Exploring Markus Zusak’s use of Death as a Narrator in The Book Thief
Word Count: 3,496
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is narrated by Death who tells the story of Liesel Meminger. The reader can learn a lot about Death through his narration. Consequently this essay focuses on the question: what effect may Death’s narration in The Book Thief have on the reader and what does the reader learn about Death? Death is a metafictional and omniscient narrator who sometimes speaks in first person. The different styles make up a freestyle narration, which is unique. The metafictional narrative catches the reader’s attention since it directly addresses the reader. The omniscience of Death is clear from his comprehensive knowledge of the different characters. This omniscience also informs the reader of events that happened in the past and events in the future. Zusak personifies death, giving him humanlike emotions and humanlike physical features. These personifications can be seen through Death’s first person and metafictional narrative. Zusak’s portrayal of death is different from many other personifications, such as the Grim Reaper. Death has a conscience, can be empathetic and is friendly compared to other personifications. His relation to Liesel, the main character, is very special. He calls her by the nickname she gave herself and makes her story stand out from all others. He shares with the reader how he is impacted by her and leaves the reader to reflect upon him, Liesel, and humanity. His narration effectively teaches the reader about Liesel and even himself. It also keeps the reader interested and conveys morals that will provoke the reader’s thoughts. Word Count: 244
Table of Contents
Introduction 4 Main Body
1.0 Narration Styles 4
2.0 Death’s Personification 8
2.1 Death’s Personification Compared to Other Personifications 9
3.0 Death’s Relation to Liesel 12 Conclusion 15
The Book Thief written by Markus Zusak is a unique novel, taking place during the World War II in Germany. It is unique because, unlike other stories around the Holocaust, The Book Thief is narrated by Death. The way Markus Zusak uses Death to tell the story in a personal way, gives a different perspective for the reader. The story is about Liesel Meminger’s new life with a foster family; and how she grows to love words and writing. Death’s narration is personal because it gives a detailed account of Liesel’s life and he talks about himself. The narration style is overall freestyle – a mix of first person, second person, omniscient, and metafictional. Markus Zusak portrays Death differently from other portrayals of death, like the Grim Reaper, through these styles of narration. Also, the use of Death as a narrator makes Liesel’s story more special because she impacts Death, and wants the reader to be impacted as well. The metafictional narration style is what interests me most because it enables me to understand Death’s character and reveals his humanness. In accordance this essay focuses on the following question: what effect may Death’s narration in The Book Thief have on the reader and what does the reader learn about Death?
1.0 Narration Styles
Death’s narration is often metafictional1. Death talks about himself in the opening chapter and directly addresses the reader. He does this throughout the book. For example he tells how words are pronounced such as “…Molching, said by the likes of you and me as ‘Molking’” (33). He also talks to the reader as if he were with the reader and finding out what happens next. This metafictional narration makes him like a guide because he shares all of the events and details as if the reader were following him. An example of this
metafictional narration is when he says, “We will travel a little, to a secret storage room, and we will see what we see” (145). This metafictional narration makes Death seem inviting and friendly; he even calls the reader “my friend” (145).
Death indirectly addresses the reader by adding little sections of information that are aside from the story. An example of this is where he has added his own “small theory” stressing the importance of colors – ***A SMALL THEORY*** 2
People observe the colors of a day only at its beginnings and ends, but to me it’s quite clear that a day merges through a multitude of shades and intonations, with each passing moment. A single hour can consist of thousands of different colors. Waxy yellows, cloud-spat blues. Murky darknesses. In my line of work, I make it a point to notice them (14). By making a small theory Death can express his thoughts to the reader in a different way. In this way he gives away bits of information about his character. Besides “small theories” he gives “small facts”, translations, and definitions “not found in the dictionary” as well. They enable Death to give background and general information not directly related to Liesel, but related to events and people in her life. This can help the reader get to know Death’s opinions and what he thinks is worth telling. For the reader these different ‘side notes’ can give a break to the reader from the story. They also help keep the reader’s interest because they stand out. The effect of this style can make the reader feel like Death really cares and wants the reader to gain his or her own perspective with all of these facts, bits of background information, as well as Death’s own perspective.
Death has straightforwardness that can be shocking for the reader. His first
words to the reader are, “First the colours. Then the humans. That’s usually how I see things. Or at least, how I try”(13). Then he bluntly says, ***HERE IS A SMALL FACT***
You are going to die (13).
