Markus Zusak

I Am the Messenger : A Journey of Self-Discovery

(Essay date 10 June 2011) (In this criticism, A.T. analyzes the theme of self-discovery in I Am the Messenger and how the main character, Ed Kennedy, discovers there is more to his life through his involvement and his influence in the lives of others. )

A prominent theme of I Am the Messenger is self-discovery. At the beginning of the novel, Ed Kennedy does not seem like the type of person who will ever amount to anything spectacular. He is a nineteen-year-old underage cab driver who enjoys playing cards with his three best friends, one of which he has been hopelessly in love with for years, with no success. Because of the situation he is currently in, he feels that his life amounts to nothing. However, after Ed is chosen to deliver the “messages”, he is forced to help and make a difference in his town. His involvement ends up being a journey to his own self-discovery. He not only changes the lives of others, but realizes that his life has true potential as well.

In the beginning of the novel, Ed is a self-proclaimed failure. “Just prior to the bank holdup, I’d been taking stock of my life. Cabdriver—and I’d funked my age at that. (You need to be twenty.) No real career. No respect in the community. Nothing” (Zusak 15). He understands and acknowledges the fact that his life is empty, and appears to be going nowhere. Because of this, he is extremely intrigued when he receives the first card in the mail. He does not know what exactly is coming, but he recognizes that the card holds importance—or at least more importance than anything else in his life. As Ed puts it, “...My life, my nonexistent accomplishments, and my overall abilities in incompetence” (39). It is evident that Ed has completely given up, and at a fairly young age. The cards end up being an epiphany—that there is more to life than just driving taxis and playing cards.

The very first message he has to deliver deals with a man who rapes his wife every night. He does not know what to do at first, and even if he did, he would not have the courage to do so. He refers to himself as “Cowardly. Meek. Positively weak” (45). However, this fear eventually evaporates as he makes his way through the four suits of cards and delivers each message. By being chosen to care about the lives of others, the positive influence he has on them also positively influences himself as a person. He discovers that he possesses the power to help and to care. By doing so, he gradually fills the emptiness inside of himself. He becomes more and more involved in the lives of others, and finds himself caring about their well being, instead of just focusing on his own failure. However, the ironic thing is, Ed was never an uncaring person. He had simply just given up on trying to care. Delivering the messages forces him to take another look and see the beauty of life.

The first person to acknowledge that he is doing a great thing is Sophie. After he helps her, she asks him if he is “some sort of saint or something.” Ed thinks to himself, “Me? A saint? I list what I am. Taxi driver. Local deadbeat. Cornerstone of mediocrity. Sexual midget. Pathetic cardplayer” (74). He tells her that he is “just another stupid human.” Although Ed does not see it, he obviously had a strong impact on this girl’s life. All he did was convince her to run barefoot, but even so, he gave her the confidence to be herself and be free. Many things that Ed does do not at first appear to carry an extreme amount of importance. He gives Angie Carusso ice cream. He comes to see a movie a cinema that hasn’t shown a movie in years. He buys a family new Christmas lights. However, every message he delivers holds extreme importance. From ice cream cones to rape, Ed changes the course of these people’s lives. He gives them strength, hope, and love. However, for Ed, the most important part is the changes he sees in himself.

Helping these people give him a sense of importance. Gradually, he does not feel like a waste of space. He realizes that he is actually making a difference, and that he can do virtually anything if he makes an effort to do so. He discovers his confidence. He uses this confidence to not only deliver the messages, but uses it outside his “mission.” He stands up to his mother, who never treats him as a son, but as a disgrace and a failure. On Christmas Day, his mother constantly insults him to the point where he cannot take it anymore. “I want so much to verbally abuse this woman standing there in the kitchen, sucking in smoke, and pouring it out from her lungs. Instead, I look right at her.... ‘The smoking makes you ugly,’ I say, and walk out, leaving her stranded among the haze” (281). His mother did nothing but cheat on his father and take advantage of her youngest son. When Ed himself realized that he was more than just a failure he could acknowledge the wrongs of his own family and defend himself. This is also evident in the way Ed talks to his brother Tommy. When Tommy claims that he will call Ed, he responds, “‘I doubt you will, Tommy,’ and it feels good. It feels nice to emerge from the lies” (282). By delivering the messages, Ed is able to bring out the absolute best in other people and in himself. This makes it easy to identify the lies and hypocrisy of his family. Ed is able to see his own life from a whole different perspective.

