In which I (over) analyse the prologue of The Book Thief.
This book gets off to such a rich start that this is what the first page of my copy looks like:
So, yes. There is much to discuss.
First of all, I should say that it’s my intent to do this in such a way that, should you wish to read along, you can do so, reading each analysis once you’ve finished that section. So I’m going to try to contain any spoilers to this particular section, meaning you’re safe if you haven’t read the rest of the book yet.
And just a fair warning, I’m not sure this will be very cohesive. I’m kind of just flipping through this section and picking out a few things that I wanted to talk about. It’s not a comprehensive overview, and it might not even flow well. We’ll see.
Zusak makes a superb choice with how he opens the novel:
First the colors.
Then the humans.
That’s usually how I see things.
Or at least, how I try.
Let me explain why I think this is so great. For one thing, it hints at the fact that we’re not dealing with a human narrator. Secondly, what drives stories? Conflict. So what should we see fairly soon? Conflict. Still, a lot of writers (and I’m speaking from my own experience as well) struggle to do that. Since this story starts, not with dialogue or action, but with straight narration, it would be particularly easy to fall into that trap here. But no, right off the bat, in this very first paragraph, we see a conflict.
Did you catch it? “That’s usually how I see things. Or at least, how I try.” (Italics mine.) That’s inner conflict; there’s a disconnect—at least some of the time—between how he tries to view things, perhaps how he feels he should view them, and how he actually does. Conflict in the first 18 words—well done!
Immediately afterwards, there is that line that comes like a punch to the gut:
* * * HERE IS A SMALL FACT * * *
You are going to die.
First, this immediately sets the tone. It’s going to be dark, but in such an in-your-face, matter-of-fact way that it doesn’t come off as oppressive. Besides that, we know that we’ve got a narrator that tells it like it is. I mean, it’s generally not considered polite to remind people that they’re going to die.
It’s called “a small fact.” Yet, depending on the person and the situation, it might also be called a heavy and crushing fact, or in some cases an expansive and motivating fact. So why a small fact? I have some thoughts about this:
- This is Death himself we’re hearing from. Of course it’s a small fact to him. It’s just a given.
- It really is pretty small in the timeline of your life. One very short event at the end. Something that, on a day-to-day basis, you don’t think about that often. It’s always present in the background of your awareness, but how often, when you’re just going about your routine, do you stop and consciously think: “Someday, I’m going to die.” Not too often. So in that sense, it is quite a small fact.
The voice of our rather unusual narrator is incredibly engaging. Dry, abrupt, matter-of-fact. But also gentle. Pleading at times. Playful at others. Seeming to want to be friendly, while not quite knowing how. It’s as though he’s telling us a story, but he can’t shake the constant awareness of our instinct to recoil from him. It’s marvelous. I would love to analyse every single line, but obviously I can’t do that. I’ll have to continue to select just a few, and then we can discuss your favourites in the comments if I miss them.
Before we dive deeper, just a brief note on a stylistic choice that’s made in this novel (because I don’t know where else I’m going to talk about this). There are a lot of very short sentences and one-line paragraphs in The Book Thief. I have seen this done well in other works, and I have seen this done poorly. In this particular novel, I would say it is done well. The lines that are set apart are well-chosen, and they come like frequent punches—even stabs. At times it’s almost aggressive; you’re continually being bombarded with the impact of what’s happening. And since this novel is set in Nazi Germany, what’s happening is often horrifying. This stylistic choice serves to slow the images down, forcing you to process them like horrifying snapshots being shoved in your face. You can’t look away. But you shouldn’t. It’s forcing you to stop and consider, and that’s something we all need to do sometimes.
After Death informs us that he has encountered the book thief three times, we get brief descriptions of these encounters. What makes them interesting is that we don’t really know the characters or full circumstances yet, but the descriptions we get here don’t focus on these elements. The focus is on the colours. Three colours, to be exact. Starting with white.
“Something white. Of the blinding kind.”
In the margin of my copy, I listed my associations with the colour white, based on what it is often used to symbolise in literature (and I suppose the majority of my associations and awareness are drawn from western literature, so keep that in mind).
