Wednesday, October 6, 2010



Students in English were assigned to write an essay in class on The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Here is the assignment, and the essay by senior Clio Doyle.

"Can ordinary people be considered heroes, or should the term 'hero' be reserved for extraordinary people? Plan and write an essay in which you develop your point of view on this issue. Support your position with reasoning and examples taken from The Book Thief, and, if you wish, from other readings, studies, experiences and observations."

There is little that I can say about this topic that does not sound hackneyed. It is the situation that makes the hero. People who live in ordinary surroundings in times of peace generally do not have the opportunity to distinguish themselves. Extraordinary situations create the need for heroes, and people rise (or do not rise) to the occasion. As Gray says in his “Elegy in a Country Churchyard”, the world is filled with “mute country Cromwells” and “Hampdens guiltless of their country’s blood." Or something like that. The point is that a crisis -- in this case, WWII -- will bring out the best in certain people. If one must speak of the Book Thief, one might point out that the Hubermanns take in a Jew, Max Vandenburg. They are far from heroic, but the situation (life in Nazi Germany) mixed with chance (Hans Hubermann’s promise to the accordion player’s wife) leads them to do something that can be called heroic. It seems to me that this is Zusak’s point.

Of course, Zusak is making a bigger point. Namely, that humans are capable of withstanding and inflicting great suffering. This is far from original, albeit true. He seems to see the world as made up of connections between people, which are threatened by hatred, racism and fear. Liesel and the Hubermanns, Liesel and Rudy Steiner, Liesel and Max Vandenburg, are connected to each other in various ways. These interpersonal links are constantly threatened by outside forces, until they are suddenly broken by the bombing of Himmel Street. This is also where the main action of the novel ends, as though novels and heroism cannot go on in a vacuum or gravitate around a single person. Heroism is a social force. It grows out of love for other people.

One can speak of heroism, but perhaps not of “heroes." “Hero” is subjective. Jesse Owens is Rudy Steiner’s hero. Does that make him “a” hero? (I am not saying it doesn’t.) This goes back to the question of whether one can be a hero in a vacuum. Must other people witness and approve of one’s actions for one to acquire the status of “hero”? And then, of course, one must define a “heroic” action. What separates the “heroic” from the merely “decent”? Perhaps “heroism” implies the risk of one’s life for pure and unselfish motives. But few movie stars and musicians risk their lives for the good of mankind.

No, one must separate the “hero” from the “heroic." In fact, heroes hardly ever do anything heroic. They are signposts that point the way for lesser mortals. Most acts of heroism remain unknown (or so seems to be Mark Zusak’s point of view) to all save death and the perpetrator.

And are there any “extraordinary” people? (I have just reread the question). Is it not a little unfair to the human race to assume that the people who distinguish themselves must be extraordinary, and not just lucky? The human race need not think like Plutarch any longer. I don’t believe there are extraordinary people -- only people. That makes it a lot more exciting. That means that any one can be a hero (here one enters into the wilds of the hackneyed -- but it can’t be helped). I’m not sure I believe in heroes either -- only in people. It’s far too convenient to believe in heroes. It lifts some responsibility off one’s own shoulders.

People invent their own heroes. To Rudy Steiner, Jessie Owens represents everything heroic, including his (Rudy’s) own potential heroism. But that’s only a convention. In times of war and great upheaval, conventions fall away. People have to become their own heroes. No one wants to be a hero. It’s unpleasant. The people who want to be heroes never are.And here is the rest of it.