The Weight of the Words:
The Impact of Words and Language in The Book Thief
This was an English essay I wrote in Grade 12 - it was basically an excuse to talk about why I love The Book Thief so much.
Words are one of the most powerful ways we communicate with each other. In The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, the impact of words and language is felt throughout the novel. From the negative impact of the anti-Semitic propaganda present in Nazi Germany to the reassuring effect of Liesel's reading in the bomb shelter, words have both a positive and negative influence on the major characters. The composition of the novel also demonstrates this theme through the narrator's use of metaphor and other literary devices to make sense of the world and communicate ideas to the reader. Within the story and in the way the story is written, Zusak promotes the philosophy that words—both their presence and their absence—have power.
Because the novel is set in Germany during World War II, the negative influence of words is strongly felt, particularly in the anti-Semitic sentiments. In that time, "Jewry was...a label" (216). People were further labeled by slurs like Jewish Filth painted on their homes and shops. The Jews were referred to as a “disease” (110) infecting the country. These labels were powerful enough to dehumanize the Jewish people, lessening others’ moral turmoil regarding crimes against them.
There are other ways words are dangerous. Hans puts himself at risk when he paints over a slur on a Jewish shop. There is inherent power in the act of naming; the Nazis claimed this power over the Jews by propagating derogatory names. Hans, in refusing to use or accept the slurs, refuses to acknowledge this power, and weakens its effect. His refusal also makes it clear his actions will not be influenced by propaganda, and are therefore unpredictable, risky. Hans Hubermann is only ever harsh to Liesel on two occasions, the first being when she says, “‘I hate the Führer’” (115). He sympathizes with the sentiment, but knows if the wrong person heard those words, they would put Liesel in danger. If people cannot articulate their hatred toward their leader, for fear of personal harm, that leader can use their silence as an indicator of consent, and can feel secure in his position because without words, no one can challenge him. The second time Hans is harsh to Liesel is when he tells her how important it is to keep Max a secret; he threatens to burn her books. So the words, “There’s a Jew in my basement” (244)would destroy the books that taught her the power of words in the first place.
Any words that identify a person as something undesirable to the ruling party carry risk with them. Liesel knows only one thing about his father; he was a Communist. She comes to understand later that this label meant punishment, as communism is one of the “evil machinations” (110) infecting the country, according to the Nazis. Max recognizes how “Jew” has also become a dangerous word, and that it endangers not only himself, but those who try to help him. Jew is a label for those who “violat[e] the German ideal” (110), so those Germans who would help them are practically guilty of treason. These few assigned labels proliferate, gathering increasingly negative connotations, until a single word carries thousands of words worth of cultivated hatred and fear.
Much of Hitler's power as a leader is derived from his skill with words. In Max's allegory "The Word Shaker", he sees Hitler as having decided to "rule the world with words" and calls Germany "a nation of farmed thoughts" (445). The seed of a thought – that Germany would be made better if the Jews were eliminated – can be cultivated through forms of mass communication like speeches, books, or radio. In Max’s daydreams, he faces off against Hitler in a boxing ring. Max lands a solid blow, only for Hitler to call out to the audience of Germans, reminded them that Jews are an infestation, and imploring them to “climb up into this ring” and “defeat this enemy together” (254). Hitler, an elegant speaker, uses words as a means to seduce, influence, and mobilize an entire nation. Liesel says it most aptly: “Without words, the Führer [is] nothing” (521).
Words are used to convey meaning, and yet can have many meanings, depending on how they are interpreted. German profanity, particularly the terms saukerl and saumensch, is used throughout the book. Liesel, when she begins living with the Hubermanns, is struck by the profanity, which is “vehement and prolific” (32). However, the words are intended and interpreted as terms of endearment. The clearest example is Rudy’s recurring request, “How about a kiss, Saumensch?” (241). We see the reverse phenomenon in Max, who thinks of the words “thank you” not as a humble expression of gratitude, but rather “the…most pitiful words he could…say” (208); to Max, as a Jew in hiding, to say thank you means he is accepting undeserved kindness, and the words only feed his guilt. Sometimes, the subtext of a phrase is more important than the literal meaning. When Max arrives at the Hubermann’s door and asks Hans, “‘Do you still play the accordion?’…the question was really, ‘Will you still help me?’” (185). Ilsa Hermann gives Liesel a dictionary, and that section of the book is filled with definitions & related words. At times, the meaning suggested by the dictionary is “completely and utterly mistaken” (398), particularly its suggested synonyms.
