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John Boyne’s most famous novel, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, is an intricate story about two boys that meet at a concentration camp during the Second World War. In this novel, several themes are made evident, such as the innocence of childhood, prejudices, fear, regret, and boundaries. However, perhaps the most interesting, yet subtle, theme is that of silence.
Silence, stillness, and secrets are all interconnected throughout this literary work. As the protagonist’s father is the “Commandment” of the German army, the majority of his duties are hidden from his family. This is taken to such extremes that the family moves to Poland, without telling the children where they are moving to or the reason behind it. There is an overall silence throughout the family, particularly when it comes to the work of the father. The children are taught at an early age to simply respect his duties and to not question his decisions.
As the story continues, Bruno develops a close friendship with a refugee named Shmuel. Shmuel is the Hebrew equivalent of the name Samuel, meaning strong. This fact is quite interesting in relation to Shmuel’s role in the story, particularly in his role in the friendship between the two boys. Due to the differences between the two, Bruno is required to not mention his new friendship to anyone. After he makes a Freudian slip in a conversation with his sister, Bruno is forced to cover his tracks: “’ I have a new friend,’ he began. ‘A new friend that I go to see every day. And he’ll be waiting for me now. But you can’t tell anyone.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘Because he’s an imaginary friend,’ said Bruno, trying his best to look embarrassed…” (155). unfortunately, this is not the only time that Bruno lies about his relationship with Shmuel. While the two are talking when Shmuel comes to clean out the glasses in Bruno’s kitchen, they are caught by Lieutenant Kotler. Shmuel easily admits that the two are friends, while Bruno claims to have never spoken with or seen Shmuel in his life. However, his decision to cover up their friendship does not sit well with him: “[Bruno’s] stomach churned inside him and he thought for a moment that he was going to be sick. He had never felt so ashamed in his life; he had never imagined that he could behave so cruelly. He wondered how a boy who thought he was a good person really could act in such a cowardly way towards a friend” (173–174). While the two young boys do not have a thorough understanding of their situations, they are intelligent enough to know that there is something more powerful than a fence that is keeping them apart. Hyde made an interesting point regarding this scene: “This incident suggests how silence imposed from the outside – by Lieutenant Kotler’s intimidating and threatening presence – could act so as to stifle Bruno’s sense of agency and his spirituality, thereby leading to a sense of disconnectedness with his friend Shmuel” (98).
By contrast, silence and stillness are not always portrayed as negative things in this novel. Near the end of the book, Bruno disguises himself in the “striped pyjamas” and attempts to assist Shmuel in finding his father. When the soldiers gathered up the Jews for their march, Bruno took a great step of boldness in regards to their friendship: “He looked down and did something quite out of character for him: he took hold of Shmuel’s tiny hand in his and squeezed it tightly. ‘You’re my best friend, Shmuel,’ he said. ‘My best friend for life’” (212-213). While the boys remained in the gas chamber, not knowing what to expect, they still clung to each other: “…the room went very dark and somehow, despite the chaos that followed, Bruno found that he was still holding Shmuel’s hand in his own and nothing in the world would have persuaded him to let it go” (213). Hyde’s statement on this scene was quite intriguing:” Of all the ways in which they could have reacted in the midst of the chaos and the horror that was about to take place, Bruno and Shmuel chose silence. They stood holding hands, affirming their connectedness (irrespective of their very different racial backgrounds)…” (98). This scene represents the fact that silence has a strange power over words and that it is not always necessarily to speak in order to communicate.
The innocence of a child and the power of silence in both positive and negative aspects are recurrent themes throughout John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Boyne does an excellent job describing the relationships that Bruno has with his family and with his new friend Shmuel. The two boys are wise for their ages, as they have the power to look beyond the things that separate them and to form a bond that words cannot break. These two young boys are a great example of true friendship and overcoming obstacles.
Hyde, Brendan, Karen-Marie Yust, and Cathy Ota. “Silence, Agency And Spiritual
Development.” International Journal Of Children’s Spirituality 15.2 (2010): 97-99. Academic Search Premier. Web. 8 Feb. 2013.
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