Before delivering the messages, Ed thinks of himself as “a dead man.” However, one of the last moments of the novel demonstrates how his influence on others has filled him with life. When a mirror is held up to him, he is asked if he is still looking at a dead man. “In a flood inside me, I see all those places and people again” (351). He sees all of the people he has helped in his own reflection. By caring about other people’s lives, it helped him care about his own. Ed realizes that this whole time, he was not the one delivering the messages—he was the message. The mysterious man behind the messages explains to him, “If a guy like you can stand up and do what you did for all those people, well, maybe everyone can. Maybe everyone can live beyond what they’re capable of” (353). By having such a strong influence on the lives of others, he was able to prove to himself that he could live beyond what he thought—what he thought, what his mother thought, and what his friends thought. He becomes dissatisfied with where he is, and instead of accepting his disgraceful life like he did in the beginning of the novel, by the end he longs to change it.

Through Ed’s influence in the lives of others, he discovers that there is more to his own life. Zusak develops the theme of self-discovery by changing Ed’s perspective on life as the novel progressed. Since the novel was told from his point of view, one could easily identify the change in Ed’s character that was taking place. His tone changed from one that is surrendering to the cruelty of life, with short, one-worded sentences about the failure that is his life, to that of a person who is curious and willing to make a difference. This change in tone and attitude is a result of the messages he receives and the people he influences.

A.T. 2011

The Book Theif: The Power of Words

(Essay date 10 June 2011) (In this criticism, AT looks at the importance of words as a theme in The Book Thief. AT discusses how the protagonist Liesel loves and hates words, for while they offer knowledge and understanding, they can also be destructive.)

In The Book Thief, words are more than just an assortment of letters on a page. Words of course tell the story, but that’s typical of any book. In this novel, words are one of the most important elements. For the people living in Nazi Germany during World War II, Hitler replaced all of the beautiful words of the world with “Heil Hitlers,” discrimination, hatred, fear, and evil. Liesel steals the books because all of the words on each page have something to offer. Through learning how to read, Liesel is able to understand the world around her, and fight it with her own words and opinions. However, at moments Liesel despises the words, because she views them as the reason for the evils of Nazi Germany. In the end, Liesel writes her own story, in an attempt to “make the words right.”

When Liesel steals The Gravedigger’s Handbook at her brother’s funeral, she does not know how to read, and does not expect to ever accomplish that. Instead, she associates the book and its words with the last time she saw her brother and her mother. “Staring at the letters on the cover and touching the print inside, she had no idea what any of it was saying. The point is, it didn’t really matter what that book was about. It was what it meant that was more important” (Zusak 38). It was not just a book, but a memory. Eventually, when Liesel learns to read, she associates the book with the midnight classes where Papa painted letters and words on the wall of her basement. She never needs to know how to dig a grave—but it was the book and the words in the book that taught her to read, so it would forever hold importance in her life.

The second book Liesel steals is The Shoulder Shrug, this time from a bonfire on Hitler’s birthday. She was attracted to the book because she knew that she was not supposed to be; all of the items in the fire defied Hitler’s ideals, and she was supposed to be a law-abiding German citizen. However, Liesel understands that it was Hitler’s words and ideals that killed her mother. She says, “‘I knew it.’ The words were thrown at the steps and Liesel could feel the slush of anger, stirring hotly in her stomach. ‘I hate the Füher,’ she said. ‘I hate him’” (115). Therefore, she is compelled to steal the book and read it. Hitler attempted to brainwash his race into hating. She wanted to steal the knowledge and understanding that he was trying to deny her and her fellow Germans.

Liesel realizes that Hitler’s words and propaganda are what he used to gain his followers. Therefore, she blames the words for the destruction and despair she sees around her. The words are what killed all those people, destroyed all of the towns, and caused so much hatred. However, she also uses the words to fight back. She learns to read and gain knowledge, and replaces Hitler’s hatred with words of kindness and friendship. Max also understands this important distinction. He cuts out pages from his copy of Mien Kampf and paints over them to write his own story for Liesel, The Standover Man. He gave this to her as a late birthday present. This symbolizes replacing the evil of Hitler with friendship. “There were the erased pages of Mien Kamph, gagging, suffocating under the paint as they turned” (207). A Jew was giving the gift of words to a young German girl, a relationship unheard of in Nazi Germany.

Words also served as a sense of comfort and security. While in the bomb shelter, Liesel reads The Whistler to everyone of Himmel Street. “By page three, everyone was silent but Liesel. She didn’t dare look up, but she could feel their frightened eyes hanging on to her as she hauled the words in and breathed them out. A voice played the notes inside her” (381). Liesel starts reading to get her mind off the war and the threat of the bombs. However, when everyone starts listening, they listen to hear the story. Liesel on the other hand sees “the mechanics of the words—their bodies stranded on the paper, beaten down for her to walk on.” To her, the words themselves are important, not necessarily the story. They remind her of Max, and reading to him in the basement. She sees words as tangible objects or memories. The way Liesel connects with words demonstrates how she is gaining knowledge and understanding.

