Thursday, March 13, 2014

Death, the Grim Reaper, and Thanatos

Creative Common 2.5
One of the most interesting aspects about The Book Thief is the narrator, Death. Death presents himself as a very different representation of Death than we are accustomed to. He isn’t terrifying. He’s sympathetic. He doesn’t have a black robe or a scythe. In fact, he mentions how silly those things seem.
“By the way – I like this human idea of the grim reaper. I like the scythe. It amuses me.”  
He’s more humanistic. He expresses his feelings, his concerns, his frustrations, and his exhaustion. He’s cynical. He also doesn’t particularly enjoy his job, it’s stressful, tiring, and he doesn’t get a vacation. However, while he may occasionally act like a human, he can never experience life like a human. He’s an outcast.

Now my question is, how have the typical representations of death (the Grim Reaper, the various gods that represent death in mythology, etc.) helped to create the more modern and sympathetic character of Death in The Book Thief. What characteristics have carried over from historical representations to create this character?

Here’s another example of how Death differs from the more traditional appearance of the Grim Reaper.

“I do not carry a sickle or scythe.
I only wear a hooded black robe when it’s cold.
And I don’t have those skull-like
facial features you seem to enjoy
pinning on my from a distance. You
want to know what I truly look like?
I’ll help you out. Find yourself
a mirror while I continue.”

He looks like us. Not only does he have human emotions, but he has a human appearance.

However, by comparing him to a particular Greek god of death, Thanatos, it is possible to see where a few more of his characteristics could have come from. Thanatos was the god of non-violent, or peaceful death. Thanatos was seen as a peaceful god, just like Death, in The Book Thief, is a peaceful representation. He’s calm and caring. He’s never violent.
“I carried them [the souls of the dead] in my fingers, like suitcases. Or I’d throw them over my shoulder. It was only the children I carried in my arms.”
Death does his job and he does it in a peaceful manner. He understands the value of life, especially when it’s taken from those who die young.

There are hundreds of representations of death that could be used to better understand the character of Death in The Book Thief. It’s possible that each of them, like Thanatos, could carry a similar attribute or could contribute to the complex character of Death.

1 comment:

  1. I think what I found most jarring was how much of a personality Death had in the Book Thief. It makes him very approachable, which I found unsettling at first. I think it could have been very easy to make death a strong and disconnected observer, especially when talking about such a charged issue as the Holocaust, in order for the author to avoid making an overly emotional depiction of this time. But making him humanized and showing hints of feeling quietly suggests that yes death is matter of fact, but what happened in the holocaust definitely should not just be matter of fact.