The passages with the dictionary also illustrate that sometimes words are not enough; no definition will describe certain feelings precisely. When Hans is drafted, and his goodbye is wordless and resigned. Rosa, a loud, swearing presence in the Hubermann house, is so distraught when Hans goes to war that she falls silent, and the life seems to go out of her. The same happened to the mayor’s wife when her son died. For these women, words are inadequate to describe their grief. Liesel, at her lowest moment, asks, “‘What good are the words?’” (521).
On the other hand, people can be powerless without words. When Liesel arrives at her new school, she cannot read or write, and is ridiculed by her teachers and by her fellow students. Liesel tries to find other ways to be powerful – by getting into a fight with Tommy Müller – but her palpable feeling of powerlessness only dissipates when her Papa teaches her to read and write. At the beginning of the novel, Liesel can do neither. Furthermore, her brother’s death has left her reticent. Her bond with her foster father Hans Hubermann, develops when they work through the alphabet and read The Grave Digger’s Handbook. The book represents the last time Liesel saw her brother and mother, and she reads it when she has nightmares. Finishing the book, she “conquer[s] not only the work at hand, but the night who had blocked the way” (87). Literacy also builds Liesel’s confidence in the classroom, and she—at least partially—overcomes that feeling of powerlessness.
The ability of words to hurt and to heal is a very important idea in the book. Liesel on one occasion, injures someone with words. In her anger, after Ilsa Hermann tells her they will no longer employ Rosa to do the washing, Liesel tells Ilsa she is pathetic because she can’t cope with her son’s death. Liesel becomes “spiteful” and discovers the “brutality of words” (262). However, Liesel ultimately learns from Ilsa not to punish herself for remaining while the people in her life are taking. She heals herself by writing about her life, her brother, Max, and her time on Himmel Street. She ultimately saves herself this way; figuratively, in that she gains emotional closure, and literally, because she is in the basement, writing, when Himmel Street is bombed.
At times, words can sustain people. Not always be enough to save them, but enough to get them through. When Max becomes very ill, Liesel reads to him regularly, as though “the words alone could nourish him” (328). Even when Max is well, he is trapped in the Hubermann’s basement, sustained largely by Liesel’s creative weather reports. In another basement, when the whole neighborhood cowers in fear of a bomb, Liesel’s reading keeps everyone distracted enough to ease their fear and prevent a descent into panic. Most of all, Liesel’s words sustain Death; he carries her book with him and allows her story to distract him as he works. Her words are enough to help him endure.
In addition to healing and sustaining, words connect people. Words and stories are the foundation for Liesel’s relationships with Max and Hans. Ilsa Hermann’s library facilitates a strong, if tumultuous, connection between Liesel and Ilsa. Strangely, words also connect Liesel to Frau Holtzapfel, the neighbor who spits on the Hubermann’s front door. After Liesel reads in the bomb shelter, Frau Holtzapfel asks Liesel to read to her regularly in exchange for coffee and other goods. Eventually, Liesel even calls her a friend. This relationship evolves from despised neighbors to friends essentially due to weekly reading sessions. Words not only strengthen bonds, but connect people who may otherwise remain distant.
Zusak expands on the themes indicated by the text through the story’s composition. Twice, writing literally saves a character’s life. The first occurs before the start of the story, when Hans is fighting in WWI. He is volunteered to write letters for the captain while the others go into battle, and is therefore the only one to live. Mirroring this, Liesel is in the basement writing The Book Thief when the bomb hits Himmel Street. While this does not speak to the inherent power of words, it makes clearer the theme of words saving and healing people.
