Review: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne

John Boyne wrote the first draft of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas in two days. I managed to down this slim novel in about an hour and a half. To be fair, children’s literature is fairly easy for me, an adult literary critic-in-training, to breeze through, but I actually had intended to pick at it over a busy weekend. But The Boy in the Striped Pajamas was transfixing, something I find rare in media—the last thing I was transfixed by was The Social Network, being innocent to the work of David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin. But transfixing does not mean flawless.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is about a nine-year-old boy, but, as Boyne points out on the back cover of my edition, it’s not exactly for nine-year-olds. Young Bruno’s family is being uprooted from Berlin because of his father’s mysterious work, which upsets Bruno and even the Hopeless Case herself, his older sister Gretel. But their new, isolated home offers one surprise; a strange, fenced-in complex filled with people. Bruno, an explorer at heart, sets off to explore this complex and meets Shmuel, a young boy behind the fence. Over the course of a year, the two boys grow close—but Bruno can’t quite figure out why Shmuel can never leave.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is powerful. While I’m listing it under children’s fiction when it comes the audience, it’s appropriate for all ages—albeit for someone who can understand the subtle irony of the story. The title page proclaims it to be a fable, which it most certainly is. Bruno is almost willfully innocent, to the point that critics of the book argue that he’s impossible; a young German boy in the 1940s who doesn’t know what Jews are, can’t deduce that Out-With (a twee and improbable mispronunciation on Bruno’s part) is, in fact, Auschwitz, and can’t figure out his supposedly close new friend is suffering. Yes, Bruno is unrealistic, but I think his innocence (and the historical inaccuracies) serves the point of this story—Boyne’s fable brutally exposes the evils of complacency, of standing by in utter ignorance when horrific things are going on. And to be fair, Shmuel is equally as innocent as Bruno; when his fellow prisoners are carted away, he worries over their disappearances instead of concluding the worst.

In fact, Boyne doesn’t attribute Bruno’s innocence to his youth. Instead, he attributes it to an ignorance forced on him by adults. Bruno’s family is a family that does not talk about important things—while his father teaches him the Nazi salute, Bruno presumes it’s “another way of saying, ‘Well, goodbye for now, have a pleasant afternoon.’” (54). Bruno is constantly told not to interrupt, not to ask too many questions, and to do simply what he’s told. Bruno is a curious child who wants to be taken seriously; he wants to be an explorer when he grows up and calling him “little man” instead of “young man” earns people his ire. As you might deduce yourself, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a tragedy—I twigged on to the ending about halfway through the book, but knowing it in advance doesn’t ruin the book at all; it simply makes it more shocking and powerful. As well as explicitly focusing on the evils of complacency, Boyne also goes after the evil of keeping children in the dark. Had anyone in the family been willing to take Bruno aside and treat him as his own agent with a right to know what’s going on, the ultimate end of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas could have been avoided.

There are some twee moments—Boyne’s determination to keep the word Auschwitz out of the book leads to Bruno’s mispronunciations of Off-With and Fury—and the plot can be a bit circular; there are a handful of chapters that flashback to a fateful dinner Bruno’s father has with Hitler. One chapter also pulls the trick of having an end sentence refer back to a beginning sentence to tie up loose ends, which I found too pat. The writing is simple and innocent, as Bruno is, and it occasionally oddly dips into the minds of Gretel and Shmuel, who are just as innocent as Bruno is. But there’s a dark irony to The Boy in the Striped Pajamas; it’s implied that an Auschwitz prisoner is beaten to death in front of Bruno’s eyes by an enraged soldier over a spilled bottle of wine, that Bruno’s mother is having an affair with said soldier, and, of course, the darkly ironic last lines—“[of] course all this happened a long time ago and nothing like that could ever happen again” (216)—which shook me to my very core.

Bottom line: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a fable-like and darkly ironic treatise on ignorance, innocence, and complacency in the face of true horror. While not perfect, it’s a very powerful piece of work.

