The Reader, by Bernhard Schlinkis a three part post-war German novel, written from the perspective of an olderMichael Berg reflecting on his younger life through his documented memories.
Part one depicts a fifteen-year-old Michael Berg and his sexual relationshipwith a thirty-year-old ex-Nazi woman named Hanna. Later in part one we discoverthat she has disappeared. Part two is set in Michael’s young adult years, wherehe reencounters Hanna, who, to his horror, is a defendant in a case againstHanna for her work in Auschwitz concentration camp. Soon after we learn ofHanna’s real past, and the crimes that she committed as a Nazi officer. Part 3represents Michael’s latter years.
We learn of his professional successes, hispersonal problems which arise by his earlier experiences with Hanna, and hislight contact with Hanna through the form of cassette tapes, who is nowimprisoned. At the heart of The Reader is the theme of guilt. Specifically, theguilt associated with the aftermath of the Holocaust, the mass murder of oversix million Jews, Romani, homosexuals, and communists in Europe during the Naziregime, which was felt by both the war-time generation and the post-war generation.Schlink’s story has all the unnecessary excess stripped from it, yet itexplores the theme of guilt, through different ideas, such as theintergenerational and collective guilt, the numbness to guilt, and thecomplexity of guilt.The theme of guilt is exploredthrough the symbolism of Michael his dad’s relationship, specifically the ideaof dealing with intergenerational guilt. Intergenerational guilt, or guiltrelating to, involving, or affecting several generations was a big issue forthe author. Schlink, himself a second generation post-war German, wrote thisbook in a time where many siblings lived in a deep sense of shames for theirparents allowing the atrocities of the war to happen. Michael explains that thepeople of his generation “condemned their parents to shame, even if the onlycharge that his generation could bring was that after 1945 his parents’generation had tolerated the perpetrators in their midst”.
This guilt wasoften an obstacle for parent’s wanting to create a true bond with theirchildren. For instance, Michael’s father was “undemonstrative, and couldneither share his feelings with his children, nor could he deal with thefeelings my siblings and I had for him”, and even though he was a professorof philosophy, who would often deal with morality, Michael’s father “didn’tfeel like he had any authority over his children”. For these reasons, Michaeldoes not feel as though he can forgive his parents, yet he struggles with thefact that he needs their love.
Michael also holds his own generationresponsible for being complacent with their parents, some of whom were a partof Hitler’s regime, and the many others who were blind sheep. Michael believesthat loving his father would “make his generation irrevocably complicit inhis father’s crimes.” He is saying that the love for the previous generation,and his father, makes him complicit in the long-lasting effects of guilt in hisnation. For Michael, loving his father will only ultimately contributes to thecollective inheritance of guilt passed from generation to generation, theunavoidable German fate of guilt. Almost as a defence mechanism, Michael’sgeneration, fuelled from guilt from what their parents have done, they go intoa frenzy of trying everyone involved in the Holocaust through the judicialsystem to desperately try rid themselves of the intergenerational guilt.
Theguilt arising from the Holocaust causes Michael’s generation to be torn betweenlove for their parents and the moral obligation of condemning them for theircomplicity. Yet Schlink has shownthrough Michael and his complicated relationship with his father and theprevious generation, that guilt is not something that is easy to deal with.The Reader explores the idea thatthe first generation of post-war Germany are numb to guilt, shown through thesymbolism of Hanna’s illiteracy. One of Hanna’s most important characteristics,along with the fact that she represents the first generation of post-warGermany, is that she is illiterate. This illiteracy serves as a metaphor forher generation’s inability to truly read the real intent, evils, or evenexistence of the Holocaust.
Upon Michael reflecting of the impact of Hanna’silliteracy at her trial, he realises that for the lengths that Hanna went tohide it, she could have spent the same amount of effort on trying to solve theissue. Rather than address the issue at hand, Hanna chose to hide it, whichultimately led her to work for the SS, and fails to understand the harm sheinflicts on others. This is parallel to those of Hanna’s generation whocontributed, or simply turned a blind eye to the Nazis’ true agenda could have spentthat same effort trying to understand why they were targeting the Jews, yetinstead stood silently, and willingly agreed either passively or actively tocommit the mass murder of the holocaust, without considering the ramificationsof their actions, or simply not caring enough about the consequences tointervene. We also learn that whilst Hanna is imprisoned for her crimes, sheteaches herself to read, and learns about the concentration camps throughHolocaust literature from the library in the jail.
Hanna’s new ability to readis an important metaphor, as it demonstrates that there is always thepossibility of remorse through understanding what she has done. It is only byovercoming her illiteracy, that Hanna is capable of understanding her role as acontributor of the Holocaust, and the impact that she had on the lives victims.Similarly, it is only once her generation makes an effort to understand theramifications of their actions, that they can truly lose their numbness oftheir guilt, and seek reconciliation with their past. Schlink’s book reaches aviolent climax, Hanna taking her own life, only days before she is releasedfrom jail It could be argued that as she finally understood the ramificationsof her actions, and was no longer numb to the guilt of what she had done, Hannasimply couldn’t come to terms with her actions of the past, and decided thatshe didn’t not have the capacity to deal with her past.Complexity of guilt is exploredthrough the characterisation of Hanna. Hanna’s character is built up of manycontrasts, representing the conflicting and complex psychological ordeal ofdealing with guilt.
For instance, our first encounter of Hanna is when Michaelis sick, and throws up in an alley. But “when rescue came, it was almost anassault,” “the woman seized Michael’s arm and pulled him through the darkentryway into the courtyard”. Hanna is concerned and caring of Michael, but sheis also demanding and firm. She is not gentle, but she is not unhospitableeither. We also see in her physical characterisation more contradictions. Forinstance, Michael describes Hanna as “soft to the touch”, but “the body beneathit strong and reliable”. This juxtaposed physical description furtherhighlights the complexity of Hanna’s character. Moreover, Hanna is introducedas Michael’s lover, so we feel sympathetic for her.
If she were introduced asan ex-Nazi, we wouldn’t have those same emotions for her. If Hanna is arepresentation of the first post-war generation, is it a mere coincidence thather character is so complex and nuanced? No. Schlink is conveying the messagethat guilt is a complex emotion, and our thoughts are often conflicted and contradicted,as reflected in the quite purposeful contradicted characterisation of Hanna.Schlink is saying that guilt is not a straight forward concept, not a binarycomposition.
Guilt is not just black and white.At the heart of Bernhard Schlink’sThe Reader is the theme of guilt, and the profound ideas that go with it.Schlink is trying to tell the reader that there is often more to guilt than thesurface level emotion. There is the collective and intergenerational guilt, thenumbness and failure to understand guilt, and the complexity of the emotion andhow we deal with it.
Schlink has purposefully used symbols of relationships andcharacterisations and explored the theme of guilt to represent a deeperunderlying issue. It is the fact that not only sufferers of the Holocaust arevictims of Hitler, but in reality his first victims were the German people. Schlinkexplores the theme of Guilt in a way that shows the collective andintergenerational guilt of Germans from the atrocities of World War 2 is anuanced and complex emotion, and is not easy to deal with.