Zusak additionally describes words as though they were literal objects. Liesel has words “flung” (270) at her, words “[land] on the table” (330) as though they have mass. This is further explored in “The Word Shaker”, where they grow into “great forests of words”. Early in the book, the word Communist is personified in Liesel’s memory. She remarks that though she cannot understand the word Communist, she can “smell it and taste it,” and knows it “[wears] suits, uniforms.” (31) This imagery takes the concepts out of the abstract and makes it easier for the reader, and the characters, to understand the profound impact words and ideas can have on the world.
While The Book Thief explores the ways that words can hurt as well as heal, the message is ultimately hopeful. Death has carried around Liesel’s book, The Book Thief, and her words, “so damning and brilliant” have given him a new view of the human race, “so ugly and so glorious” (550). Death notes that though he serves villains and disasters, there are moments and stories he allows to distract him, and The Book Thief is one such story. For Liesel, even as words took her mother away from her, endangered her best friend, and isolated her when they were beyond her grasp, words were what connected her to the people she loved. Words were powerful enough to save her, in the end.
Words … words are things we use and hear literally all of the time, although they give us the power to communicate, they are certainly not as influential or manipulative as they have the ability to be. Nazi Germany is a place where the use of the immense power of combined letters is perfected. In the novel, The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, words are used to create goodness, comfort, and sanity in a time of war. When wielded by the correct person, a strong vocabulary also has the chance to manipulate any man into changing his mind completely. Lastly, simple conversations can even give someone the ability to live, or they can mean the end, the end of their powerful, word filled life. In this novel, due to the realization of many individuals that they have great power, words are used to strongly influence people and events. Words can influence people and events in a positive way if used correctly; their power to bring people together and comfort them is second to none. First off, words have the ability to provide individuals with the intelligence. With Liesel’s new ability to read, she becomes a much smarter, more useful young girl; “once, words had rendered Liesel useless, but now… she felt an innate sense of power” (Zusak 147).
A younger Liesel, who is incapable of reading, does not know what is going on around her. Learning how to read gives her more knowledge, with which she is able to form logical opinions, and have more ability to grasp the evil occurring in the outside world. The power of the words to give knowledge is the reason that Liesel is as smart as she is. Secondly, words have the ability to bring people together, and to convey a feeling of love. Hans Hubermann and Liesel gain a friendship from their nights of reading in their basement. Their relationship centred on words gives them the ability to bond greatly; “’With a smile like that,’ Hans Hubermann said, ’you don’t need eyes.’”(Zusak 68) Liesel and Hans’s relationship is the main reason that she is able to settle into her new house on Himmel St. Their love grows extremely strong, showing the massive power of words to bring people together. Lastly, words have the ability to calm people down; they can get away from what is happening around them, they are able to simply “be”. During one of the bombing raids, Liesel starts reading from The Whistler; “For at least 20 minutes, she handed out the story. The youngest kids were soothed by her voice” (Zusak 381).
In a time of peril, Liesel is able to remember how powerful her words can be. Reading words from a book about a whistling murderer – although it may not seem to calming – has vocabulary powerful enough to sooth Germans who are facing death. Powerful words have amazing abilities; they can bring happiness and joy to Nazi Germany, a place where joy is not so common. Unfortunately the novel, The Book Thief isn’t full of only powerful words used for good… what could one expect from a book narrated from death? Quite predictably, it gets darker from here. The power of words can be used for manipulation and deceit arguably more than for goodness. Using sinister, slimy words, the speaker is able to wiggle their words into the listener’s brain to get you to believe something that weaker words would never get you to do. First of all, a good vocabulary can give a person the chance to gain something that is way out of their reach, without any violence. Adolf Hitler, a man without the qualifications, manipulates his way into being the leader of Germany; “Yes, the Fuhrer decided that he would rule the world with words. ‘I will never fire a gun,’ he devised. ‘I will not have to’” (Zusak 445).