At the end of the novel, Liesel gets extremely angry at the words. After seeing Max march with other Jews to a concentration camp, she goes to Frau Hermann’s library and destroys a book. She rips entire chapter from the book:
Soon there was nothing but scraps of words littered between her legs and all around her. The words. Why did they have to exist? Without them,
there wouldn’t be any of this. Without words, the Füher was nothing. There would be no limping prisoners, no need for consolation or wordly
tricks to make us feel better. What good were the words? (521).
Liesel often finds herself torn between loving and hating words. On one hand, the words offer her knowledge and security. She can fight and have her own opinions. However, the words are also the reason for all the cruelty in the world. Because of this, when Frau Hermann gives her the blank book to write in, she writes her own story. Frau Hermann, “gave her a reason to write her own words, to see that words had also brought her to life” (524). She describes the words as “heavy” as she writes them down. To Liesel, everything she has endured in her life revolves around words—both good and bad. The last line of her story is, “I have hated the words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right” (528). Through the story, Leisel learns to both hate and love the words for everything they bring to the world, but in the end, she simply wants to make them right. To her, that means being able to transform words into her own life story.

Zusak made words and extremely important theme in The Book Thief because words held extreme significance in World War II. The importance of words demonstrates how human nature is so easily swayed; one man can rise to power based on his oratory presence and control of words. Leisel both hated and loved words because they can bring out so many emotions. That is why books have always been such a powerful form of commentary. Words give one knowledge and help one better understand the world, but if not used responsibly, words can destroy.

A.T. 2011

Importance of Literature

(Essay date 12 June 2014)

In this essay EG discusses the importance of literature in The Book Thief and how it effects and alters the lives of the main characters.
Within the pages of The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, a number of books are introduced, each one possessing a unique importance to the characters. Sometimes the importance lies within the language of the book, however, other times the true meaning comes from what the book is a symbol of to the individual possessing it.

At the very beginning of the novel a grieving Liesel is intrigued by a book she watches drop from a young grave digger’s pocket. In this early stage of the novel Liesel has yet to learn how read, however, she takes the book as a keepsake from her already rough journey. Although she is young, Liesel knows to hide the book from others. At night she often takes it out and traces the lettering not knowing of its morbid meaning. The book helps her remember her mother’s face and her brother’s terrible fate. Once Hans discovers the book, he notifies her of the title, The Grave Digger’s Handbook. From this point on the book is not only a symbol of her past but of her thirst for knowledge as she hungrily learns to read.

To the general public in Germany during World War II, Mein Kampf was an icon of their Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler. However to Max Vandenburg this book held another meaning. It was his escape to safety at Hans and Rosa’s home. It was the perfect way to travel without being questioned because, what Jewish man would be seen carrying book that slander his race? Throughout his trip, Max actually reads the book using it as a distraction. “Strangely as he turned the pages and progressed through the chapters, it was only two words he ever tasted. Mein Kampf. My struggle. The title, over and over again, as the train prattled on, from one German town to the next. Mein Kampf. Of all the things to save him” (Zusak 160.) Along with the book ironically being his savior, the words mein kampf also stuck with him. These words turn into a theme for Max later in the novel when he deals with the tremendous guilt of leaving his family without saying goodbye and for putting the lives of Hans, Rosa, and Liesel at risk just so he can stay alive.

The two makeshift books Max that writes are significant to the developing relationship between him and Liesel. The Standover Man is both a summary of Max’s life and a thank you to Liesel for her part of it. First of all the book is made from the pages of his copy of Mein Kampf, this is a representation of the good that can arrive within the folds of evil. The words are painted over with white and although they mask the words, they are still slightly visible underneath the covering. This shows that although we cannot completely banish malicious beings from the world, we can change the meaning of what they produce. The book itself was made as a late birthday gift for Liesel from Max. The simple language of the book tells the reader how something simple like a hug can make all the difference in the world.

The Word Shaker is another book Max gives to Liesel. This book is more complex than his first story to her. The theme of the story is that words can conquer everything else. Using this thought it is known that Hitler was able to use his words to control masses of people and to condemn masses more. However, this small book serves as a message to Liesel that she can use her words to make a difference in the world for the better. To Liesel it also represents Max saying goodbye. For Max, his book serves gratitude to Liesel for helping him see beauty again and giving him hope for the world’s future.

