The Reader: Guilt as a Central Theme in the Relationship Between Hannah and Michael

October 20, 2021 by Essay Writer

“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.

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 job.

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.


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