Warning: This post contains spoiler information on The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne. If you have not read the book, click away from this post immediately and find a copy of your own to read.
The kernel of the plot of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas can be summed up in a sentence or two, but John Boyne has woven a tale around it that asks more questions than it answers. The back cover of the book deliberately reveals few details about the story, barely enough to get you to turn it over and open the front cover. The reader only learns that the book is about a nine-year-old boy named Bruno, that the book is not for nine-year-olds, and that Bruno takes a journey and encounters an ominous fence.
Most of us who are over the age of nine are familiar with the tragic setting of this story, but as the story is written from the point of view of a child, we are left to piece the clues together. As I read the story, I played a game with myself, looking for clues and foreshadowings and hints as the drama unfolded. Alas, the story is not a mystery, although the surprise ending presents one.
Still, I prided myself on figuring the Fury in chapter one and Out-With in chapter three. These bits of enlightening information made my heart sink into my stomach, beating with increasing intensity with each turn of the page. It was a bit like watching through the lens of a video camera a small girl with auburn curls and mischievous hazel eyes fling her arms around her father, who is dressed in a police officer’s uniform, on a glorious autumn morning in New York City. Then you read the date imprinted at the bottom of the screen: 9/11/01 7:54am. You know what happened that fateful day, but you don’t know what happened to these particular characters and you’re scared to find out although the story compels you.
I was compelled to keep reading the story to find out what was going to happen when nine-year-old Bruno discovered the truth about the village behind the fence. He seemed to have such a firm moral compass that it was natural for me, the reader, to wonder would happen when he made the horrifying discovery that would bring the novel to its climax and resolution. Although I was shocked by the ending, I was more shocked by the questions it posed.
Did Bruno ever realize what was going on in his own backyard? If he did, was it at the point of no return? Or perhaps was it at the point when Lieutenant Kotler displayed his anger towards Pavel while the entire family looked on, a little more that halfway through the book? Perhaps Bruno did figure out what was going just past the middle of the story and simply couldn’t face it. Perhaps that is the reason he is dreams up the plans for the adventure at the end of the story. And who exactly is The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas? Is it his friend, Shmuel, or is it Bruno himself? Does it even matter?
In the end, the story of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is perhaps less about good and evil as it is the power of self-deception in the face overwhelming horror. Bruno does notice how thin his friend is becoming, but still he persists on imagining a prosperous, quaint little town behind the fence. Shmuel knows what is happening when first his grandfather and then his father disappear but is intent on solving the mystery of their disappearance as though they can somehow be rescued. The villainous Lieutenant Kotler is deceiving himself about his relationship with his own father, the literature professor with whom he has managed to lose contact. Even Bruno’s father takes an entire year to piece together the horrifying puzzle that haunts the end of the book.
We are all, in the course of our lives, faced with the notion that we can choose to take blue pill or the red pill, like the character of Neo in the film The Matrix. We can take the blue pill and live within the confines of our illusions or we can take the red pill and live with freedom and integrity but with untold hardship and suffering. Many of us believe that we have chosen the red pill, but The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas asks us if we are not all living within our own illusions after all.