The Power Of Words In The Book Thief
On the subject of the written word, George Orwell once wrote, “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought” (Orwell 9). Markus Zusak’s award-winning novel, The Book Thief, is a narrative about an orphaned girl, Liesel Meminger, and her journey in war-torn Nazi Germany to discover the power of words. Though Liesel’s struggle against Adolf Hitler’s totalitarian regime, the reader is shown the unseen yet manipulative influence of language. While the words themselves hold no power, when they are wielded with purpose, they become forceful and have profound impacts on many of the characters’ lives. Zusak develops this theme through Liesel’s experiences in the small town of Molching, where she sees language’s ability to heal, its power to hurt, and ultimately its potential to triumph over hate.
To begin, Liesel’s personal actions and their effects on the people around her exemplify language’s ability to heal and uplift. For instance, Liesel first uses the power of words to help Max Vandenburg when he is grievously sick. When she reads The Dream Carrier to him, Death says, “the words alone could nourish him” (Zusak 328). Even the simplest of gestures, enabled by language, give hope to those in their time of need. Max, although seemingly unconscious when Liesel reads to him, later thanks her, proving that when he was weakest, it was Liesel’s kind words that rescued him. Moreover, when Liesel begins reading to the people of Himmel Street during the first bombing raid, the reader sees the true extent to which language can comfort and affect human emotion. Her soothing words calm the anxious crowd, and even the perpetual bickering between Rosa Hubermann and Frau Holtzapfel subsides. Language provides an encouraging refuge for the denizens of Molching, even during the midst of a bloody bombing. Finally, Zusak reveals that language’s true power lies in the intentions of its user. Even vulgar expletives like Saukerl and Saumensch are used by the main characters endearingly (Zusak 148) and they are often reserved exclusively for those closest to them. In choosing to use words in the way she does despite their denotation, Liesel chooses to uplift people rather than put them down. In brief, language, when used to heal, can be a powerful instrument that can have profound and positive impacts on those around the user.
Although language’s power can be used to uplift, it can equally be corrupted and used in the name of hate. Though not strong in physique, the Fuhrer was able to exploit the power of words for his own purposes, coercing the people into doing his bidding by disseminating propaganda and suppressing other opinions. Liesel realizes this when she comes to the epiphany that it was the Fuhrer who was responsible for her mother’s suffering and her brother’s death. In a fit of vehement bitterness, Meminger declares she “hate[s] the Fuhrer” (Zusak 116). In response, Hans Hubermann, a typically loving father, slaps her on the face and tells her never to repeat those words in an act of unexpected severity. Even though Hans likely agrees with Liesel, he understands all too well the danger of saying words the Fuhrer does not want to hear. Furthermore, language, when used with animosity, can be seen causing stinging emotional injury. When Liesel fails to read her passage at school, her classmates laugh at her and call her names (Zusak 78). Although Liesel gets her revenge on Andy Schmeichel, her peers’ spiteful words have undoubtedly hurt her and she cannot help but feel a palpable feeling of disappointment and failure when she walks home. Finally, language presents itself as being dangerous and even lethal in the right hands. The Fuhrer, manipulating the power of the written word, labels the Jewish people a “disease” (Zusak 110), and his hateful rhetoric results in many Jewish shops being branded as “FILTH” (Zusak 181). These labels were capable of dehumanizing an entire people and the corrupting influence of simple words can be seen leading to the alienation, abuse, and genocide of an entire race. Although the two share the same tongue, Hitler and Liesel use the power of the language is very antithetical ways: one for hate and one for love.
Given language’s two paradoxical natures, it is finally through Liesel’s struggle to resist Hitler where Zusak demonstrates that language’s power to do good triumphs over its ability to hurt. First off, although Liesel knows that language can be used to hurt, she realizes that its ability to connect people transcends its power to segregate. In his first book to Liesel, Max describes her as “the best standover man I’ve ever known” (Zusak 235) and he voices his appreciation for her company. Despite the Fuhrer’s attempts to alienate Max because he is a Jew, he and Liesel connect by reading together and sharing their experiences in the Hubermann basement, defying Hitler’s German ideals fittingly, through their own exchange of words. Moreover, language is used to fight back against the Fuhrer. When Max writes The Word Shaker for Liesel, he paints over the pages of Mein Kampf, replacing them instead with a tale of resistance (Zusak 445). This is a symbolic form of rebellion against Hitler, and Max shows that the inspirational words he writes in The Word Shaker can overpower the hateful words that were once in Mein Kampf. Finally, through every book that Liesel steals, she steals a few words back from the Fuhrer, rebelling in a quiet, but meaningful way against his regime. Near the end of the novel, Liesel finally recognizes, “without words, the Fuhrer was nothing” (Zusak 521). In the last line of her book, she says, “I have hated the words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right.” (Zusak 528). Ultimately, the book thief, now fully understanding of the dualistic power of the words, commits herself to fight the Nazis’ wicked propaganda with writing that stems from love and kindness.
In conclusion, through her struggle against the Fuhrer and Nazi Germany, Liesel recognizes that language, in the right hands, has a powerful and far-reaching influence. She sees simultaneously language’s twin natures of destruction and comfort, and she realizes that she can use its power to overcome hatred. Even Death is impressed by Liesel’s resilience, and he continually reads the book thief’s novel and its beautiful story to keep his mind off the grim task of collecting souls. In The Book Thief, as in the world today, it is neither guns nor missiles that constitute the most potent arm. Zusak reveals that this weapon is much more subtle, and it is unseen, yet far more impactful. It can be used to hate and it can be used to love, but it is ultimately up to the user to decide in which way they will employ the most powerful weapon of all: language.
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