I bought this used book off of Amazon.

  • Boyne, John. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. New York: David Fickling Books, 2006. Print.

27 thoughts on “Review: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

  1. I’ve had this one on my radar ever since I put the movie in my Netflix queue. I refuse to watch the movie before reading the book…but I haven’t bought the book yet. 🙂

  2. Pingback: 2011: #74 – The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (John Boyne) | Confessions of a Bibliophile

  3. The story is about two young boys called Shmuel and Bruno and they are both friends and their friendship all started when Bruno and and his family had moved to a new to a new house and Bruno’s new room had a circular window in it and when Bruno looked through this circular window he could see a place which he described as a children’s playing area, but what Bruno didn’t know is that this place he described as a children’s playing area was actually a concentration camp for young boys and Men and the young boys and men worked there in striped pajamas all day long.

    Anyhow one day Bruno went exploring and he ended up on one side of and electrical barbed wire fence and on the other side was a young boy sitting crossed legged on the ground and his name was Shmuel, then Bruno decided to sit down on the ground crossed legged as well and then they both started to talk.

    However the main characters in the story are called:
    . Bruno

    . Shmuel

    . Bruno’s Father named Ralf

    . Bruno’s Mother named Elsa

    . Bruno’s big sister Gretel


    .Lieutenant Kurt Kotler

    .Maria (the family’s maid)

    Bruno is 9 years of age and he was born on the 15th April 1934 plus he has brown hair, he normally wears Knee length shorts, Brown boots and some black knee high socks.

    Shmuel is also 9 years of age and he was also born on the 15th April 1934 and he has no hair because they shave your hair off when you go into the concentration camps and all Shmuel wears is some filthy and sweaty striped pajamas with no shoes just like the rest of the men and young boys in the camp.

    Bruno’s Father named Ralf looks about 33 and he wears a very neat and tidy uniform and he is Chief Commandment of the concentration camp plus I would say he is a very strict character.

    Bruno’s Mother names Elsa looks about 32 and she normally wears a skirt which flows just below the knee with a silk top or a dress with delicate high heels and just a little makeup plus she plays a very emotional and Dramatic character if you ask me.

    Bruno’s sister called Gretel normally wears a skirt with a top tucked in and she wears that with white knee high socks and some black shining shoes plus I think that Gretel is a very Bossy and Dramatic character and she can be a bit of a know it all.

    Pavel is a man from the concentration camp who Bruno describes as a Potato peeler and he was a Jewish doctor so he tells Bruno when Bruno falls off his swing in the front yard and cuts his knee!!

    Maria is the family’s maid and she is a very quiet character and she used to admire the commandant until he took the promotion to Auschwitz.

    Lieutenant Kurt Kotler is a harsh Nazi lieutenant even though his father isn’t a Nazi plus he constantly flirts with the commandant’s daughter, Gretel.
    He is very rude and brutal. Later, he is sent to the front lines for not reporting his father to officials.

    The boy in the striped pajamas is set in Auschwitz which is never named in the film and Auschwitz is in Poland which is the new house that they move to but in the old house it was set in Berlin.

    The summary of the plot is where a young boy named Bruno lives a wealthy lifestyle in prewar Germany along with his mother, elder sister, and SS Commandant father.
    The family relocates to the countryside where his father is assigned to take command a prison camp.
    A few days later, Bruno becomes friends with another little boy, strangely he has the same birthday as him and he is dressed in striped pajamas, named Shmuel who lives behind an electrified fence plus Bruno will soon find out that he is not permitted to befriend his new friend as he is a Jew, and that the neighboring yard is actually a prison camp for Jews awaiting!!!

    In the book it says that Bruno had picked up the wired fence.
    This would not have happened at the time because the wired fence was electrical and it would have been built all the way under the ground as well so no one can escape.

