Bruno, the main protagonist of the novel, is a nine-year-old boy living in Nazi Germany who moves near the Auschwitz concentration camp. However, he doesn’t seem to notice the truth behind the move and what the camp’s real purpose was. In this way, John Boyne introduces a sense of irony to the story because children perceive reality in much greater detail than adults but Bruno seems to be the opposite of a child in his level of perception.
Bruno fails to understand what is going on around him because he doesn’t perceive things intellectually, like an adult would, but doesn’t perceive things simply as a child would. He perceives instinctively and talks about how what he thinks is going on around him makes him feel. This is first made clear when he arrives in Auschwitz.
“When he closed his eyes, everything around him just felt empty and cold, as if he was in the loneliest place in the world.”
He understands that Auschwitz is very lonely and void of life, he fails to understand that his feelings stem from the fact that very close to his house, thousands of Jews are being kept as prisoners and regularly exterminated.
His failure to empathize with Shmuel at the beginning of the novel is also part of his failure of understanding life at Auschwitz. Bruno pays no attention to the fence separating them both because he focuses on how Shmuel fills his need for friendship, so instead of understanding why Shmuel had fingers like “dying twigs” or why he wore the same striped Pyjamas every day, he instinctively responds by seeing Shmuel as a friend.
However, Shmuel acts as a catalyst to Bruno’s maturity throughout the story. After meeting Shmuel, Bruno’s thoughts start to mature and he starts to realize how sad and miserable Shmuel is on the other side of the fence.
“… sometimes people who were sad didn’t want to be asked about it”
This emphasizes the instinctive approach Bruno takes when reacting to the real world. He appreciates how much Shmuel is feeling miserable while not thinking about the potential sources of Shmuel’s pain.
When Lieutenant Kotler catches Shmuel eating the chicken that Bruno offered him in Chapter 15, Bruno denies knowing Shmuel. In my opinion, Bruno does this to stay in his comfort zone. He prioritizes his own safety over Shmuel’s because he is too naïve to profoundly understand Shmuel’s pain.
In my opinion, Bruno’s failure to understand the characters around him stems from the fact that he lives in a bubble. He is taught that he should not ask many questions and this kills his natural curiosity. Therefore, because he isn’t curious, he floats through life, oblivious to the pain that Shmuel feels living in Auschwitz. However, he does react to the real world but he doesn’t understand how he is reacting or why he is reacting the way he does.
Shmuel is the needle that slowly pops the bubble Bruno lives in. Boyne also writes Bruno as a mature character as the end of the novel nears, allowing him to test out the word ‘Jews’ for the first time:
” “Jews,” said Bruno, testing the word out. He quite liked the way it sounded.”
Through this, Bruno can represent all of us because the only people who can truly comprehend the horrors of the concentration camps and of the Holocaust itself are the victims and the survivors while we all live on the other side of the fence, observing them from our own bubble, trying to make sense of it all, like Bruno does throughout the novel.