In his novel “The Book Thief,” Markus Zusak employs excellent grammar to characterize the characters. His use of words regarding a certain character leads the reader to infer the character’s actions and personality. This essay would look at how Zusak uses diction to develop the characters in his novel.
Zusak’s diction in the introduction to Death paints a clear picture of the mystery of Death. When he says, “I may present myself properly, but it’s not appropriate…”, he demonstrates how death cannot be explained without inflicting pain. Death continues, “It is enough to suggest that one day I will stand over you.” These words describe that it is impossible to evade death because everybody will die at some point. Humans have attached colors to different moods. For instance, the white color symbolizes peace and black color stands for death, pain, lack of hope and much more.
Death recognizes the use of colors by humans but has a different opinion about the colors. For instance, he says, “I like the dark chocolate color. People say it suits me. However, I enjoy all the colors I see.” Humans associate dark colors with death, but Death can come at any time despite what color the humans are seeing. For instance, the death in the train happens in a snowy environment. The snow is very white, but the mother and daughter are mourning the demise of their loved ones.
Zusak describes how people die by use of an interesting choice of words. When the aircraft crashes and the pilot is about to die, Death describes how he sees him lying in the wreckage full of his blood. Then in 30 seconds the book thief comes in and takes away his soul. Death describes how he loosened the pilot’s soul and took it away gently. These words describe how death takes place. They give a clear picture of how the body and the soul separate. Death goes on to describe how the horizon turns to charcoal as a crowd arrives in the scene of the accident. The word charcoal describes mourning that takes place after the pilot dies. It also shows how the people left alive to see the world because nobody knows where one goes after death.
Although Death is cruel, Zusak uses words which make the reader understand the reality that death is brutal. As Death explains how he feels when a person dies, he says, “I have seen more eclipses than I care to remember.” He says that he has seen millions of them. These words depict the cruelness of the death an how it does not care about humans.
Zusak describes Liesel as a naïve young girl of nine years approaching ten. Leisel has never gone to school because of poverty, and she doesn’t know how to speak well. Her poor speech is explained by the inability to communicate while in a dream when she dreamt interacting with Hitler. Zusak also depicts Leisel’s poverty when he says, “For Leisel, it was in a ride in a car.” Despite being about ten years, she has never traveled in a car. Moreover, her mother is taking her to foster parents because she cannot offer them what they need such as food, clothing, and education. Zusak says, “Poor people are always on the move hoping that their problems will end during the trip. However, the reality is they find a new version of the old problem in their destination.” These words show that Leisel is not likely to be better in the new home.
Leisel and her mother were driven by a man who never spoke throughout the trip. Leisel thought that the driver’s job was to prevent her from running away. Zusak writes, “Leisel assumed that the man’s role was to ensure that she didn’t escape or to make her go into the new home if she dared to cause any problem.” These words show Leisel’s low reasoning levels.
Zusak also depicts Leisel as a girl who did not like taking a bath. Zusak describes her as having “bath anxiety.” He goes on to say, “There is no way Leisel is taking a bath.” These words show how Leisel hates taking a bath. Despite being abused by Rosa because she refuses to take a bath. However, she had a spot and was able to discern a good person. As Leisel was interacting with Hans, she noticed the strangeness in his eyes. After staring at his eyes for a while, she was convinced that he was “worth a lot.” Despite being ten years, Leisel could tell a good and an evil person just a few minutes after meeting them.
Leisel was loving. Zusak shows how Leisel would cry after remembering her brother. She also loved Hans who had become her new papa. Zusak says, “She would bury her face into him as he played accordion for her.” Her actions showed her capability to love.
Zusak depicts Hans as a polite tall man. Unlike his wife, he does not shout at Leisel and is friendly. Hans is the only one who made Leisel come out of the car. On the first night when Rosa began abusing Leisel, Hans was there for her and defended her. Zusak says, “His gentle voice made Leisel feel at ease.” He said, “Leave her to me.” Hans is described as a heavy smoker. When Leisel arrived in the car, she saw a tall man holding a cigarette standing outside. After Hans defended Leisel from being forced to take a bath, he began showing her how to roll a cigarette.
Hans is also depicted as a humble and kind person who despite being talented in many things kept a low profile. Leisel saw him as full of kindness and “soft like silver.” She saw him as a person who was of high value because of his human nature. He was living a poor life despite being having exemplary painting and musical abilities. Zusak says, “His painting skills were top notch, and he had a more than average musical ability.” Hans however just looked like the background because he did not put much effort to be conspicuous. Zusak describes him as, “He was just there not particularly noticeable.”
Another characteristic of Hans depicted by Zusak is calm. Despite Rosa continually referring to him as a filthy pig, Hans does not fight back although he is capable. He had won Leisel over because of his kindness hence it was easy for her to call him papa. When Rosa instructed Leiser to call him papa, he winked at her, and she smiled. “Zusak says, “I would be easy for her to call him papa.” These words show Hans’ humane, welcoming, and caring characteristics. He was a peaceful person.
