Last Updated 05 Jan 2023

Survivors Guilt in The Book Thief Theme Analysis

Category Book Thief
Words 1035 (4 pages)
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Survivor's guilt is defined as, "Feelings of guilt for having survived a catastrophe in which others died.". However, It also happens to be the most prevalent theme in Markus Zusak's The Book Thief. In The Book Thief, people, such as Liesel, Hans, and Max, can find a connection through the guilt of surviving a tragedy.

The theme of survivor's guilt is experienced by Liesel Meminger throughout The Book Thief. The first time Liesel experiences survivor's guilt is in part one. Liesel is 9, almost 10, at this time. The novel states, "A train was moving quickly. It was packed with humans. A six-year- old boy died in the third carriage... Still in disbelief, she started to dig. He couldn't be dead. He couldn't be dead. He couldn't-." (Zusak, 2005, 19 & 23). Later in part one, Liesel has nightmares about her brother and her mother. She mourns their losses and the presence they had in her life. She wishes desperately that they were there with her. (Zusak, 2005, 36-39) The readers and Liesel later realize that there is a great possibility that Liesel's mother has died too. These two losses and Liesel's grief can be seen as survivor's guilt. She, unlike her brother, ended up making it to a safe home. She, unlike her mother, wouldn't be sought after by the Nazi party. One of the 5 stages of grief is bargaining.

Guilt is like bargaining's best friend, they often go hand in hand. Liesel is going to naturally experience survivor's guilt while she is mourning her family. The last time Liesel experiences survivor's guilt is throughout the last chapter, The End of The World (Part II), in part ten. Liesel is 15 at this time. In this chapter, everyone dies except Liesel. As she runs around to Rosa, Hans, and Rudy, she hugs/kisses them and remembers the impact that they had on her life. (Zusak, 2005, 529-539)

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Although we don't see the long-term guilt she'll have after surviving such an incident, we do see some immediate guilt. One example of this is when Liesel wishes that she had told Rudy how much she loved him. She feels guilt for all the things she didn't get to do with her friends and family before the bombs. One could argue that after such a tragedy, she may even start to wish that she died along with them because after they died, she didn't have much of anyone to live for. [Although we don't see those thoughts in the book, I can almost guarantee that something like that would eventually go through anyone's mind after surviving something that devastating.] Those examples show the very essence of survivor's guilt. Another character who experiences survivor's guilt is Liesel's papa: Hans.

The theme of survivor's guilt is endured by Hans Hubermann. The first time we see a glimpse of his guilt is in part four. When Hans fought in The Great War (aka WWI), everyone in his platoon died, except for him. The only reason he didn't die was because of Erik Vandenburg (his friend, also in his platoon). His whole platoon went into battle, except for Hans because Erik volunteered him to write letters. Erik and Hans were best friends. In fact, Erik was the man who taught Hans how to play the accordion. After Erik died, Hans carried his accordion until the war ended, and it's the same one he uses all throughout The Book Thief. (Zusak, 2005, 176-179)

Erik was a Jew, so when his son asked him to join the Nazi party, even when it would have benefitted him, and even when it would have protected his family, Hans never did. Hans even hides Erik's son (also a Jew), Max, in his basement because he felt like he owed Erik's family a favor because of Erik's sacrifice. I think that only someone with survivor's guilt would risk the lives of themselves and their family for another, and that is exactly what Hans did when he took Max in. The last time Hans experiences survivor's guilt is in part seven. In part seven, the novel states, "Papa reached into his paint cart and pulled something out... The Jew stood before him..... Hans

Hubermann held his hand out and presented a piece of bread, like magic." (Zusak, 2005, 394). This small act of compassion got Hans in quite a bit of trouble. After this, Rosa and Hans suggested that Max should leave because they feared that Nazi party men would come and search their house, so it was too dangerous for Max to stay. After Max left, each day was agonizing for Hans. He knew that if the men never came, then kicking Max out would have all been for nothing and then Max would be in great danger. Hans feared that he just led a sheep to the slaughter by letting Max go, and sadly, Hans was right. Hans felt guilty because his act of compassion may have cost Max his life. Finally, survivor's guilt is experienced by Max Vandenburg.

The theme of survivor's guilt is felt by Max Vandenburg. In part four, Max reflects back on his journey to the Hubermann home. This journey starts with him leaving his family on Kristallnacht, the "Night of Broken Glass". Despite his resistance, his family insisted on Max leaving them for safety because they knew that only one person would survive that night. (Zusak, 2005, 187-196) Later, Max and Liesel open up to one another and exchange nightmares. (Zusak, 2005, 220) By doing so, they tell one another stories of their pasts. Max's story is of Kristallnacht, he has nightmares about that night because he feels guilty about leaving his family.

The second time we see Max experience survivor's guilt is after he leaves the Hubermann home. He leaves a note on a rock that says "You've done enough.". (Zusak, 2005, 397 & 398) He no longer wants the Hubermann family to worry about him because he feels guilty about staying in their basement. He feels guilty that his survival has put Hans, Rosa, and Liesel in danger. He loves them, so he leaves for their safety. The theme of survivor's guilt is endured by Max throughout The Book Thief.

The theme of survivor's guilt is endured by Liesel, Hans, and Max in The Book Theif.

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