The Golden Rule

John Boyne. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. New York: Random House Children's Books, 2006.
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For 213 pages, John Boyne asks readers to take everything they have learned in textbooks and every preconceived notion we have of the German front during WWII and to throw them out the window. For 213 pages, we are no longer biased modern American readers. Instead, we are a nine year old boy named Bruno, living in a new home called "Out With", where our father wears his brilliantly adorned uniform and saluts everyone on a regular basis. As the reader, here enters our internal conflict: for we know that Out-With is really Auschwitz, arguably one of the worst concentration camps concocted by the Germans. But our reader knowledge doesn't matter here. The spirit of childhood is what matters in these pages. It allows our main character, Bruno, the opportunity to initiate a friendship with a Jewish boy on the other side of the concentration camp fence. This friendship becomes a precursor for the path that Bruno's young, naive life will take as each page is turned.

At the age of nine, we are all aware of the Golden Rule: to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. It's simple, and inclusive. A bold lesson which encourages kindness. But what if that rule didn't exist? What if that rule had been changed? What if the only thing we did to others was that which we would never do to ourselves? In this way, we may become omnipotent and another group would become "others" that we would never have to intermingle with. This rule reversal, as Boyne suggests, would allow a generation to establish social fences around subcultures of peoples.

Throughout the novel, Boyne uses the concept of a fence to transcend into many facets of Bruno's world. While living in Out-With, there are many boundaries established on Bruno's physical life so that he would be mentally confined to the role of a submissive German. One of the most important fences established in the novel, however, is that which Bruno has around his childhood. Bruno's youth unconsciously establishes a fence of naivitee around him that allows him to maintain an innocence or even ignorance about social fencing.

This presents a theme brought up repeatedly in the book: the idea that we are not innately hateful. We are trained to be. Because of his childhood mentality, Bruno is totally oblivious to the fact that he is supposed to loath his Jewish friend Shmuel. While everyone else does terrible things to the Jews, Bruno wonders what's come over his supposedly "kind" family and "friends." From his point of view, there is nothing different about these people. In fact, he and his friend Shmuel have things in common: " I'm surprised, that's all [says Bruno]. Because my birthday is April the fifteenth too. And I was born in nineteen thirty-four. We were born on the same day"(Boyne, 109). Another instance in which Bruno learns he a lot in common with the Jews is when he discovers that he and his sister have lice. After this he is forced to shave his head he looks in the mirror thinks about "how much like Shmuel he looked now, and he wondered whether all the people on that side of the fence had lice as well and that was why all their heads were shaved too" (Boyne, 185). The idea that we are all afflicted with the same types of afflictions regardless of race or religion sounds strikingly like Shylock's speach in Shakespeare's play "The Merchant of Venice." This will be discussed in greater detail in the recommendations for teachers section.

There is only one instance in which it is obvious that Bruno has begun to understand hate and predjiduce. After getting to know Shmuel, they talk about where they are from. Shmuel says that where he comes from "is a lot nicer," and Bruno responds indignantly by saying "It's certainly not as nice as Berlin." Bruno also mentions that "'Germany is the greatest of all countries.'" But the only reason he thinks this is because it is "something that he had overheard father discuss with Grandfather on a number of occasions." This elaborates on the idea that humans do not have internalized or innate prediduce, but are conditioned to feel this way by society, or in this case, by Bruno's father. Without this outside influence affecting Bruno's behavior, he wouldn't have made the assumption that Germans "are superior."

Recommendations for Teachers
Brundibar by Tony Kushner and Maurice Sendak is another mentor text that would combine wonderfully with this young adult novel. Sharing many of the common themes of the childhood spirit in concentration camps, this book tells the story of the Brundibar Opera, which was performed by Jews living in concentration camps throughout WWII. Teachers may also be interested in re-enacted clips of this play found on youtube.

Another book that could be coupled with this is Samir and Yonatan. This international award winning YA novel is about a boy from Palestine named Samir who is injured and forced to be cared for in a Jewish hospital. During his stay he gets to know the other children in his room very well. Many of them are Jewish, and during his stay he works through his predjiduce and developes friendships with the people who are supposed to be his enemy. This book can be purchased used and new at

Another piece of literature a teacher could pare this with is the "I Am a Jew" speech in Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice."

To bait fish withal: if it will feed nothing else,
it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me, and
hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses,
mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my
bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine
enemies; and what's his reason? I am a Jew. Hath
not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not
revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will
resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian,
what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian
wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by
Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you
teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I
will better the instruction.

About John Boyne
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John Boyne (1971 - ) is an Irish novelist who studied English Literature at Trinity College, Dublin, and creative writing at the University of East Anglia, Norwich. A life-long avid reader, Boyne began writing at an early age. He has pulished eight novels, six of which are for adults. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, his sixth novel, was his first for young adults. He has won six literary awards, including the Curtis Brown Award (1995), Irish Book Award People's Choice Book of the Year (2007), Irish Book Award Children's Book of the Year (2007), Irish Book Award Children's Book of the Year (2007), Bisto Children's Book of the Year (2007), the Qué Leer Award for Best International Novel of the Year (2008), and Orange Prize Readers Group Book of the Year.

In reference to writing The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Boyne had this to say:
"Well that was a very strange writing experience because most of the books I’ve written have taken about a year and a half to write but ‘The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas’ came about in a very different way. Usually I have an idea for a book and I think about it for a long time before starting to write it but when I had that idea I started writing it the next day and I didn’t know if it was going to be a short story, a novel, what it was going to be. I just started writing and the story seemed to take me over and I couldn’t walk away from it and I wrote all the way through one day and I felt at the end of the day if I walk away from this now I’m going to lose this story, I have to keep writing, so I wrote through the night and the next day I wrote all day, I wrote all night, and on the third day at lunch time I finished the first draft and I hadn’t slept. I wrote for 60 solid hours but only taking a break between chapters for a cup of tea or a sandwich or whatever and the one thing I remember about that experience was when I would stop, when I would, you know, be sitting having a cup of tea thinking to myself don’t think about this too much, don’t analyze it, just keep writing it because if you think about it, if you intellectualise it in some way this story which seems really interesting is going to run away from you. So I didn’t. So after two and a half days I had a draft of the book, 50,000 words." From A Whole New World.

The official trailor for the movie adaptation of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas:

Additional Resources:
- Reviewed by Danielle Houghton, Jhenna Challah, Ana Yonkers, Joslyn Rohrscheib, and Kristy McPherson