Character Death In The Novel English Literature Essay

Category 1

"Study of the character Death in the novel The Book Thief through his narration"

Name: Mansi Hindocha

School code: 004976

Candidate number: 004976008

Word count - 3809

Table of contents

Content Page no.

Abstract 3

Introduction 4

Colours 5-6

Death as an artist 6

Food 7

Humour 7-8

Death as an immortal 8

Death as a human 8-9

Stereotype 10

Omniscient nature and first person narration 10

Conclusion 11

Abstract –

Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief is the first book I have read which is narrated by the omniscient entity – Death. In spite of the narrators unusual nature the book is effortlessly narrated in first person. The first person narration gives the reader a clear insight on Death’s astonishingly human yet immortal personality. This essay probes into the minute characteristics of Death observed through his colourful, insightful and amusing narration along with the use of unusual metaphors. It is quiet ironic that Death of all people should have such style and perception. What is even more baffling is that Death is given a human form as a narrator enabling him to have human characteristics too. The question "Study of the character Death in the novel The Book Thief through his narration" is answered by observing Death’s nature – what he feels, why he does what he does, how he sees the world and humans, his perception towards humans, his plight. It astonishes one when we notice Death to have more heart than a human can possess. Humans have stereotypical versions of Death barring them from a fresh perception on Death as a person. After reading and analyzing this book and observing Death’s narration style this essay has been written in order to clarify all the stereotypes and labels Death more often than not might have. This essay concludes that it is quiet inequitable of us humans to call Death by that mere name as there is so much to him than just what his job requires him to do. Also it would be rather heartless of our human hearts to not accept or at least give the opportunity of this new side of a very human Death to emerge.

Word count: 287

Introduction -

The Book Thief –by Markus Zusak is set in Nazi Germany, during the reign of Hitler. The majority of the book roughly takes place from 1939 to 1945. Though the story mostly revolves around Liesel, the protagonist, the war is always parallel or in better words omniscient throughout. Unlike the numerous holocaust and Second World War books, this book sheds light on the other side of the Nazi Germany where "there were rebellious children and people who didn’t follow the rules and hid Jews and other people in their houses" [1] . Many have written books with World War 2 as their setting but what makes this book different is its narrating style which is done by Death, the narrator here.

Any story is successfully told only when the readers get the full impact of what the writer is trying to say through the story. And for any story to be comprehended of its true intended meaning it has to be conveyed in the right way. When I say conveyed, I mean the narrating style.

The war is omniscient throughout the book just as death is. Symbolically and metaphorically Death is the narrator of the book. Markus Zusak says, "What better way to narrate a story set in the World War 2 than by Death itself?"

Narrating the story by Death changes the dynamics of the story. What could have been yet another story set in World War 2, took a completely different shape when narrated by Death. Death’s narration shows us readers his perspective, attitude and general nature which is ironically human as opposed to the stereotypical view of Death by humans.

My question "Study of the character Death in the novel The Book Thief through his narration." will probe into the minute yet important characteristics of the narrator – Death. One can judge a person through the way they speak as the way they speak is how they think and how they think is who they are. This question will lead me to find what makes this narrator so different from the others. It will shed light on how Death narrating the story makes a different impact on the readers and how it changes any reader’s perception of Death itself. It won’t concentrate on the content as much the technical side of how Death’s narration makes a lasting impact on the readers making it a far better read than it would have been had the narrator been human. Inhuman, understanding the human is what makes this an interesting and captivating tale.

Study of the character Death in the novel The Book Thief through his narration –

Before one starts to already form a mental impression of Death, I request you to please rid yourself of all the previously acquired stereotypes about Death. Because I promise you, Death is exactly what and who you think he is not. There is a lot more to Death than just taking lives. Taking lives is just his job description; one shouldn’t judge him for it. Will a vegetarian judge a butcher? No. Because, it is just his job. It doesn’t define him. The same way taking lives is only Death’s job. A job he cannot quit. A job he has to perform for eternity.