    Plus it also says that Bruno didn’t know who Hitler or what Jews were but we all know that Bruno would have been taught that in school.

    And when he went to visit Shmuel everyday and sat outside the camp on the other side of the barbed wire fence there was no guards there but in real life there would have been guards all around the concentration camp!

    On the other hand I think that this story is excellent because it has a lot of historical facts in it and it is based on a very true story so what we have read from the book is all true apart from the characters of course.

    I think that this book could be used as a piece of historical evidence because:

    . The story is full of facts about the concentration camps and how they treated the people in the camps plus it shows you how Bruno’s father made a propaganda film about the camp.

    . It also shows you the terrible conditions of World War Two and how the Jews were treated when going to have a ‘SHOWER’ (to be gassed)!

    .Plus the story is very true and everything is based on true living details but the characters Bruno and Shmuel are obviously not real.

    . It also shows you how Bruno coped with all of this commotion as just a 9 year old boy and how Bruno made his own choice to go underneath the barbed wire fence just to help his best friend Shmuel find his father, basically Bruno had gone under the barbed wire fence to get gassed, he went under the barbed wire fence at the wrong time!!!

    I was very impressed with the film because I thought that the book was going to be better than the film because it is said that if you read the book before the fill (if there is a book of the film) then it is meant to be completely different than the film.

    However the book had a few faults itself because it said that Bruno picked up the electrical barbed wire fence when he couldn’t because it is electric and it would have been all the way under the ground!

    Anyhow, the things I liked about the book is that it really expressed feelings at the end of the book when Bruno dies!
    Plus in the film Bruno’s Grandma died but in the book it says that she got bombed!

    To be honest with you I would give the book a star rating out of 5 because it wasn’t as good as the film because of all the little lies the book had said!

    But I would give the film a star rating out of 5 because it was really good and there was no little lies plus it was really emotional the way the characters played their parts!

    To me the things that were the same in the book and in the film were when Bruno’s family moved houses and also when Bruno had got gassed and I only chose those two points mainly because they are similar the way they are said and described.

    On the other hand the tings that I think are different in the book and the film is when Bruno went underneath the electrical barbed wire fence and went into the concentration camp and when Bruno sees the concentration camp though his bedroom window because it would have been further away!!

    However, my personal opinion on the film is that it is a good film to watch and I would suggest it to anyone who likes sad films and any age from 12 and above!!!


  4. ka tangi te titi
    ka tangi te kaka
    ka tangi hoki ko ahau
    tihei mauriora!
    he mihi tenei kia koe john boyne mo to whakakaha i to pukapuka te tama i te striped kakahu moenga.
    no reira tena koutou katoa.
    e huri!

  5. kiaora koutou , he tino ataahua to pukapuka john boyne , to kaha i te tuhituhi a ‘the boyin the stripe pyjamas” no riera kia kaha i to mahi , tena koe .

  6. I read the book as my twins who are 12 are studying this book in their English lessons.So far this year they have studied books such as Private Peaceful and such.Whatever happened to Enid Blyton and lashings and lashings of ginger beer?

    • Well, I know in American primary schools, World War II literature is incredibly popular to teach. It’s easy to discuss the morality, since it’s not a controversial issue, and it offers interdisciplinary appeal with their actual history lessons. Blyton, I suppose, just never stood a chance against such charms.

      • Yes,I guess so….my own childhood was filled with Enid Blyton and I loved reading her books.The books at school now are all depressing and not “feel good” books that I myself struggle to read.There is a happy medium surely? It’s enough to put me off reading for life! Maybe not….but surely these books can be balanced and to read “Of Mice and Men” and then “Private Peaceful” followed by ” The Boy in Striped PJ’s” is just too much….Lets hope the next study book is more uplifting…..

      • They can be; it’s important to balance a curriculum, although it can be argued that cheerful and happy texts might not be considered “serious” to warrant study. Perennial favorite The Great Gatsby is hardly upbeat, for instance.

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