Personifications of Death often appear in literature for children and adults, in embodying the final moments of a person’s life and teaching the reader about human nature, and the sadness of passing away. A personified version of Death is a very powerful medium to convey the horrific aspects tied to the idea of Death and the afterlife.
Zusak chose to use a personified Death as the narrator for the novel “The Book Thief”. Death gives an insight into the souls that he “takes.” He is an omniscient narrator, meaning that he knows the thoughts, and emotions of every character. Although Markus Zusak might have merely used a reflection third third-person narrative with death, this concept appears more engaging. To fully understand the characterization of Death in “The Book Thief” one must dig deeper and analyze the way the character of Death acts, responds, and reflects moments in the book. He is a very odd character by being warm and charismatic while humans have a specific view of Death in their heads. In “The Book Thief” Death is given a new role by being the narrator and also not fitting the “stereotype” of the idea of death and the afterlife. There is proof to back up his humanized nature, his supernatural aspects, and his reflecting reflection third-person in reasoning.
Death is given human qualities, and emotions. Death, in “The Book Thief” is majorly the teller of the story. Death has been present in literature as a personified being. Since the story is based during the Second World War, the time gives Death the power to narrate and brings out a lot of underlying emotions and ideas which are usually connected to humans and not supernatural beings. The idea is slightly mind-boggling because something as cruel as Death usually would not be written as a thing with complex emotions, and the ability to feel sorry for others. On multiple occasions, Death is torn when having to take souls with him. As stated in the essay from Cambridge Scholars Publishing: “Literature offers insights into death, dying, and mortality in multiple ways. One could argue that death is very useful to literature. While providing fictional encounters with death to its readers, the stories also use death in their narrations to create emotional effects, plot twists, suspense, and mysteries. But even more importantly, death and storytelling seem to have a fundamental and existential connection.” This backs up the argument that in this specific piece of literature; Death is portrayed as a likable and human-like character. The quote highlights the fact that in most books, the afterlife and things in that nature are drawn negatively yet have a huge and very important connection to humanity and the characters in the book. Not only is Death’s characterization interesting, but he is also a good choice for a narrator. While it’s eerie to assume that Death is aware of somebody therefore closely, Zusak has also pointed out how death looms over us all the time. We are simply unaware of it.
Additionally, having Death narrate the story, conjointly shows how close Liesel was to it on varied occasions. “I have to say that although it broke my heart, I was, and still am, glad I was there.” (Zusak 537). Death was the main part of the story. By saying that his ‘heart’ was broken, it ties back to the human aspect of the character and his strong tie to humanity. Toward the top of the ultimate bombing, it’s the last time Death sees Liesel. Himmel Street is destroyed into pieces. Death feels sorry for Liesel that the bombing has wrecked her by demolishing everything in a flash, but his job is to clean up the dead, not to comfort the living. Does he feel sorry when he shouldn’t? It gives a twist to the classic ‘grim reaper’ persona and makes the novel interesting to the reader. While Zusak portrays the interesting character uniquely, Death is still above humans, and slightly cold which goes well with who he is. While having human-like factors he still has supernatural aspects intertwined. Death’s detailing and descriptions of his soul gathering in the war and his human-like emotions further to the conclusion that is Death being or resembling humans. He is almost a way of letting humans know all the mistakes they have made throughout the years. Since Death is supernatural he can see humanity since the beginning of times. He sympathizes with humans and is tired of them at the same time. The quotes further support the human-like heart Death has.
Death is the narrator but also a non-human creature with the ability to feel and see the future and decode the present. Death reveals the complexity of human nature. Death is always around all the characters, even though he hardly speaks with them. With things like these, one can tell how Zusak snuck fantasy with reality. While looking over the characters in the story, Death has a hard time grasping some human emotions and actions. He is either confused or upset over why a specific person chose to act that way or why they are feeling a certain emotion. The moments back up the interesting fact of him not being fully human while having few human qualities. It is an odd character choice.
“By the way – I like this human idea of the grim reaper. I like the scythe. It amuses me.”(Zusak 75). The quote supports that even though death is portrayed almost as a human he is still a supernatural creature trying to understand human nature. He is put above them by feeling amused by human thoughts and their perception of being released to death and beyond. In “Stealing to Settle a Score With Life” by Janet Maslin, from The New York Times, she expresses her surprise by death in a few words: “-And Mr. Zusak’s narrator offers constant manipulative asides, as in the clever Lemony Snicket books, although in this case wit is not much of an option. The narrator is Death.” Death is a key concept in the novel that comes up on multiple occasions. He continues to bring pain to Liesel. First by taking her brother’s soul, and then through the death of Papa, Mama, and Rudy. Technically without him, the pain and main areas of the novel would not exist. His humor and charisma are blended with his superiority to people in general which backs up the supernatural statements. Even though he feels bad at moments, he still takes people away. The significance is clear, giving the character depth as the characterization was written. The human side and superhuman side are balanced in interesting ways, causing the reader to feel for Death while hating him at the same time. While shifting more towards the other end of the spectrum, Death is capable to reflect and has a regular thought process just like human beings. Death queries why the various races of the human race got to be separated and why they keep killing one another. He grasps the idea of sadness while remaining confused about small things.
