Individual Vs Society (on The Base Of Book Thief)
Discuss the theme of the individual vs. society, and how characters either conform to or rebel against societal expectations.
In the novel the Book thief, the plot and the characters are based on the observations of the narrator, who turns out to be Death. Most of the time, Death does not take much notice of humans or their lives on earth, but occasionally one such soul here and there grabs his attention. One such girl is the central character in the novel, nine-year old Liesel Meminger. As the phrase goes, ‘individual vs society’ refers to a conflict between an individual and their society, so is the story of this young ‘Book thief’ as introduced by Death. Because Liesel and her foster parents, Rosa and Hans hubermann have different beliefs than the society they live in, they deal with situations by keeping their secret safe to themselves.
The story is set in Nazi Germany during the Second World War. Throughout the course of the novel, Liesel learns the power of words and the influence it has over people. She is illiterate at the age of 9, and the first book she learns to read is a manual about grave digging that she steals during her brother’s burial. Learning to read makes her realize Hitler’s propaganda is the reason why Jews are hated so much in the country; and it’s also why her family is away from her. Max explains this effect through his book, ‘The Word Shaker’ which he writes for Liesel. In the book he depicts many of his thoughts, sketches and dreams relating to Stuttgart and Germany, and the Fuhrer. He also shares his recollections of his family and of course the word shaker herself- Liesel Meminger.
In Part Four, Hans Hubermann meets a German Jew named Erik Vandenburg, during his fight in the first World War in France. He lives through the war by not going into battle on the day everyone else in his regiment died. Hans repays Erik who saved his life, by hiding his son Max in his basement during the Second World War. He was aware that if anyone found out, the punishment was certain death. Before the war, Hans brings scrutiny upon him and ruins his business by painting over anti-Semitic slurs written on Jewish homes and shops. (GradeSaver LLC, Character List, P. 4)
In Part seven, Hans Hubermann, reaches out to an old Jew being sent to a concentration camp and offers him a piece of bread amid a large group of onlookers. Then sadness looms, and Liesel watches in horror the Jew being whipped and her papa by the German soldiers. Hans is strong enough to face the soldiers, but does not compromise over what he thinks must be done at that point, even if it means being a rebel against the society.
Max bitterly remarks that, as a Jew in Nazi Germany, he deserves a basement to protect himself from the persecution and he can slowly feel himself deteriorating from the cold.
It is interesting to know that standing up against the beliefs of a society or government is in fact the mark of a person’s individuality; however, its consequences may be very severe. As Marx suggests, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” and although some people believe that it is best to remain passive, Voltaire warns, “It is dangerous to be right when the government is wrong”. (Individuals and Society, 2011, P. 1)
Zusak, M. (2006). The Book Thief. New York: Afred A. Knopf
Pope, D. (2011). Individuals and Society.
GradeSaver LLC. Retrieved from website: http://www.gradesaver.com/the-book-thief/study-guide/major-themes/
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