- blank slate
It soon becomes apparent, from the bereaved being a mother and a daughter, and the fact that Death eventually specifies it is a “small male corpse” that it’s a child that has died. Of course, it’s winter and there is snow everywhere, but a white sky does seem pretty fitting for the death of a child, since it brings to mind all those connotations of purity and innocence and youth. Also, I believe it’s traditional for a child’s coffin to be white.
I really like this sentence:
The world was sagging now, under the weight of all that snow.
Literally, there is a lot of snow on the ground. But figuratively, the weight of the loss of the boy is so great. Even Death feels it. And there is literally nothing more pure I can think of than fresh, clean snow. So, especially if you equate childhood with innocence and purity (which I don’t, not entirely, but that’s a discussion for another day that I’m sure will include some analysis of Lord of the Flies), the snow is really a perfect metaphor to show the weight of this loss.
But the real point of this inclusion is to show the beginning of Death’s interest in the book thief. Earlier, he says this about the survivors, or “the leftover humans”:
They’re the ones I can’t stand to look at, although on many occasions I still fail. I deliberately seek out the colors to keep my mind off them, but now and then, I witness the ones who are left behind, crumbling among the jigsaw puzzle of realization, despair, and surprise. They have punctured hearts. They have beaten lungs.
So, confronted with this scene of the guards, the mother, the daughter, and the corpse, he tries to concentrate on “the blinding, white-snow sky.”But he makes what he describes as the most elementary of mistakes: he becomes interested. In the book thief. He doesn’t elaborate on why he is interested, on what makes her different from the other survivors he has encountered. Not at this point. But I think the last image of the chapter has something to do with it:
…the pale, empty-stomached girl was standing, frost-stricken.
Her mouth jittered.
Her arms were folded.
Tears were frozen to the book thief’s face.
There is something in this picture that seems very resolute for a young girl. Strong. She is crying for her loss, but the folded arms and the frozen tears indicate that it will not crush her. And because we know Death is going to encounter her more than this one time, that’s a good thing. She’s going to need that strength.
And you’re going to need to keep that blinding blanket of white in your mind for a couple more headings.
“A signature black”
My immediate associations with this colour:
Other than “death” and “frightening,” I don’t think any of my associations were what was intended here. Corruption, evil, etc. are often symbolised by this colour as well, but I’m not sure those play into this scene either. So I’m going to admit that I’m not entirely sure what this colour means. Let me know what you think in the comments.
We are taken from the scene in the blinding snow to the complete opposite: the darkest moment before dawn. As Death puts it:
Next is a signature black, to show the poles of my versatility, if you like.
This is a colour we are more likely to associate with Death, at least in western cultures.
And there’s the beautiful image of the boy with the teddy bear, which I really love, but what I think is really intriguing—and what I want to talk about—are the colours used to describe the corpse.
The man, in comparison, was the color of bone. Skeleton-colored skin. A ruffled uniform. His eyes were cold and brown—like coffee stains—and the last scrawl from above formed what, to me, appeared an odd, yet familiar, shape. A signature.
First of all, that familiar shape, that signature—hold that in the back of your mind. That’s important.
“Color of bone” brings to mind sickliness, death—lots of sinister connotations. Brown, on the other hand, is usually a very warm colour. The fact that we encounter the word “cold” before the word “brown,” though, changes that connotation. Coffee is another thing we have positive associations with. It’s warm and lovely and some of us are almost entirely fueled by it. Coffee stains, on the other hand, are nasty things. Just reminders of coffee that was. This is an unsettling and original description of a dead person, very exquisitely and carefully crafted to draw out the associations that will produce the desired emotions in us as readers.
“Like soup, boiling and stirring”
My immediate associations with the colour red:
Of the three encounters that Death has recounted to us so far, this is the most horrifying. Because of the sheer number of people we’re talking about, as well as the sense of how sudden it all was. As if there were still echoes of children playing hopscotch.
Often in The Book Thief, horrifying images are depicted in a way that is almost beautiful, and this is definitely intentional, because it is pointed out. In the previous chapter, referring to the plane wreck, Death even goes so far as to say “It was a beautiful thing in some ways.” And here, on this bomb-wrecked street, we have this image:
Yes, the sky was now a devastating, home-cooked red. The small German town had been flung apart one more time. Snowflakes of ash fell so lovelily you were tempted to stretch out your tongue to catch them, taste them. Only, they would have scorched your lips. They would have cooked your mouth.
