Stories: The Book Thief

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It’s Sunday, which means it’s discussion time. This is when I write to think more deeply about books, why we read, and why literature is so important in our lives. This new collection of discussion posts is called Stories, and aims to explore four of my favourite books, discussing characters and their relationships with each other, and how they are affected by predominant symbols in the story. Here is the next installment in the Stories series…

The Book Thief

In which we explore Liesel and Hans’ relationship with regards to the Accordion

 Liesel and Hans have an important relationship, although it is one that takes a while to come into full fruition. Liesel is a young girl, who loses her parents and is taken away with her brother to live with her new foster family, the Hubermanns. Her brother, however, does not survive the journey. Liesel continues to grow up in Germany during the time of Hitler’s dictatorship. Hans is a Hubermann, and end up being Liesel’s adoptive father. He is very much against the Nazi Party and everything Hitler stands for. Hans paints houses for a living, and plays the accordion. The accordion is symbolic throughout the novel for many reasons, and is part of many character relationships. For the benefit of Liesel’s relationship with Hans, it symbolises comfort, and is a form of distraction in tough times. As the book progresses, the relationship between Liesel and Hans develops, as does the symbolism of the accordion. Not only does it represent comfort, but it also becomes a representation of Hans himself, particularly in the later parts of the book when Liesel is older, and Hans goes off to war. Whatever the accordion symbolises, it plays a crucial part in the development of Liesel and Han’ relationship.

Hans is first introduced when Liesel refuses to get out the car when she arrives on Himmel Street. He is the only one who seems to get through to Liesel, and manages to persuade her to join them, establishing an immediate trust between the two characters. Shortly after arriving, Liesel has nightmares about her brother who dies on the journey to Himmel Street, and Hans comes to her side to comfort her with his accordion, which is when this instrument is first introduced into their relationship. Hans learns of a book she acquired at her brother’s funeral, The Gravedigger’s Handbook, but finds she cannot read. Hans himself isn’t the best reader, so they begin to learn together. As their relationship develops in it’s earlier stages, Hans continues to play the accordion for Liesel in particularly distressing moments, such as when she realises her mother is not going to answer the letters she writes. 
We learn how Hans came about owning the accordion, through a friend during World War I. Hans brings Max- his friend’s son, and a Jew- to Himmel Street, and him and Liesel form a very strong bond. Due to Hans’ possession of the accordion, Liesel gains a loving friend in Max and, in a way, Hans gave Liesel someone who would always be there for her as long as he remained hidden.

The accordion, in these first steps of Hans and Liesel’s relationship, is when it keeps it’s surface symbolism of comfort established in the introductory paragraph. 

Over the course of the novel, Hans and Liesel’s relationship grows ever stronger. Hans is called to paint windows to create blackouts for residents when the air raids come to Himmel Street. Liesel goes to work with him, and he takes his accordion to have easy access to a form of entertainment, especially during these darker times. The music brings Liesel and Hans closer, giving them something to bond over. Liesel has developed a particular fondness for books by this point in the novel, and can understand what music means to Hans through her love of books, and how reading makes her feel. When the air raids begin in Himmel Street, they have to relocate to closest shelter on the street. Hans leaves his beloved accordion behind, possibly for Max to have some comfort when he is left behind, not being able to leave the house. It could also be because Hans has come to trust Liesel to create her own distractions though reading. Again, this shows how the two have managed to translate each others feelings through their own sources of comfort. Liesel has learnt how to appreciate having her own source of serenity through Hans and his accordion.

Hans is eventually called off to war, leaving Liesel and Rosa, Liesel’s adopt mother, behind. He leaves his accordion, to provide them both with a memory of him. The accordion begins to act as a symbol of him, as well as a symbol of comfort. Hans asks Liesel to take care of his accordion, as a way of telling her to stay positive and strong. Liesel “lifted the accordion from it’s case and polished it…she placed her finger on one of the keys and softly pumped the bellows…It only made the room feel emptier.” (Zusak, 444), showing Hans is there in spirit, but the instrument cannot fully resurrect his presence, and they cannot play it with the expertise that Hans does.

Hans returns from the war, which is closely followed by an unannounced air raid on Himmel Street, in which Hans and Rosa both die. Liesel is protected as she is down in the basement writing. Despite it being deemed too shallow to be a proper shelter, it seemed to be enough for her to survive. Hans’ death draws a close to Liesel and Han’s relationship. Hans leaves his accordion behind when he dies, almost like a reminder of him for Liesel. This continues to support the idea from when Hans went to war, and the instrument came to symbolise him directly. The accordion is described as “an unhappy-looking accordion, peering through it’s eaten case” (Zusak 502), which could translate to how Hans has died, therefore so has the accordion. The novel uses a flashback to take the reader through the events leading up to the deadly bombing on Himmel Street. Hans sits with Liesel and plays the accordion as she writes in her notebook. She describes the accordion as ‘breathing’, giving it a final lease of life before it is destroyed, just like Hans spending those last moments with her before he dies. The flashback also solidifies the idea of the accordion appearing as a symbol of Hans, when Liesel says “sometimes I think my papa is an accordion” (Zusak, 531). The ultimate destruction of the accordion symbolises not just the death of Hans, but also the comfort ceasing to exist in Liesel’s life as her foster parents are taken from her in death, and expressing the end of Liesel and Hans’ relationship.
In conclusion, the accordion is extremely important, particular it’s symbolic meaning through the later parts of the story. The accordion provides comfort for Liesel and Hans, especially in times of need, and this feeling is transferred later into Liesel’s love of books and reading. Later, it comes to be a symbol of Hans, and stands in his place as somewhat of a father figure for Liesel, not necessarily as a person, but what it represents in her life. When Hans dies, the accordion follows in his footsteps, stripping Liesel of all happiness and comfort in a cruel way. Being constantly personified throughout the novel, described as ‘breathing’ and ‘having teeth’, the instrument becomes like a third character in a relationship built on belief and trust.

If anyone has any thoughts on anything written here, then please feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments, as it will be very interesting to see what others have found when reading this particular book.

Until next time…
Jade 🙂

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