If you’ve got an essay to write on The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, want to write a book review, or find out what John Boyne meant, get help here. This is an essay I wrote to help a student revising for Common Entrance.
The book of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas starts out simply with things we can all relate to. Bruno’s almost-teenaged sister, Greta, is a ‘Hopeless Case’ moving from scary dolls to fussing over boys. He’s moving house and gets in scrapes; he misses his grandparents and best friends, which are problems we can all relate to. They’re mundane (everyday) problems, though to nine-year old Bruno, they’re rocking the centre of his world. We feel for him – as we all were nine once, less wise and less able to cope. We might have nine-year old brothers or sisters. He seems very innocent and vulnerable. He has no control over the elements in his life. In short, it seems like an everyday book.

If you read the blurb though, there’s a disturbing mood even before you start reading. We’re told we’ll go on a ‘journey with a nine-year old’ but that this ‘isn’t a book for nine-year olds’ – as if it’s not suitable, or too scary. What’s horrible about this is that the boy in it is nine, which makes us afraid that his life is too scary for him.

John Boyne builds up the mystery from the start. The blurb says ‘we think it’s important that you start to read without knowing what it’s about.’ Not knowing is unsettling. The first scenes of the film of the novel clearly show Nazi flags, and soldiers in a town. But in the book, there are no clues at first. Because we don’t know their true identity, we’re lulled us into a false sense of security. We think of Bruno and his parents as being ‘normal’ in a way we don’t normally think of the Nazis. This makes the shock of discovery, when it comes, even more intense. Little clues gradually dawn on us, like when Bruno first describes ‘the Fury’ (the Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler). His comical misunderstanding reveals a truth: that Hitler is a force, of rage personified. This makes Bruno seem even more innocent, keeping us on his side.

Even though Bruno is German we don’t think of him as a Nazi. He still seems an outsider. He doesn’t understand what the Nazi salute means, but it’s still very disturbing when he does it – as if his innocence is being corrupted. His naivety is also used for a darkly comic effect where he mis-hears ‘Out-With’ (Auschwitz). The reality of Auschwitz is so vile it’s hard to think about properly, and Bruno’s language brings innocence disturbingly close to brutality. It sounds simple, child like – ‘out with them’ – masking a vile idea. When Bruno’s mother discovers the truth, it sends her mad, and the grandmother doesn’t approve of the father’s work either. Boyne seems to show most Nazi Germans didn’t know, and if they had found out, would have been disgusted, though this is not known for sure.

The use of the first person narrative lets us see through the eyes of a German, innocently, the horrors and the reality of holocaust. We see the suffering in the camp, Shmuel’s grief and desperation to find his father. Finally, we are trapped in the stampede, experiencing viscerally, through Bruno’s eyes the sickening nature of something we’re so familiar with from History that we’re almost numbed to it.

Greta is attracted by the romance of the Nazi uniform, and the dashing lieutenant. But the conflicts within the nation are shown in the divided family. The Commandant’s wife goes mad, his mother disapproves, and he dresses down the zealous Lieutenant Kotler for his father’s crimes. This is a moral conflict, over what’s expected, and what’s right, and it cuts across family loyalties. Bruno understands little of authority – failing to salute properly, doesn’t understand Herr Liszt’s lessons and doesn’t ‘get’ the romance of Kotler’s uniform. He only sees the brutality, and tries to help Shmuel because all he can see is the pathos of his situation.

Boyne writes that he deliberately wanted to show the similarities between the two boys, making them the same age, and height, and even dressing them alike in the striped pyjamas, so that they are indistinuishable. They die, holding hands and he won’t ‘let it go’. Boyne says he wanted them to be a ‘mirror image’ of each other: what’s so different about two nine year olds, after all. 
One of the most difficult aspects of the book in the view of Rabbi Benjamin Blech, is that Bruno seems not to be aware ‘of the constant presence of death’. He argues Boyne plays down the horror too much, that not even a child could have been ignorant of it – though the reader glimpses it dimly. Kathryn Hughes suggests, in Boyne’s defence, that ‘Bruno’s innocence comes to stand for the willful refusal of all adult Germans to see what was going on under their noses.’ On the title page, Boyne describes his story as a ‘fable’. In an interview, he said he felt it was important not to pretend it was ‘fully based in reality’, as that would be disrespectful. He says the moral is more important.
Boyne says in the blurb and in his author’s note that Bruno reaches a fence, they ‘still exist’ and he hopes we never reach one. In the interview, he cites ‘the divides – the fences – that existed in my own country [Ireland], and that caused violence and killing for families’. He writes, ‘the genocide of the 1940s was perhaps the worst case of inhumanity that the world has ever seen, but we do not live in a peaceful world even now, 60 years later. I suppose I hoped that younger readers who might be moved by the story of Bruno and Shmuel would grow up with the intention of pulling those fences down wherever they existed, whenever they could.’
The final point Boyne makes is that Bruno’s innocence is crucial to the story. It begs ‘a wider question: how could so many millions of people have been murdered under the eyes of the whole world without anyone knowing about it? How, indeed. When the war ended and the camps were liberated, the world was shocked by what they learned. But it had been going on for years. And the whole point is that it continues to go on today in places around the world.