Death’s perception or the lens he sees through is seen to be very frank, cryptic and interestingly colourful and artistic. From the very beginning of the book he describes and sees everything in colours. "First, the colours. Then, the humans. That’s usually how I see things. Or at least, how I try." [2] 

These are the first lines of the book. Later, one realises how Death was trying to keep himself aloof from humans in spite of his curious and humane nature. "Trying", being the operative word as, as much as Death "tries" to remain aloof, he cannot help but immerse himself in the happenings of the human world. Colours, since the beginning is a very important aspect in Death’s eyes. He says "In my line of work, I make it a point to notice them." [3] To him it’s his only medium of distraction or vacation as he cannot "take a break in a stock-standard resort-style vacation destination, whether it be tropical or of the ski trip variety" [4] like us humans. So he resorts to taking refuge in colours.

It is very ironic how Death’s vision and perception is so colourful, as the generalized view of Death is gloomy, dull and dark. Also what is different about Death is how he speaks, the way he describes things. Even the colours he describes are not our usual "hot-pink, bottle-green or blood-red". They go more along the lines of "waxy-yellow, cloud spat-blue or charcoal black" [5] . Come to think of it, it’s not very surprising. He’s Death after all. He has his way with words. Since he perceives everything differently, it’s only understandable that he expresses it also in a different way. And as one will come to see, this book is all about words; like it’s a matter of life and death – for lack of a better phrase. Human vs. Death – it’s what it comes down to.

"The day was gray, the colour of Europe." [6] Death once said. By this he meant the gloom, the deaths, over shadowing Europe. The general mood seemed to be dipped in gray. Yet it’s quite something for Death to always be seeing things in blue, brown, white, red, etc. This makes me wonder if Death purposely narrates the story in colours to make up for its lack in reality or is it just how he sees things. I think it’s the latter.

Colour is just one of Death’s unique ways of expression. Turns out, Death is quite the artist too. Along with colours it’s the food imagery he uses to describe what he sees. "The sky was like soup, boiling and stirring. In some places, it was burned. There were black crumbs, and pepper, streaked across the redness." [7] Death describes the sky as a soup. The impact this imagery has on the reader is very evident. Describing things is one thing. But to describe it in a way that the image is inscribed in the reader’s brain, is another. But come to think of it, a normal human narrator describing the sky in such a manner would seem unnatural as though he is imagining it and not actually seeing it. It just would not feel real; irrespective of how good the imagery is. But since it is Death who is narrating here it just seems natural to hear such descriptions from him. So the reader who has not come across such ways of expression before is just eager to be amazed with each new page.

Just as Death speaks in colours when there is lack of any, he also uses food imagery, which gets one thinking about the food shortage during that time. "One of the six Steiner children, he was permanently hungry." [8] Death here is describing Rudy Steiner. Later on Liesel and Rudy are seen stealing apples with other kids. Just as there is lack of colours in Europe at that time, so is the lack of the food. Death, in a dark, humorous way makes up for it by unintentionally expressing everything in food and colours. Either way it catches the reader’s attention, Death’s own unique style of writing, which normally people associate with authors and not narrators. But here Death, the narrator, which is also the theme, stands out on its own apart from the content, the protagonist and the plot.

World War 2 is not the most cheerful topic to write a story on, so a reader would normally expect a sad, descriptive, and cryptic and history oriented story. Topics like death, hunger, torture and hurt is expected. What is not expected though is the narrator to be humorous. Yes, Death does have a sense of humour but usually its black comedy or dark humour as we know it. Also I think humour of any kind is necessary as the theme and setting of this story is quiet sad and depressing, so Death’s little inputs are a comic relief. Death makes jokes about getting acquainted with us eventually when he comes to get our souls. "Of course, an introduction. A beginning. Where are my manners? I could introduce myself properly, but it’s not really necessary. You will know me well enough and soon enough." [9] These lines aren’t meant in a threatening way or said to scare us. He just makes light of the fact of how he will eventually meet all of us someday. Another example - "The apples, she thought happily. The apples and she vomited one more time, for luck." [10] Now of course Liesel did not vomit one more time for luck. She was sick. But for Death to put in such a way, makes the grim fact of puking a bit more appealing to the reader and in a very simple way presents to us exactly how good Liesel felt at that time as the abundance of apples or any food was a rarity in those times.

