“People observe the colors of a day only at its beginnings and ends, but to me, it’s quite clear that a day merges through a multitude of shades and intonations with each passing moment. A single hour can consist of thousands of different colors. Waxy yellows, cloud-spot blues. Murky darkness. In my line of work, I make it a point to notice them.”
In Markus Zusak’s 2005 historical novel, The Book Thief, the use of color is symbolically used in a number of ways in order to create a vivid setting throughout the story. Although many different colors are used throughout the novel, I will focus on the three that are the most symbolic, White, Red and Black. These three colors are used throughout the novel in order to symbolize different aspects of the text. White represents innocence, Red for violence and fire, and Black for impurity, dirtiness, and death – the opposite of white. These three colors are also significant as they make up the primary symbol of the Nazi party, the Swastika. This helps create a vivid setting even though most of the novel takes place in a small German village
White: “It was white. It felt as though the whole globe was dressed in snow. Trees wore blankets of ice. I studied the blinding, white-snow sky who stood at the window of the moving train” (Death 6-8)
The first of the three colors introduced in “The Book Thief”, White is primarily used throughout the novel in order to purvey both the innocence and purity of Liesal and her brother. Due to it being commonly seen as the absence of color, a viewpoint Death adamantly disagrees with as seen in the quote “ some of you are most likely thinking that white is not really a color…..well I’m here to tell you that it is.” (Death 7), White can also be seen to represent the loss of Liesel’s brother with the graveyard being “dressed in snow” and the “blinding white-snow sky”, as well as the fresh start she receives after her mother gives her up for adoption, with it snowing as Liesal is being driven to her new life. Throughout the book, White also represents the chill of winter, both on the inhabitants of the small village Liesal lives in, including Max – the jew that hides in the Himmermanns basement, but also on the soldiers fighting on the eastern front. This is a persistent theme in the novel, with multiple characters referencing the war in Russia. Just as this ongoing war is always in the mind of the characters of the book, I believe that the use of white is symbolically used to emphasize the war in the mind of the reader as well.
Red: “A bandaged hand fell out of his coat sleeve and cherries of blood were seeping through the wrapping. (71.2)” Red is the most vibrant and violent of the three colors, representing blood, war, and the rage of the German people towards those who aren’t the “master race” e.g. Blacks, communists, and Jews. As an expression of this rage, the people of Germany burned un-German books, this seemed to be one of their favorite activities due to how feverishly they did so. As described in the Book Thief “You see, people may tell you that Nazi Germany was built on Antisemitism, a somewhat over-zealous leader and a nation of hate-fed bigots, but it would all have come to nothing had the Germans not loved one particular activity – to burn. The Germans loved to burn things. Shops, synagogues, Reichstag’s, houses, personal items, slain people and, of course, books. (pg 90)” at the heart of the Nazi regime was hatred against anyone or anything that they believed had done them wrong. Essentially they blamed all their problems on various groups, races, and ideas. The use of red throughout the text helps the reader to vividly imagine not only the massive fires that were used to burn away these books but also the, almost blind, rage and anger that these people had at these events. Even those who didn’t hold these ideas seemed to be swept up into the wildfire of pure rage and energy that came from burning away these ideas of the past. Red is also part of the Swastika.
Black: In the Book thief Black represents dirtiness, evilness, and most importantly Death. In other words “Next is a signature black, to show the poles of my versatility if you like.” Black in the book means the opposite of white. Although typically Death (Grim Reaper) is commonly sin-ominous with Black, in most media he is even seen draped in a black cloak. However, in the Book Thief, this is not the case, with Death telling the audience that he looks nothing like humans imagine him to and that if they want to see what he looks like they should “[f]ind […] a mirror”. Unlike Death in other novels or books, this reaper instead seems much more human, enjoying the full spectrum of color. In his words: “I do try to enjoy every color I see – the whole spectrum. A billion or so flavors [colors], none of them quite the same, and a sky to slowly suck on. It takes the edge off the stress” however Black is still one of these colors with the first quote proving this. Black shows the poles of his versatility. Black is also one of the three colors of the swastika, being the color of the symbol itself. As such, in terms of the book, Back seems to be the most “evil” of the colors. “Above me, the sky eclipsed – just a last moment of darkness – and I swear I could see a black signature in the shape of a swastika. It loitered…above,” pg 451.
Conclusion: In the 2009 novel, the Book Thief, written by Markus Zusak’s, color is symbolically used to create a vivid setting in a number of ways. By relating each of the three colors to not only different ideas and themes but also to the three colors of the Nazi party, symbolically helps create a living, breathing, vivid world.