The only reason that Adolf Hitler comes to power in Nazi Germany is the genius and power of his words. He never utilizes the brute force of a gun; he simply wields the ability of his words to get what he wants. Hitler’s use of the manipulative power of words is arguably the best in history, rising to power and getting 90% of a country to hate, and want the death of an entire race, from the simple use of speech clearly indicates the immense deceitful power of words. Secondly, opposing opinions can have the ability to stray people from the original point; all other powerful words must be destroyed to have a completely unbiased notion. Near to the beginning of the novel, Jewish books are burned on behalf of the Fuhrer in a massive bonfire, “’Today is a beautiful day,’ he continued. ‘Not only is it our great leader’s birthday-but we also stop our enemies once again. We stop them reaching into our minds….’” (Zusak 110). In celebration of the Fuhrer’s birthday, a large bonfire is held in the middle of Molching to burn Jewish books. The purpose of the bonfire is to destroy the stories and words that oppose the teachings of Adolf Hitler, because he realizes that the power opposing opinions may manipulate the public into thinking differently to what he has told them. Powerful words used for positive actions can have the same massive influence as deceitful ones.
In Max Vandenburg’s novel, The Word Shaker, a young girl (portrayed as Liesel), grows a tree from her words. Her opinions were too strong to be destroyed by the Nazis; “Many hours passed, and still the Fuhrer’s ax could not take a single bite out of the trunk.” (Zusak 447). Max Vandenburg portrays Liesel’s words as a tree, sprouting from a tear of goodness. Her words’ power strengthen greatly, their manipulation and influence is so strong that Hitler cannot destroy them. Liesel’s words are a good sort of manipulation; they are so powerful that they have the ability to stop even the greatest word shaker. In The Book Thief, words used powerfully for goodness and manipulation have massive influence, yet one’s vocabulary can get more powerful still. Some words even have the ultimate power, the power to choose between life and death. Although it may seem less direct than a judge awarding a convict the death penalty or letting them off, words in Nazi Germany are the main reason why some people die, and some live. To start, people can be saved indirectly by words, being occupied by these beautiful works of literature can save people from the outside world quite literally. During a bomb raid over Munich, when the sirens are a slight bit late, Himmel Street is devastated. Everyone is killed, well – everyone but a little girl. Liesel Memmiger is writing her book in the basement of her house when the bombs strike Heaven Street; “I wonder what she was reading when the first bomb dropped from the rib cage of a plane” (Zusak 528).
The fact that Liesel is writing in her basement is the only reason that she survives, her love for words give her the motive to write very early in the morning, in a cold, dark, German basement. It is in-direct, but the power of words is the reason that The Book Thief’s life is saved. Secondarily, words that are not even meant to mean very much can also have the power to save lives. Words that Hans says to Max and his mother, although not meaning to, give Max the sanctuary in which he was able to live; “’He saved my life’…’He-if there’s anything you ever need’” (Zusak 179). During World War 1, Max’s father Eric saves Hans’s life by electing him to not go into battle, on the particular day that the entire battalion is killed. Riddled with survivor’s guilt, Hans offers Max anything that he ever needs, not knowing how much influence those words would have on to come. The simple, guilt laced words that Hans says, not meaning to be extremely influential, are powerful enough to save Max’s life from the Fuhrer. Finally, like many, many words in Nazi Germany, some are evil, and some have the ability to take people’s lives. Adolf Hitler’s words are the most effective murderers of them all, he uses only his words to kill 6 million Jews “Without words, the Fuhrer was nothing.
There would be no limping prisoners, no need for consolation or wordly tricks to make us feel better” (Zusak 521). Hitler’s word bank is just as strong as the Nazi’s machine gun bank; his words are persuasive enough to convince the country of Germany to be murderers. Six Million, nearly an entire race of people are wiped out because of the gargantuan ability for words to be powerfully evil. The thing of greatest importance in life is living; it is the most sacred thing to have. Everything – it can all be taken away or given back to you with words, just a few, simple words. Isn’t it funny how every single person on earth has a murder weapon? Due to the human race’s ever increasing knowledge of how to use them, the powerful words have the ability to influence the outcome of events, and change people’s lives.
First of all, words have the ability to do cause great goodness in a time of evil. Second to one, if orientated correctly, a person’s vocabulary has the ability for brainwashing. Lastly, a good utilization of literature gives people the weapon to decide between the life and death of another person. God gives humans two eyes, two ears, two legs, two feet, two nostrils, and two hands – But only one mouth. It is safe to say, that is not a coincidence. 6 million people, 2 words. Heil Hitler
Zusak, Markus. The Book Thief. New York: Penguin Random House Company, 2005. Print.