Lines like - "pimples were gathered in peer groups on his face" [11] and "like most misery it started with apparent happiness" [12] , are very contradictory in nature. Yet both are part of Death’s humour. The first one being the light hearted and from an odd or unique perspective. The second one is what we call dark humour. He also sounds quite philosophical here. But then again it is Death we are talking about – he has seen and collected so many lives over such a long time that maybe he can’t help but be philosophical.

This brings to my mind the fact that Death is immortal. Death is going to be there till any life form exists. It has been there since the beginning of time. "It’s the story of one of those perpetual survivors." [13] Death says in the beginning when introducing Liesel’s story to the readers. Meaning there are many other such stories. Liesel’s being only one of them. This is said at the beginning of the book itself. It immediately brings to the reader’s attention the fact that Death is very old and in fact has been observing the humans since eons. Lines like – "it was one of the joys of childhood. Another of the joys of course, was stealing" [14] suggests how he knows so much about the joys of childhood. Of course he wasn’t human before but he can say this because he has been around humans and observed them since a very long time. Maybe this is the reason Death is able to understand and describe humans so well. And what is questionable is that – is Death becoming humane over time? Or was he always like that?

As mind blogging as this sounds, Death is very much human, in many cases more so than humans themselves. One might question the credibility of this statement as it’s unheard of. Death having a human form in the first place much less having human characteristics but this book shows how Death is very much capable of possessing emotions and feelings, even mannerisms if you will. Since the beginning of the book it is apparent that Death possesses many human characteristics. The first and most important thing is the narration. That is what comes to the reader’s mind first. The fact that Death was made the voice of the story in itself gives Death a human form. Then he says things like "where are my manners?" [15] We usually associate manners with only humans. However to us humans, Death seems like such a bad omen or the snatcher of our happiness always that it never occurs to us that someone like Death could also have human characteristics. Also, Death feels. The following line, "Please, again, I ask you to believe me. I wanted to stop. To crouch down. I wanted to say: "I’m sorry, child. But that is not allowed. I did not crouch down. I did not speak" [16] , shows us that Death too can empathize and feel sorry for humans. However, his job description requires him to stay aloof and simply just do his job which entails collecting human’s colorful souls; and only that. Unlike us he isn’t biased. How much ever we try, our stereotype comes in our way of having a good impression about Death much less feeling bad for him. However, this is only till one reads this book because while reading lines like, "he does something to me, that boy. Every time. It’s his only detriment. He steps on my heart. He makes me cry" it is clearly seen that when somebody dies, it does affect Death. They are not a mere casualty for him. Death being sad for Liesel’s death would make sense as he is so interested in her life but to even feel for people who were only linked to her shows how much Death is capable of feeling for the humans.

The only way humans are affected by Death is when somebody dear to them dies; which makes it personal; obviously painting a dark picture of death in one’s mind. I think the majority of the reason why even till date humans have a very biased image of Death is because it never really has been portrayed as "human" but only as a "happening".

"GUIDED TOUR OF SUFFERING. To your left, perhaps your right, perhaps even straight ahead, you find a small black room. In it sits a Jew. He is scum. He is starving. He is afraid. Please—try not to look away." [17] This coming from Death about Jews is something one wouldn’t expect. It’s quite ironic as the many humans (Germans) of that time didn’t feel for the Jews but here Death is listing out Jews miseries; how they are afraid and starving. Already the whole paragraph is written symbolically as when he says "To your left… in it sits a Jew", he is talking about all the Jews and not just Max; though this is how he introduces Max in the story. I would especially like to take note of the last line "Please - try not to look away". Death asking us humans to be compassionate about another human being might seem strange to one but the reader by now is quiet used to Deaths uniquely human behavior which in turn evokes positive emotions and impressions in the reader about Death. This is a holocaust novel and this paragraph talks about the miserable plight of Jews showing symbolism. Symbolism is also seen when he talks about Jews in general when introducing this one Jew – Max. The title – GUIDED TOUR OF SUFFERING shows Death’s dark humor. Whatis ironic here is that, that it is DEATH who feels for the Jews, which also displays his human nature. The entire novel comprises of these aspects and many more.

