Choose a novel that deals with a sensitive subject

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‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ Critical Essay

Choose a novel that deals with a sensitive subject.
With reference to characters and themes, explain how the author explores this sensitive subject in an appropriate way.

Write your introduction using the key words of the task (underlined). In the planning process, your notes will look like the bullet points below. You will form these into an introduction when you write your essay:

  • ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’

  • John Boyne; Irish author; novel written in 2006, etc.

  • The Holocaust/The Final Solution – genocide; loss of millions of Jews, as well as other religions/disabilities, etc. that Hitler didn’t agree with.

  • Bruno, Gretel and his family; Shmuel, etc. Don't mention all character names here, as you’ll discuss them throughout the rest of the essay.

  • Identity, Relationships, Tolerance and Equality. (themes)

Main Body (PEE Paragraphs; Point, Evidence, Explanation) x 6

  1. Bruno – what is Bruno like as a character? Why is he like this? Does he change? Why/why not?

  2. Shmuel – compare Shmuel to Bruno – what are the differences and why? Has Boyne created realistic characters? How has he done this? Think of the dialogue between the two boys, the narration, etc.

  3. Identity – how are different characters identified throughout the novel? Why are some of them identified in this way? How does Boyne help you to imagine what these characters look like?

  4. Relationships – consider Bruno/Shmuel and Ralf/rest of family. What are the different relationships? How does Boyne show the tension between Bruno’s family? Why do you think it’s so tense and uncomfortable at times?

  5. Tolerance (to put up with someone else with different beliefs/way of thinking to your own) – Can you find any examples of tolerance and/or intolerance? Think of the incident with the wine bottle – how and why did Kotler react in this way? How do incidents like this make you feel?

  6. Equality – is anyone in this novel treated equally? Or are they discriminated? Why is this? How does this make you feel about characters who are treated differently or unfairly?


  • This is similar to your introduction, in terms of length and some content, in that you’re reminding us of the task you set out to answer and your final conclusion to this.

  • Summarise the points you have made throughout about Boyne’s characters/themes and how he has used these to portray and explore a sensitive subject; the Holocaust.

  • What was Boyne’s purpose in writing this story? What effect has it had on you?

Use a selection of quotes from below – or find your own – for writing your essay. Remember to use quotation marks whenever you use evidence from the text and always follow the PEE structure:

Make your opening POINT – this could be a sentence or two to explain what was happening at the time, who was involved, why, etc.

Use EVIDENCE from the text – this is your proof.

EXPLAIN why this evidence is important and what it tells us about this character/event/theme. How does the evidence you have used prove that John Boyne has explored a sensitive subject in an appropriate way?


"It's so unfair. I don't see why I have to be stuck over here on this side of the fence where there's no one to talk to and no one to play with and you get to have dozens of friends and are probably playing for hours every day. I'll have to speak to Father about it." P. 111

This is Bruno’s first conversation with Shmuel – why is this statement ironic and naïve?
“Shmuel looked very sad when he told this story and Bruno didn’t know why; it didn’t seem like such a terrible thing to him, and after all much the same thing had happened to him.” P. 130 (Omniscient Narrator) Bruno thinks he’s had similar experiences to Shmuel, but why isn’t that true? What is Boyne trying to prove through the contrast of Bruno and Shmuel?

“The boy was smaller than Bruno and was sitting on the ground with a forlorn expression.” P. 106 (Introduction to Shmuel through ON)

“He didn’t want to ask the next question but the pains in his stomach made him.” P. 131 (ON)

We know Shmuel is malnourished because he is a prisoner, but what does this tell us about Shmuel’s personality?

“All of them – the small boys, the big boys, the fathers, the grandfathers, the uncles, the people who lived on their own on everybody’s road but didn’t seem to have any relatives at all – were wearing the same clothes as each other: a pair of grey striped pyjamas with a grey striped cap on their heads.” P. 38 (ON)

“Just because a man glances up at the sky at night does not make him an astronomer, you know.” P. 82 (Pavel)

Bruno argues that Pavel is a waiter, but Pavel had a life before working for Bruno’s family. What does Pavel mean by this?
"I think I've always been here." P. 84 (Pavel)

"Some people make all the decisions for us." P. 14 (Mother)

"I'm very sorry, Shmuel... I can't believe I didn't tell him the truth. I've never let a friend down like that before. Shmuel, I'm ashamed of myself." P. 175 (Bruno)

"The people you have to dinner in this house. Why, it makes me sick. And to see you in that uniform makes me want to tear the eyes from my head!" p. 93 (Grandmother)

What is it that Grandmother can’t tolerate? Does she agree with her son (Bruno’s Dad) being a Nazi? Why/why not?
“It’s history that’s got us here today. If it wasn’t for history, none of us would be sitting around this table now. […] We are correcting history here.” Pp. 143-4 (Ralf)
"Of course all this happened a long time ago and nothing like that could ever happen again. Not in this day and age." P. 216 (ON)

Why is this statement ironic? Why did Boyne use this as a final statement? What effect does this have?

"Those people... well, they're not people at all, Bruno." P. 53 (Ralf)

"What happened then was both unexpected and extremely unpleasant. Lieutenant Kotler grew very angry with Pavel and no one - not Bruno, not Gretel, not Mother and not even Father - stepped in to stop him doing what he did next, even though none of them could watch. Even though it made Bruno cry and Gretel grow pale." PP.148-9 (ON)

Why does Boyne leave out the obvious act of violence here? What effect does this have on the way you read and imagine this scene?

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