Zusak describes Rosa Hubermann as a person who likes profanity. When Leisel was refusing to come out of the car and neighbors had begun coming out to see what was going on, Rosa uses abusive words to tell them to mind their business. When Leisel refused to take a bath at night, Rosa called her Saumensch which translates into a pig. Rosa had anger management problems because Zusak describes her as being “good at being furious.” Moreover, Zusak shows Rosa’s anger issues when Leisel and her mother arrived. Zusak describes Rosa’s face as “creased-up cardboard and annoyed.” Although she is well dressed, her face is wrinkled because she seems to be tolerating a lot. Moreover, it was difficult for Liesel’s mother to inform Rosa that her boy did not survive. Zusak says that “Nobody wanted to be the one to tell Rosa that the boy did not survive.” This statement shows that even adults feared Rosa because of her toughness and anger.
Rosa was authoritative and domineering. Zusak calls her, “Woman with an iron fist.” She wanted things to be done her way and did not like being challenged. After about two weeks she commanded Leisel to call her mama. Leisel had to comply because Rosa was very aggressive. She also told her to call Hans papa by telling her, “You see that filthy pig over there? Call her papa.” She is depicted as a no-nonsense person. She was also not content with her life because she hates poverty. One day when talking to Leisel she says, “If your papa was rich I wouldn’t be doing this.” “Why did I marry that Arschloch? A painter.” She had no respect for her husband and would abuse her even in his presence.
Zusak describes Rudy as a young man older than Leisel who fancied himself around ladies. His love for the ladies becomes clear when his mother forces him to walk with Leisel to school to show that he is apologetic for hitting her with a snowball. Rudy does that very comfortably. Rudy was friendly and welcoming. His friendship with Leisel developed very fast despite their age difference because he had time for her. Rudy was the one who explained things about Molching and the history of some people. He had developed a particular interest in Leisel and would look for her during the breaks. Zusak says, “He did not care what people said about his new friend’s stupidity.” He was a fast decision maker as Zusak says because he chose to stick with Leisel no matter what his friends said about them.
Rudy was a playful boy. He loved to play football and was more of an outdoor person. He used to take Leisel out for walks, and they were both mischievous children. For instance, one day when doing their usual rounds they met an old man who liked whistling, and they had nicknamed him Pfiffikus. After Rudy whistled to him, Leisel also followed, and the man began abusing them. Rudy loved fun too. Rudy was sexually attracted to Leisel. After running away from the old man, they came across an old track field where Rudy challenged Leisel to beat him in a hundred meters race. The bet was if Rudy wins he will kiss Leisel.
Another character depicted about Rudy is his love for sports, particularly fast racing. His role model was Jesse Owens, a black 100 meters Olympic champion. Some days after Jesse won another Olympic gold medal Rudy smeared himself with charcoal to look black and went to Hubert Oval to race in the middle of the night. His actions showed his love for fast races.
Max Vandenberg is a Jewish man who is hosted by Hans in his basement. Zusak depicts him as a disturbed man who fears for his life. Max experiences nightmares of his past experiences. His fear as he was searching for Hans Hubermann shows how he was worried about his life. He had to count steps longing for safety. Zusak says, “His fingers smelled of metal, suitcase, Mein Kampf, and survival.” Those were the only things he was left with as he fled his home where Jews were no longer welcome. He is also a risk taker because he left his home to find a man who had been his father’s friend and the last time he had seen him was 20 years ago. He believed that since his father had helped Hans, he would help him too. Max is also described as a good reader and writer. During his journey in the train to Hans’ place he was fixated in a book all through. After spending some time with Leisel he wrote a book about her experiences, entitled “The Word Shaker.” He is also thankful because he writes the book as an appreciation of what she has done for him.
Max loved fist fights when he was young. He says, “There was a lot of satisfaction and fear there.” By “there” he means the fighting ring where the fights used to take place. He continues, “Such a brilliant commotion.” He loved the commotion during the fights. These words show his love for fist fights. Max was thankful and appreciative. When he was allowed to be sleeping in the basement by Hans, he was delighted despite it being a cold and lonely place. He said, “Better than I deserve. Thank you.” He appreciated whatever was offered to him by Hans because he was aware that Hans was risking his life for his sake.
Zusak has been successful in describing the characters in his book, “The Book Thief.” It was easy for me to figure out the nature of a character from the choice of the words he used when talking about a particular character.
Carroll, Jeri, et al. Character building: Literature-Based theme units. Teaching & Learning Co., 1997.
Holstein, James A., an Jaber F. Gubrium. Varieties of narrative analysis. Sage, 2012.
Rollins, Brenda Vance. Literary devices. Classroom Complete Press, 2010.
Zusak, Markus, and Trudy White. The book thief. Black Swan, 2016.