Just because Death is quite the human, doesn’t mean he doesn’t possess any stereotypical characteristics he is so known for. Lines like, "This time, I had come for a man of perhaps twenty-four years of age. It was a beautiful thing in some ways. The plane was still coughing. Smoke was leaking from both its lungs", shows how the human definition of beautiful is quite different from that of Death’s. To some it might sound apathetic the way Death speaks but if you notice, Death is talking about the scene here and not about the man dying. Also if you notice Death’s description "smoke leaking from both its lungs", its shows the usage of the word lungs – a human body part. One sees how Death uses the word in a completely different image and context, again showing his unique perspective.

Also ironically, Death gives life to minor characters which remain in the readers mind long after finishing the book. Characters like Hans Huberman, Rosa, Max and Rudy who would be considered minor characters are still given enough attention and importance that they influence the story in small yet significant ways. Each character adds their own little story making this novel rich in its content and story; giving the story a versatile essence. This according to me only happens because of Death’s narrating style. Death’s style of narration as already seen is different from others for many reasons. But one of the most vital one being Death’s nature and the first person narration of the novel. Since the novel is written in first person narration, one will expect Death’s point of view and it IS as such but the reader gets the privilege of also reading about everybody’s life thanks to Deaths omniscient nature. It’s the combination of two.

Another aspect about Death’s narration is it’s vantage point. Because of his omniscient nature, he can see everyone. This plays a very vital role in his narration and the essence of the novel. Death’s nature gives him a vantage point in the novel as the chief narrator. At the same time this novel itself gives the reader the vantage point letting them on with everything Death sees, feels and does. This gives the reader an insight on Death’s characteristics and his true nature as opposed to his stereotyped one.

Conclusion –

Reading the book, gave me a completely different perspective on Death. The whole novel seems like a journal of a kind by Death. It’s not typical journal entries but intentionally or unintentionally throughout the whole book Death just expresses himself. The best part is that he does not directly talk about himself. He narrates a story of a book thief (girl) who lives in the times of Second World War. But just by doing so he lets us in on so many of his characteristics which is quite baffling as at one point you think he is very much human but on the other he is so unlike anything human that you HAVE to acknowledge the vast difference in his personality from that of the narrators that we usually hear from. As mentioned before this book could have been just yet another holocaust novel, and it may not be the best book ever written on this topic but it has an extra ordinary essence which is primarily due to its narrator and the impact it has on the readers is just what makes this book so unique and captivating.

Death seems to me like a lonely old man who can see everyone but whose existence and feelings and characteristics are all invisible to others. After reading the book one feels how blinded humans are shown to be towards Death; which in reality IS the case. Even in the history of literature only a few ever gave Death the human form. Mostly poets and authors always referred to death as a natural occurrence and wrote about it in a philosophical way and only rarely was Death differentiated from death. Previously, Emily Dickinson was one of the rare poets who more than just personified death in her poem - Because I Could Not Stop for Death; by associating words like "kindly" and "civil" to Death. Usually writers write about death in a natural philosophical way like Walt Whitman did in his poem – Song of Myself. "The smallest sprout shows that there is no death, and if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it, and cease the moment life appeared." [18] According to Whitman, death isn’t the end; on the other hand he says it leads life forward. So one sees how Death is usually just labeled as a "happening" and very rarely a "human".

"I am a result." [19] Though Death himself acknowledges the fact that he IS a result or a happening it does not go unnoticed by the reader that there is much more to Death than him being a result.

In conclusion I would like to say that Death is just another human, if anything more so. Take a human, with a an eternal depressing job, with no friends, no one to talk to, but his eternal self, who is compassionate towards humans and the dead, and that is Death for you. Quiet literally too if you want to take it that way. I think it is quite unfair to even call him Death, because there is so much more to him than just what his job requires him to do.

Also lastly I would like to quote Deaths last line to us, which in itself is very ironic. "A LAST NOTE FROM YOUR NARRATOR. I am haunted by humans." [20] This line shows how ironic it is that it is usually us humans who are haunted by Death and grovel in fear by his mere name and Death says how he is the one haunted by humans as he is "constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race" [21] . Nevertheless courtesy to writers like Markus Zusak and poets like Emily Dickinson, a new facet of Death emrges, changing and expanding our opinion on death and Death simultaneously.