John Boyne

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

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The Boy in the Striped Pajamas Summary

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The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, written by John Boyne, begins sometime during World War II in Berlin when Bruno—a nine year old boy and the novel’s protagonist—comes home from school to find the maid packing up all of his things. Bruno’s mother explains that the whole family will be moving because of his father’s job, though it is clear from the exchange that she is against the prospect. It occurs to Bruno that he does not know what his father’s job is, even though he has dinners with “the fury,” is often told he is “going places,” and wears a “fantastic uniform.” All mother will say on the subject is that there is a special job that his father is required to do before sending Bruno off to help with the packing despite his objections about leaving.

Once they arrive at the new house Bruno is immediately dissatisfied by how it measures up against the handsome five-story they had in Berlin. His older sister, 12-year-old Gretel, agrees with him that the new house is horrible and tells him they are now living in “Out-With,” within sight of a large fence looking into a camp. Together they watch through Bruno’s window men and boys of all ages living on the other side of the fence, all wearing identical pairs of odd grey, striped pajamas. There is a growing sense throughout the novel of adults keeping information from Bruno, as he confronts his father about returning to Berlin and then asks who the people outside of his window are. Father replies that “they are not people at all.”

One day, while out exploring along the fence, Bruno comes across another boy sitting on the opposite side, wearing the same gray, striped pajamas they all wear. Bruno decides to talk to the boy, whose name is Shmuel, and the pair discover they have the same birthday. Shmuel tells Bruno the story of why he is living at Out-With, starting with his family being forced to move into a Polish ghetto and ending up with them all being packed up into a train with no windows or doors and being shipped to the camp. Shmuel tells Bruno that there are hundreds of boys living on his side of the fence, but Bruno remains naive of what this means throughout the novel and is just jealous that he has no one to play with on his side.

From then on Bruno returns to the fence to visit with Shmuel regularly, even though he keeps this friendship a secret from his family. Thus, it surprises Bruno to find Shmuel brought to the house one day in order to help polish glasses for a party. Bruno shares some cold chicken and stuffing with his friend, who is obviously hungry and very skinny, when Lieutenant Kotler finds them and accuses Shmuel of having stolen the food. Shmuel appeals to Bruno and tells Kotler they are friends and that Bruno gave him the food, but out of fear Bruno denies it and says he has never seen the boy in his life. For a week after the incident Shmuel does not meet Bruno back at the fence and when he finally does return his face is covered in bruises. Bruno is ashamed of his disloyalty and apologizes so that Shmuel forgives him and the two remain friends.

One day he asks Gretel why Shmuel must live on the opposite side of the fence and she explains that it is because Shmuel is Jewish and the fence exists to prevent Jews from mixing with everyone else. Bruno’s naïveté is again emphasized by his follow-up question to Gretel which is to ask what they are, if not Jewish. Gretel only responds by stating that they are the opposite.

Eventually, Father explains that while the Fury will not allow him to leave Out-With, Mother wants to return to Berlin and the children will be going back with her. Shmuel and Bruno are disappointed by the news, so they make a plan that, before Bruno, leaves he can sneak over to Shmuel’s side of the fence and help Shmuel find his father, who has been missing. Shmuel brings Bruno a pair of striped pajamas so they won’t be found out and Bruno changes, leaving his usual clothes on the other side of the fence as he shimmies under. His head had been shaved only a few weeks before because of head lice and coupled with the dirty pajamas Bruno looks like he belongs there. The pair searched for Shmuel’s father. But find no trace of him. As Bruno begins to feel like he should head back home they get rounded up by a soldier and sent on a march. Shmuel reassures Bruno that this happens sometimes and the pair hold hands in confusion as they are all lead to and sealed inside the gas chamber.

Months pass without any sign of what exactly happen to Bruno until finally his father returns to the spot his clothes were found and notices a small opening in the fence and realizes what must have happened to his son. He is glad to be leaving Out-With when soldiers from the opposing army finally make it there and take him away.

While it is never explicitly stated within the novel that the camp Bruno’s family comes to live at is Auschwitz, author John Boyne confirmed that all the evidence was there in a later interview. He says he didn’t want to use the specific name because he wanted to be able to evoke all other concentration camps, and all other genocides that have occurred since the Holocaust all over the world. He has also stated that the name “Out-With” has its own implicit meaning about the nature of the camps and what became of the people forced into them.