“The Reader” by Bernhard Schlink read in
class. In the beginning of the book, I was open-minded in order to see how the
relationship between a young boy and an older woman could develop. As I kept
reading, I became more interested in how their relationship developed, and how
it was affected by Hanna through her war crimes.
In class we began to deal with each part
for itself. In part one, we discussed what our impression was on the novel.
Many in the group found the novel was a bit peculiar because of the
relationship between Michael and Hanna, but later on we discussed how the
characters are and what our impressions were. During part two of the novel we
mostly discussed the trial. Our teacher chose a student, and sat her on a
chair, back faced towards the rest of the class. We tried to recapture the
scene of the trial, which helped us picture and understand the situation more.
In part two we also got to know that Hanna was illiterate, this plays a big
role in the novel. I still had the thought in the back of my head about how the
relationship in the novel would develop. In part 3 it became clear to me that
the relationship had driven the whole novel. The class discussions helped a
great deal, thus it helped me see the notion of guilt and its meaning in the
work. The novel has to be seen from different perspectives, because throughout
the novel, the context changes, and as the context changes so do Hanna and
Michael and their relationship.
Guilt as a Central theme in the relationship between Hannah and
Bernhard Schlink’s novel introduces various
themes, such as; love, age difference, loss, guilt and illiteracy, The Reader follows the affair between 15-year-old
Michael and 37-year-old Hannah.
Schlink uses the relationship between his
two central characters to explore guilt. There are many of guilt in the
relationship between Hannah and Michael. The age difference and boy vs. an
experienced woman is one, another is trust vs a convicted war criminal a third
is the complexity of how concealing illiteracy leads to guilt and shame.
The novel is divided into three parts. It
begins with the developing relationship between Michael and Hanna, which is
unexpectedly ended by her sudden escape from a new job that might expose her
illiteracy. In part 2 Michael encounters Hanna, as she stands trial for her
role in Nazi war crimes and Michael is studying law. In Part 3, with gain of
time and distance, Michael begins a one-sided re-connection attempt with Hanna
while she serves her 18-year prison sentence.
When Hannah takes care of a sick boy, Michael,
he develops a trust and gratitude-based relationship towards her. This rapidly
leads to a sexual relationship.
The narrator, Michael shares his thoughts
and doubts about his lover and his country. In contrast, Hanna is like a closed
book that cannot be read, one can only touch the bare surface of Hanna without
ever knowing her full story. She shares her physical body with Michael, but in
every other aspect she keeps a safe distance, and Schlink uses the space,
between the characters to create the feeling of distance in the reader. “We did
not have a world that we shared; she gave me the space in her life that she
wanted me to have” (Schlink. p.77) Hanna’s behaviour often shows distance, but
Michael is satisfied, because he is conformed with the idea of bathing with
her, reading to her and making love with her. Hanna suddenly disappears, and
this because she did not want to expose her illiteracy as she was offered a new
Many years have passed, and their paths
cross again, but this time under different circumstances. As the years have
passed, Michael has grown up and picked up law studies. He and his study group
are sitting in the trial where several former SS guards where Hanna is one of
them are guilty in the murders of hundreds of Jewish prisoners. In court
Michael tries to remember the good times he shared with Hanna but they are
overshadowed by the dark truths he discovered about her past, during the trial.
During this phase, Michael develops a feeling of pity towards one of the prison
guards (Hanna), and he feels guilty for having had a relationship with a war
criminal. His past images of Hanna are shattered by the new images of her as a
cruel SS guard who is capable of murder. His feeling of guilt towards himself
grows when he realizes; he had a relationship with a war criminal, and that he
filled his youth with lies towards his friends and family about his
relationship with Hanna.
The trial is the climax and turning point
in the novel. Michael is now forced into a position where he must decide
whether to leave Hanna behind and potentially feel guilty for the rest of his
life because he did not stand up for Hanna. Or stand up for Hanna and expose her
secret to the judge. “I had neither sought nor chosen this new role, but it was
mine whether I wanted it or not, whether I did anything or remained completely
passive.” (Schlink p….)
Michael’s image of Hanna is shattered even
more when he realises that she is hiding another secret, her illiteracy, which
she is willing to conceal and protect at any cost. Hanna’s illiteracy offers
explanations for why she had an odd way of behaving during their affair. More
importantly, this can offer an explanation for why she joined the SS, why she
singled certain girls out as “favourites” and why she is willing to admit that
she wrote the report which automatically makes her the leader in the church
fire that killed hundreds of Jews. This belongs to one of the writer’s choices,
where Schlink decides to reveal more information about the characters during
the development of the novel. This makes the reader want to read more to be
able to understand the story.