He is very straightforward telling the reader that colors are of more importance in his train of thought than humans. It is unexpected that Death would think about colors before humans. This is Death’s introduction for himself to the reader and it is very interesting. Then he bluntly states the well-known fact that the reader, a human, will die eventually. It can be shocking for the reader that Death would say this in his introduction. Yet he almost regrets his own bluntness. He goes on to explain how “…cheerful…amiable. Agreeable. Affable…” (13) he can be. Another example of his straightforwardness is, “Just don’t ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with me” (13). Despite being humanlike and almost friendly Death is still not completely human. He reminds the reader of this by simply pointing out that he is neither nice nor nasty.
Death shows his omniscience, (as an omniscient narrator3) by giving very informative descriptions. An example of his omniscience is where he describes Rosa – ***SOME FACTS ABOUT*** ROSA HUBERMANN She was five feet, one inch tall and wore her browny gray strands of elastic hair in a bun. To supplement the Hubermann income, she did the washing and ironing for five of the wealthier households in Molching. Her cooking was atrocious (41). He knows Rosa’s exact height, “…five feet, one inch tall…” (41) and he knows her cooking is “atrocious” (41) even though he has never eaten it. Another example of his omniscience is here where he describes Hans, Liesel’s foster father – ***SOME FACTS ABOUT*** HANS HUBERMANN He loved to smoke. The main thing he
enjoyed about smoking was the rolling. He was a painter by trade and played the piano accordion. This came in handy, especially in winter, when he could make a little money playing in the pubs of Molching, like the Knoller. He had already cheated me in one world war but would later be put into another (as a perverse kind of reward), where he would somehow manage to avoid me again (40). He talks about how Hans “ had already cheated me in one world but would later be put into another…where he would somehow manage to avoid me again” (40). His omniscience is credible because he mentions the past and the future. This is just one example of how he jumps through time.
From the descriptions of Hans and Rosa it is apparent that Death’s narration is freestyle. He chooses to describe Rosa’s hair and height but not when describing Hans. His select and seemingly unstructured descriptions may help keep the reader interested. If he always used the same format, i.e. name first then height then hair color then…, for describing characters it would be very constricting. Different characters have different personalities. Therefore, their character may need to be described in a different way so that their nuances can be shown. Death’s freestyle narration may also reflect upon Death’s character. Death is not bound by many rules and unique. Also, metafictional narration and simple descriptions are not the only techniques used making the overall narration quite interesting.
Death’s omniscient narrating is crucial for the reader to better understand the characters’ thoughts and personality. Death’s omniscient narration is apparent by the way he jumps from scene to scene and through time. His
omniscience is also apparent because he has a comprehensive knowledge of the characters. Without knowing the characters’ thoughts the story would not be as intimate and enticing. If Death only narrated the characters’ physical actions the story would be very awkward. It would be like narrating the movement of inanimate objects. The component of feelings and emotion makes the characters more realistic like living beings. Getting to know other characters’ emotions and thoughts like Max and Rudy can help the reader feel attached. Then when these characters experience tragic things, the reader can feel the despair with the characters.
2.0 Death’s Personification
Through Death’s narrative the reader can see that Death has physical humanlike features. He has legs, arms, hands, a mouth, and can feel cold. The reader can see this when he says, “…I will be standing over you…Your soul will be in my arms” (14) and “I shiver when I remember – as I try to de-realize it. I blow warm air into my hands, to heat them up” (357). Yet Death is still supernatural because he is invisible or in a different dimension. Death is a bit ironic when he says, “I clearly remember that my breath was loud that day. I’m surprised the guards didn’t notice me as they walked by” (17). Death talks like a human would, making himself relatable to the reader and more understandable.
First person narration by Death reveals his humanlike personality. Death says, “I buckled – I became interested. In the girl. Curiosity got the better of me…” (17). In the quote Death is talking about how Liesel catches his attention. Death apparently has a soft spot, which shows when a little girl brings out curiosity in him. Curiosity is part of human nature and this characteristic of Death makes him humanlike. He also expresses regret, “Stupidly, I stayed. I watched” (29) and “Mistakes, mistakes, it’s all I seem capable of at times” (30). Death is very open admitting that he has made mistakes and this can make Death seem friendly. When Death talks in first person the reader really learns about Death and how human-like he is.