This juxtaposition of beauty with absolute horror is fascinating. It’s something that would make us a bit uncomfortable to ever express. If we were tasked to record this event, we wouldn’t want to admit that we thought the snowflake-like ash fell lovelily. That we wanted to catch it with our tongue. And we would never describe a plane wreck as being “a beautiful thing in some ways.” But this idea that there can be small beautiful images in the midst of absolute horror, which is also reflected in the way Death focuses on the colours to distract himself from the survivors, is something I find compelling. And I think in many ways that’s what The Book Thief is about. There are a lot of small, beautiful, almost magical moments in what should feel like a very dark and oppressing story. And perhaps that’s what it’s like to live through a time period like that. You could look at the big picture and become absolutely distraught by how bad it all is, or you could focus on the small glimmers of beauty, no matter how tiny. You can “vacation in increments. In
I love this:
Was it fate?
Is that what glued them down like that?
Of course not.
Let’s not be stupid.
It probably had more to do with the hurled bombs, thrown down by humans hiding in the clouds.
It’s not clear to us at this point why the boy died, and we also don’t know at this point whether the pilot crashed by accident or was shot down. The image of this bomb-torn street differs because it is made very clear that this act was deliberate.
A mountain range of rubble was written, designed, erected around her.
This attack was intentional, engineered by humans against other humans. And the phrase “hiding in the clouds” shines light on the cowardliness of the act.
Finally, we see something remarkable. We see Death feeling compassion for the book thief. He wants to show it, but he’s not allowed.
Okay, so now it all gets put together. This is why I asked you to remember how those colours were described.
Sometimes, I manage to float far above those three moments. I hang suspended until a septic truth bleeds toward clarity.
That’s when I see them formulate.
They fall on top of each other. The scribbled black, onto the blinding white, onto the thick soupy red.
Okay, so obviously that forms a swastika. The first time I read this, I was inclined to oversimplify. I thought the reason for this symbolism was that Hitler, or at the very least Nazism, was responsible for all 3 of those encounters. But in subsequent readings, I have analysed a little deeper. Because that really is a little simplistic. Hitler was probably the most despicable and contemptible human to ever live on this earth, and he certainly had a big role to play in there being a war at all. But children get sick and die regardless of whether there is an evil dictator in power. And by definition, a war involves more than one group of people. So it would be a little simplistic to blame the events just described on Hitler alone. And on (Over)Analysing Literature, while simplicity can be refreshing, we are never satisfied with simplistic. So let’s go a little deeper.
This book does seem to be leaning toward placing the blame on Nazism. First of all, there’s that very obvious swastika imagery. There’s a line somewhere in the book where Death makes the statement that no one served the Führer as loyally as he. Our protagonists are not Nazis; Liesel declares that she hates the Führer, and Hans rebels in his own quiet ways. Certainly, Hitler and his party were responsible for most of the atrocities we associate with WWII, and for plenty of the events in this book. Hitler’s invasion of Poland was responsible for sparking the war in the first place. But it does go deeper than that. Because the book also directly places blame on the planes that dropped the bombs on Himmel street. Those weren’t Nazi planes. Those were Allied planes. And then look at this line that comes at the conclusion of the prologue:
I have kept her story to retell. It is one of a small lesion 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.
Linking all of this, along with the last line of the book and many lines throughout, I would have to say that The Book Thief places the blame for all of this destruction, at its broadest sense, on Humans. It is that simple, but also that complex. One of the major themes of this book is the horrors that humans are capable of. But it’s also about the small, beautiful acts that they are also capable of. Things like a teddy bear placed by a boy onto a dying pilot’s chest.
Wow. That was an incredibly lengthy post, and I’ve been through a few times to try to shorten it, but that’s as concise as I can get it. And I still didn’t get to talk about everything! I can tell that analysing this book is going to be quite a project.
As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments.
Note: all the images in this post are mine, but you can feel free to use them if you wish. Credit isn’t really necessary since I made them from quotes from the book anyway.
Have a lovely day!