After reading the many books during her time at Himmel Street is time for Liesel to finally create a work of art herself. First and foremost The Book Thief is a story of her journey in life so far. However, this book is a symbol of the intense freedom and power she has gained from learning how to read. It represents her going against all the restrictions in the country at that time and showing that even though the Nazis burned millions of books she was still able to find the ones she needed in order to grow and develop into a mature young woman with morals better than the highest standing people in power. This is a rebellion and it is also a savior. If Liesel had not gone down to the basement to read and edit her work she would have been killed in the bombing of her street. This leads to her thirst for knowledge symbolizing the key to her escape from the ultimate defeat of death.

Throughout the novel the importance of literature is explored through the many works mentioned. Each story has its own meaning even if the message taken from it is not what the author intended. Through every book read, the characters grow in wisdom and in character and in turn develop theme of the importance of literature.

E.G. 2014

The Book Thief

In this essay, O.D explains the effect of The Book Thief being narrated by “Death”, and how Liesel Meminger influences and changes the narrator's perspective. Additionally this essay will analyze Markus Zusak’s use of foreshadowing.

Markus Zusak opens the novel with a pessimistic narrator who expresses a heavy sorrow burdened upon him. At first Zusak does not clarify who the narrator truly is, fundamentally developing a riddle and questioning the true identity of the narrator. However, the true identity of the narrator is never openly revealed, the hints and foreshadowing displayed being as much assistance and evidence given to understand who the narrator is. Although it is never specifically stated, the narrator is after all “death”, and this develops a wider and detailed perspective to the novel. The narrator switches from first person and third person perspective, introducing Liesel Meminger, a young girl who dared to read and capture the attention of death, who so often overlooks human lives as dull and ugly. Furthermore, Markus Zusak depicts death with an indifferent and mundane personality, and introduces a deeper view of the lives of Liesel Meminger, Max Vandenburg, and Hans Hubermann through the careful eyes of death. Death enriches the novel with a separated perspective of the life of Liesel Meminger and those she has influenced around her.

Death is unexpectedly characterized as a mundane character. A narrator, such as death, known as the opposite of life, birth, and light, would be expected to possess a heartless, cruel, or dark outlook. However, that is not the case, death displays many characteristics, such as “amiable, agreeable, and affable”, and even mentions “I am nothing if not fair” (1). However, as the story progresses we see a change in the narrator. His tone changes from stagnant and sarcastic to more lively and expressive. Zusak establishes death does have a personality, and proves even death can change how he feels and views people, even himself. Throughout the novel there is an insight of emotions, such as sadness and joy, expressed every so often. In low regards death mentions he feels sadness and dread by stating, “He does something to me, that boy. Every time. It’s his only detriment. He steps on my heart. He makes me cry,” and “Imagine smiling after a slap in the face. Then think of doing it twenty-four hours a day” (84,211). It is apparent death is affected by people’s lives and deaths, especially Rudy’s death. Even when he takes their souls death feels a pang of regret or sadness himself. Zusak gives death more than a vague personality, he entwines human characteristics and interests into death, providing a relatable character.

Reading the story in death’s perspective provides more evidence of how each of the characters influence others, and there is more insight and importance to a person’s actions than might be displayed. Furthermore, seeing death gradually change his view throughout the story provides an influential tone. Liesel unknowingly influenced death and how he sees humans, changing his discouraging view on the human race to a hopeful tone. Even in the end, death admits he has emotions like humans do. He feels sadness, joy, worriment, and guilt. “In the darkness of my dark-beating heart, I know. He’d have loved it, all right. You see? Even death has a heart” (242).

Death has an interest in colors. He describes the color of a person’s death, the scene being dark or light, gray or black, or peaceful or harsh. Death is fascinated by humans especially, their ugly and beauty ways alike. He watches them, and collects a handful of stories that have influenced him in some way. He is fascinated by humans and colors, but struggles to understand how humans are capable of more than ugliness and greed. Death hopes to see a beauty to humans, and he takes an interest in Liesel and her story because it is one of a handful of beautiful stories he has witnessed in his tenuous existence. Death foreshadows that the story will not have a happy ending, and as long as he is present there will be always be death. However, he provides an influential tone, that even though Rudy, Hans, and Max do not live their full life, they have influenced others. Liesel, who was a significant part of Max, Hans, and Rudy’s lives was affected by them also, and in return influenced death to see her life as special in some ways. Liesel became friends with a stowaway Jew, learned how to read, stole books from book burnings, and learned to live without her loved ones. Liesel influenced others and changed death’s view on people and how they are beautiful in some matters, and even altered death’s view of himself.

(O.D. 2016)