Death adds his own ‘diary’, which is in first person narrative, and it really informs the reader about him. In it he gives a ***A SMALL PIECE OF TRUTH***
I do not carry a sickle or scythe. I only wear a hooded black robe when it’s cold. And I don’t have those skull-like facial features you seem to enjoy pinning on me from a distance… (317). He adds this part because he feels “…quite self-indulgent at the moment…” (317). He seems to really want to set himself apart from other stereotypes about Death. A stereotypical image of Death may be that he is a dark evil figure that enjoys taking souls. In Death’s “small piece of truth” he emphasizes that he is not like the Grim Reaper. Death’s first person narrative makes things more personal and can easily change the reader’s idea of Death. The reader can also trust Death since he is not sinister like the Grim Reaper. It is palpable that Zusak uses the first person narrative to contrast his own idea/character of Death in The Book Thief with the Grim Reaper. 2.1 Death’s Personification Compared to Other Personifications Death is different from other stereotypical personified ideas of Death. The Grim Reaper is one of many similar portrayals of Death. A lot of these portrayals show Death as a cloaked figure with a tool to gather souls. Sometime it is portrayed with a skeleton body, which symbolizes death. The Grim Reaper is portrayed with a scythe because it is thought that he gathers souls by cutting them out from dead bodies. Death in The Book Thief has a humanlike body structure and has emotions. Also, he takes souls differently than the Grim Reaper. He says, “I will be standing over you, as genially as possible. Your soul will be in my arms…I will carry you gently away” (14). In The Deathly Hallows, (the last novel in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series), there is a Tale of the Three Brothers, which has a personification of death. Death in this story is portrayed similarly to the Grim Reaper and is characterized. This version of Death gets angered when he feels that he’s been cheated and happily welcomes the three brothers when they finally die4. Death in The Book Thief is more pleasant compared to that portrayal. Death says that Hans cheated him once but when Hans was later put in another near death experience he thought of it “as a perverse kind of reward” (40). The way Death says that seems to show that Death felt that it was unfair that Hans was almost killed again. Death is usually a negative subject and can be scary for people, so naturally Death would be thought as heartless and greedy for souls. Having a
friendly and interesting narrator, who is Death, can be surprising for the reader. It is like finding out that a scary looking person is actually very kind and wants to befriend you. Death becomes charming for the reader.
The reading of Death’s metafictional narration will change any prior stereotypes the reader may have had about Death. Death discloses, in metafictional style, his faults and emotions. When Death says, “I deliberately seek out the colors to keep my mind off them [the leftover humans]” (15) it is clear that he has a conscience, which he tries to distract. Later on he admits, “Even death has a heart” (252). Death even feels sympathy for Rudy who “…does something to me, that boy. Every time. It’s his only detriment. He steps on my heart. He makes me cry” (535). The way Death expresses himself makes him even more humanlike. He admits to having human emotions of hurt, being heart broken, and having sadness. Also he points out that, “A human doesn’t have a heart like mine. 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” (496). This makes it clear to what extent Death is humanlike. It points out that Death is eternal and bound to his job, which is “to be in the right place at the right time”. Unlike Death, “the human heart is a line” which means it starts and ends at certain points. The use of simple examples of shapes to compare Death’s heart to a human’s can effectively help the reader understand. It can be intriguing for the reader to gain a new portrayal of Death.
3.0 Death’s Relation to Liesel
Death describes Liesel’s life in a lot of detail in different narration styles, but the insertion of Liesel’s autobiography allows the reader to better know Liesel’s point of view. Towards the end of the book we find out that Liesel wrote a short story about herself. We find out that Death is basing this whole retelling of her life on her autobiography. Some things he is retelling cannot portray Liesel’s perspective, so he cites her autobiography a directly. At one point he cites for the reader to know what Liesel’s relationship with Hans was like. He cites: “You wouldn’t think it, she wrote, but it was not so much the school who helped me to read. It was Papa. People think he’s not so smart, and it’s true that he doesn’t read too
fast, but I would soon learn that words and writing actually saved his life once. Or at least, words and a man who taught him the accordion…” (69). Death narrates a detailed biography of Liesel but it may not make the reader feel like they truly know her. Also, Death’s prior narrative really highlights the insertion of her diary; he says, “The paper has suffered from the friction of movement in my pocket, but still, many of her sentences have been impossible to forget” (362). His introduction for the excerpt of her book may act as a build up making the reader excited to read Liesel’s writing. The inclusions of Liesel’s own words can help the reader personally feel closer to her.