Death can process and reflect on the moments he witnesses. The way he does this is equal to humans which brings that aspect back to his characterization. It is important to analyze the moments he does this, most of the time regarding killing and war between humans.“They were French, they were Jews, and they were you.” (Zusak 350). & “As for me, I remained a few moments longer. I waved. No one waved back.” (Zusak. 24). For Death, people of all races are the same. The suffering of the Jews should empathize with. The Jews don’t choose to be Jews. It is Hitler that creates that barrier of differences among races and it all matters as racial identities switch. Death questions why the different races have to be cruel to each other. In the second quote, Death is showing a friendly gesture, but clearly, there is no response intended. By saying so, he is also conveying his condolences to the little boy, who has a young and sick soul. Death can cure his pain, but unfortunately, he can’t pacify those grieving people who are still alive. They collapse, heartbroken, and Death will do nothing concerning it.
Death’s personality and characterization in “The Book Thief” is both complex and interesting to study. It is significant to note that he reflects on others’ actions as well as his own, and has a normal thought process. To additionally demonstrate the negative facet of people in general, Death criticizes the worth of his job. Although there is no one to replace him, he does his best to accomplish the cruel tasks. As stated in “Death And Its Concept.” by ‘Philosopher’s Magazine: “Let us explore the metaphor that death is a wall a bit further. Each of us is born facing this wall. From that moment on, every step we take is towards it, no matter which way we turn. There is simply no other direction to take. Like a funhouse mirror, the wall of death shows us our living fears and distorted images of ourselves. All we see when we look at death is a reflection of our own lives.”
Death reflects on humanity just like humans reflect on the concept of Death. Both can process things like this, and it’s interesting to see the two sides even though Death isn’t a person or creature, it is simply a part of life. Death is something everyone has to face yet we are afraid of it and is hard to accept. Death finds humanity hard and disappointing. “I am haunted by humans.” (Zusak 550). The reader can see from this quote how connected to humans Death is. Even though he does not enjoy or like them, he is still fascinated by humanity and how they work. “The Book Thief” is framed by Death’s contemplation of the price of humanity, and Death’s inability to reconcile the remarkable cruelty and the remarkable compassion of which human beings are simultaneously capable. Liesel’s history contains components of each, and by the end of the novel, Death appears to be no more capable of judging humanity than at the novel’s beginning. Thus, Death tells Liesel that he’s “haunted” by humans, just as humans are haunted by Death. At times he is surprised by those who live.
Not only is Death capable of reflecting, and reasoning, but he is also able to balance supernatural with human-like. This is rare in literature as most of the time, the concept is made negative. Even though Death is a touchy and sensitive topic, it is also a sweet release from the hardships of life, and Zusak decided to portray Death with more emotion and gave him actual characteristics instead of simply having him as an idea. This research shows that certain characters or ideas do not always have to be written or interpreted in the same way.
“The Book Thief” is exclusive within the method that the storyteller is someone/something we tend to not expect, and that we grow to love and hate relationships with Death normally. We feel for him when we should not. Death is at first sarcastic, with a darkness in his sense of humor, however, as the novel progresses and the second war accelerates, Death expresses fatigue and self-reproach regarding having to gather so many souls. “The Book Thief” reveals the reader to factors of reality that are usually untalked because of their disturbing nature. This additionally permits the reader to transition into a replacement and deeper reality. This transition is facilitated by the mediating figure of Death. More than a plot device to carry the story forward, more than a tool for relaying the most grotesque moments of suffering during the Holocaust, Death in “The Book Thief” is a tool for promoting development. Within the novel, readers face the monstrous reality of suffering, decay, mortality, and the complexity of human nature as it appears in this moment in history.
However, through Death, readers’ realities are reconstructed in a manner that fosters growth. The novel does not attempt to remove the monstrous elements of real life. It does not try to help the reader understand or reconcile with them or with this historical moment. However, it does encourage readers to continue grappling with them. These elements of the Real are not forgotten because they are made uncomfortable for the readers who are encouraged to engage with the darker, repressed truths of human existence.
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