2.1 Essay – The Book Thief

Analyse how language features were used to create a vivid setting

In the Book Thief written by Markus Zusak, language features are used to create a vivid setting, specifically in relation to colours. When language features are used in conjunction with colours it creates an intense and powerful image which allows the setting to become very vivid in the reader’s mind. Three colours would have been seen every single day in Nazi Germany: Red, White, and Black. Every street would have had these colours, representing a period of fear and death where the country was filled with hate; Red, White, and Black were the colours of the Nazi flag, Hitler explained the meaning of the flag in Mein Kampf “The red expressed the social thought underlying the movement. White the national thought. And the swastika signified the mission allotted to us-the struggle for the victory of Aryan mankind and at the same time the triumph of the ideal of creative work …” Although many people saw the flag symbolising something very different; the blood spilled by the German people represented the red, the SS uniforms the black, and coldness of Germany during this 12 year period represented by the white. Zusak has used these three colours effectively throughout the text with language features to create a setting that makes the story of Liesel Meminger the Book Thief even more memorable.

The first colour that is introduced to the reader is white. White is a symbol of purity, innocence, and happiness, but can also be a symbol of how cold death is. The ideas of white that Zusak has presented are primarily shown through the language feature of symbolism. “First up is something white. Of the blinding kind.” The blinding of the colour white represents the coldness of Werner’s passing and how overwhelmed Liesel and Death are from it.    
“Yes, it was white.
It felt as though the whole globe was dressed in snow. Like it has pulled it on,     the way you pull on a sweater. Next, to the train line, footprints were sunken to their shins. Trees wore blankets of ice.” This quote contains a hyperbole as Zusak has exaggerated what Liesel is seeing, the snow is so white that to her 10-year-old mind it feels like the whole world must be covered in this, white is also a symbol of the blanket of oppression that has been placed over Germany by the Nazi Party; like the blanket of white snow, this blanket of oppression is  immovable and covers the country with a heavy force. After reading the Book Thief, I came away feeling like the use of white was emphatic and had meaning and clarity when it was used. The colour white was a perfect contrast to the colour black as they represented very different things but also seemed to cross over with each other. Liesel as a person was the living embodiment of white in the book as she symbolised what white is; purity, innocence, and happiness. This meant that wherever she went in the book, the colour white followed; this created a vivid setting even if it wasn’t mentioned directly. This was possible through the language feature of symbolism.

Red in the Book Thief is the most powerful colour by far. Zusak has portrayed this colour so well that when the reader thinks of the setting or an important moment in the book they see red; that is how powerful the colour is. The language feature of symbolism has been used throughout the book referencing colour, and the repeated use of this specific language feature allows the reader to associate certain images when they read a passage which contains “red”. This association between red and certain images creates a vivid setting for the reader which makes the point that Zusak is trying to get across much more effective; for me, I found that red symbolised violence, danger, the erasing of Jewish history, and the blood spilled by the German people during the 12 year Nazi rule of there country. The violence that red represents is exhibited in the bombings of Himmel street, the red sky that morning was a warning of what was to come when Death uses a simile to describe the sky, it adds to the image that is starting to form in the readers head  “the sky was like soup, boiling and stirring.” This forms the image of a red sky changing colours and reddish clouds bouncing around, although this may be aesthetically pleasing, people who know the old mariners saying of “Red sky at morning, sailors take warning” will know that danger is imminent. This simile adds to the setting as it enriches the image in the readers head, while also having a deeper meaning which allows the reader to think about what the future in the book may look like. Further on in the same chapter, red is again used to create a vivid setting. This time Zusak has used personification when Death is describing the state of Himmel Street and Molching after the bombings, “The streets were ruptured veins”. This gives the image of dark red blood trickling down the street around the corners. Here red symbolises the blood spilled by the German People, this creates an extremely moving image which once again contributes to the setting that is being created for the reader. The most influential use of the colour red is represented through the flames on the night of the burning of the books. The orangey-red flames ripped through hundreds of years of Jewish literature effortlessly leaving a pile of ash behind, while the people of Molching stood there applauding, “To their left, flames and burning books were cheered like heroes.” This book burning represents something much bigger happening in Germany though, the red flames symbolize the Nazis while the books symbolize German Jews. Like the books, the Jews were getting ravaged by the red flame known as the Nazis, while people stood there and did nothing to intervene. Zusak has used the colour red as a symbol of everything wrong with Nazi Germany, the use of symbolism and other language features have made the colour red very meaningful which has added to the overall setting of the book. I believe that red in the Book Thief was purposely used in this way as it is such a bold and strong colour; Zusak has used this to capture the reader’s mind and transport them back in time to Nazi Germany, all through the use of language features relating to red which sets a rich and vivid setting.

“Next is a signature black to show the poles of my versatility if you like.” Black in the book has been used as a symbol of darkness and unhappiness. Zusak has used this colour with the language feature of symbolism to represent the dark history that Hitler put Germany through. If Death has poles of versatility with his colours, then black in the text must directly contrast the colour of white; white stands for purity, innocence, and happiness, whereas black stands for impurity, death, and sadness. The signature black is referring to the Nazi’s swastika on their flag, but the colour black symbolises much more in Nazi Germany, during this period when people heard or saw the colour black fear would strike them down, black was the colour of the uniform of the Schutzstaffel (SS), they were Hitler’s paramilitary organisation who would deal with anyone that was opposed to Hitler or the Party. Zusak has captured this fear of black but has applied it in a different area; death. In the story of Max Vandenburg, Max and the darkness of death and go hand in hand; again Zusak has used symbolism to show this through the colour of black. “A small, black room. In it sits a Jew. He is scum. He is starving. He is afraid. Please – try not to look away.” In one of the books most disheartening scenes, Death describes Max Vandenburg’s current situation. From what Death describes the reader can picture a scared, sad, and vulnerable Jew hiding in the darkness of a room. Zusak has included the colour black in Death’s passage as it starts to get the reader associating the colour black with different images of sadness and despair; therefore Zusak is using symbolism again to convey a more vivid setting. Although Zusak has portrayed black as primarily a symbol of darkness and unhappiness, he  “He (Rudy) smeared the charcoal on, nice and thick, till he was covered in black. Even his hair received a once-over.” Here Rudy smearing black all over himself gives him happiness, but on the flip side causes many people to feel sadness and anger towards Rudy, purely based on the colour he smeared on himself. The reader now starts to come to the realisation that the colour black in the book will have a negative outcome. My opinion is that black is the enforcer out of the three main colours, it strikes fear into the characters, but also has a similar effect on the reader as when they reach a passage that contains black they know that it is a symbol for something much more horrific.

In conclusion, language features in the Book Thief used in conjunction with colours created a vivid setting which as a reader added to the experience of the book. With symbolism being used the most in reference to the three main colours of black, white, and red; this provided an interesting insight as the rich colours put multiple and very different images in my head, but somehow gelled together which created a very vivid setting.

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