Death tells the reader about his encounters with Liesel and this make her story special. Of all the possible stories Death could have told, he feels compelled to tell Liesel’s. It makes the reader wonder why Death was compelled to tell her story. Death “saw the book thief three times” (15) and then encounters her when she dies. Death only sees her when someone in her life dies. The third time he sees her is when Himmel Street is bombed and Liesel is the only survivor. That is when the autobiography she wrote gets lost and Death finds it. On the first page Liesel titled it “The Book Thief” (529) giving herself the nickname. It is special that Death talks about Liesel using that nickname and it makes her unique. The reader might expect the story to be all about stealing books, but in the end it is not. The effect of repeatedly calling Liesel the book thief keeps the reader enticed. The reader might think that she will become a great thief stealing many books or one special book. These kinds of expectations may keep the reader anxious but they will find that the story is more than just Liesel stealing books. Liesel’s stealing of books is not the core of the book. The ‘why’ she steals the books and events that happen around the times of her stealing are the highlights of the book. After many years when Liesel has lived a full life and is now dead, Death gets to meet her. He shows her the book and then she asks him, “Could you understand it?” (553). Next, Death shares his thoughts about humans to the reader. Then says, “I am haunted by humans” (553) to Liesel. Death’s ending thoughts explain why he wanted to share Liesel’s life to the reader. By reading Liesel’s story “many times” (553) Death was deeply impacted. Liesel’s story taught Death about life and all of
the great and tragic things in it. The use of Death as a narrator makes Liesel’s story more special and the morals around the story distinct as well. Death himself, learns about life and humans, and shares with the reader. This too, is unique.
The last thing Death tells the reader is quite shocking – ***A LAST NOTE FROM YOUR NARRATOR***
I am haunted by humans (554).
He even told Liesel this. This “last note” could be hard for the reader to understand upon first reading. After some rendering of this last note the reader can find it a bit ironic. To haunt can mean to disturb or to recur persistently to the consciousness of5. Humans are persistently made conscious of death and can feel haunted by the fact that they will die some day. It is ironic that Death would be haunted when he is the one expected to be haunting humans. Death’s last note is ironic in one way but in another way it sums up the whole book. During World War II thousands of people died under the command of a disturbing man who caused disturbing things. Death sees how people can be so cruel to each other but also how great a human’s love to another can be. Before his last ‘note’ he says, “I wanted to tell the book thief many things, about beauty and brutality…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” (554). He is talking about humans. Humans can be ‘ugly’ by things they do, like Hitler, and they can be glorious in the way they love. “Its words” would be humans’ words, which can be “so damning and brilliant” (554). Death sees how opposite from cruel humans can be. He learns how great and deeply effective love can be from watching Liesel’s life. In Liesel’s life, words – written and read are proven powerful. Hitler used words to command terrible things, but for Liesel they brought her closer to people like Hans, Max Vandenburg, Ilsa Hermann and Frau Holtzapfel. Liesel experienced the ‘beauty’ of friendship and the ‘brutality’ of losing loved ones. Death’s last words to the reader clearly were to sum up the whole book and make the reader consider Death’s perspective on life. The ‘last note’ may leave the reader with an uncertain and lingering feeling, even though Death says he is the
one haunted. The effect is a slight cliffhanger where the reader has to mull over the unexpected last words from the narrator.
Markus Zusak’s choice of Death for a narrator really makes the story of Liesel special. The use of metafictional narration may shock and intrigue the reader. It also allows the reader to get to know a unique personification of death. Death uses simple and straightforward statements to effectively inform the reader. As an omniscient narrator he allows the reader to get to know the characters well. His omniscience is apparent by the way he explains the characters’ emotions and certain traits as facts. Also, the jumping from scene to scene and back and forth in time proves his omniscience. This book is personal for Death who talks in first person sometimes and talks about how Liesel’s story impacted him. All of these different narration styles and techniques make a freestyle narration that effectively tells the story of Liesel, teaches the reader about Death, as well as how powerful words are. It also provokes the reader to think about the great and ugly things humans do.
1. Zusak, Markus. The Book Thief. London: Black Swan, 2008. Print. ___________________________________________________________________________
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