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.
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.
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.
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:
The Germans loved to burn things. Shops, synagogues, Reichstags, houses, personal items, slain people, and of course, books.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.