Characterisation of Death and the author’s purpose: “The Book Thief”

Markus Zusak carefully develops the character of Death through subtle references in the text. For example, when the text says “First the colours. Then the humans. That’s usually how I see things. Or at least, how I try”, may give the reader the sense that Death is observing human activity, that he has sensory capabilities (sight), a mind that thinks and that he is captivated by the colours in the world (which could also suggest favour and feelings). This representation may contradict what we stereotypically think of Death: the Grim Reaper, a devil, psychopomp, or spirit, and this conflicting representation may challenge the reader to empathise with the character. However, this is also problematic, as Death carries away the souls of characters whom the reader comes to respect and love: Rudy, Rosa and Hans. Hence, we never truly favour Death but ultimately view the character potentially as Markus Zusak intended: blatantly truthful, inevitable and an evident presence, even if only as a thought.

Select quotations in the text that reveal important information about the narrator Death. Explain what these quotations tell you about this character and reflect on the author’s purpose in the lines you have chosen: What was Markus Zusak wanting to convey through these lines? How does this representation assist to develop ideas, events, the setting purposefully in the text? How does this representation affect our understanding, feelings or thoughts as a reader?

Posted by Jo Waide

Teacher of English at Mount Aspiring College, Wanaka, New Zealand.

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