The Reader, by Bernhard Schlink
is a three part post-war German novel, written from the perspective of an older
Michael Berg reflecting on his younger life through his documented memories.
Part one depicts a fifteen-year-old Michael Berg and his sexual relationship
with a thirty-year-old ex-Nazi woman named Hanna. Later in part one we discover
that she has disappeared. Part two is set in Michael’s young adult years, where
he reencounters Hanna, who, to his horror, is a defendant in a case against
Hanna for her work in Auschwitz concentration camp. Soon after we learn of
Hanna’s real past, and the crimes that she committed as a Nazi officer. Part 3
represents Michael’s latter years. We learn of his professional successes, his
personal problems which arise by his earlier experiences with Hanna, and his
light contact with Hanna through the form of cassette tapes, who is now
imprisoned. At the heart of The Reader is the theme of guilt. Specifically, the
guilt associated with the aftermath of the Holocaust, the mass murder of over
six million Jews, Romani, homosexuals, and communists in Europe during the Nazi
regime, 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 it
explores the theme of guilt, through different ideas, such as the
intergenerational and collective guilt, the numbness to guilt, and the
complexity of guilt.The theme of guilt is explored
through the symbolism of Michael his dad’s relationship, specifically the idea
of dealing with intergenerational guilt. Intergenerational guilt, or guilt
relating to, involving, or affecting several generations was a big issue for
the author. Schlink, himself a second generation post-war German, wrote this
book in a time where many siblings lived in a deep sense of shames for their
parents allowing the atrocities of the war to happen. Michael explains that the
people of his generation “condemned their parents to shame, even if the only
charge that his generation could bring was that after 1945 his parents’
generation had tolerated the perpetrators in their midst”. This guilt was
often an obstacle for parent’s wanting to create a true bond with their
children. For instance, Michael’s father was “undemonstrative, and could
neither share his feelings with his children, nor could he deal with the
feelings my siblings and I had for him”, and even though he was a professor
of philosophy, who would often deal with morality, Michael’s father “didn’t
feel like he had any authority over his children”. For these reasons, Michael
does not feel as though he can forgive his parents, yet he struggles with the
fact that he needs their love. Michael also holds his own generation
responsible for being complacent with their parents, some of whom were a part
of Hitler’s regime, and the many others who were blind sheep. Michael believes
that loving his father would “make his generation irrevocably complicit in
his 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 his
nation. For Michael, loving his father will only ultimately contributes to the
collective inheritance of guilt passed from generation to generation, the
unavoidable German fate of guilt. Almost as a defence mechanism, Michael’s
generation, fuelled from guilt from what their parents have done, they go into
a frenzy of trying everyone involved in the Holocaust through the judicial
system to desperately try rid themselves of the intergenerational guilt. The
guilt arising from the Holocaust causes Michael’s generation to be torn between
love for their parents and the moral obligation of condemning them for their
complicity.  Yet Schlink has shown
through Michael and his complicated relationship with his father and the
previous generation, that guilt is not something that is easy to deal with.The Reader explores the idea that
the first generation of post-war Germany are numb to guilt, shown through the
symbolism of Hanna’s illiteracy. One of Hanna’s most important characteristics,
along with the fact that she represents the first generation of post-war
Germany, is that she is illiterate. This illiteracy serves as a metaphor for
her generation’s inability to truly read the real intent, evils, or even
existence of the Holocaust. Upon Michael reflecting of the impact of Hanna’s
illiteracy at her trial, he realises that for the lengths that Hanna went to
hide it, she could have spent the same amount of effort on trying to solve the
issue. Rather than address the issue at hand, Hanna chose to hide it, which
ultimately led her to work for the SS, and fails to understand the harm she
inflicts on others. This is parallel to those of Hanna’s generation who
contributed, or simply turned a blind eye to the Nazis’ true agenda could have spent
that same effort trying to understand why they were targeting the Jews, yet
instead stood silently, and willingly agreed either passively or actively to
commit the mass murder of the holocaust, without considering the ramifications
of their actions, or simply not caring enough about the consequences to
intervene. We also learn that whilst Hanna is imprisoned for her crimes, she
teaches herself to read, and learns about the concentration camps through
Holocaust literature from the library in the jail. Hanna’s new ability to read
is an important metaphor, as it demonstrates that there is always the
possibility of remorse through understanding what she has done. It is only by
overcoming her illiteracy, that Hanna is capable of understanding her role as a
contributor 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 the
ramifications of their actions, that they can truly lose their numbness of
their guilt, and seek reconciliation with their past. Schlink’s book reaches a
violent climax, Hanna taking her own life, only days before she is released
from jail It could be argued that as she finally understood the ramifications
of her actions, and was no longer numb to the guilt of what she had done, Hanna
simply couldn’t come to terms with her actions of the past, and decided that
she didn’t not have the capacity to deal with her past.Complexity of guilt is explored
through the characterisation of Hanna. Hanna’s character is built up of many
contrasts, representing the conflicting and complex psychological ordeal of
dealing with guilt. For instance, our first encounter of Hanna is when Michael
is sick, and throws up in an alley. But “when rescue came, it was almost an
assault,” “the woman seized Michael’s arm and pulled him through the dark
entryway into the courtyard”. Hanna is concerned and caring of Michael, but she
is also demanding and firm. She is not gentle, but she is not unhospitable
either. We also see in her physical characterisation more contradictions. For
instance, Michael describes Hanna as “soft to the touch”, but “the body beneath
it strong and reliable”. This juxtaposed physical description further
highlights the complexity of Hanna’s character. Moreover, Hanna is introduced
as Michael’s lover, so we feel sympathetic for her. If she were introduced as
an ex-Nazi, we wouldn’t have those same emotions for her. If Hanna is a
representation of the first post-war generation, is it a mere coincidence that
her character is so complex and nuanced? No. Schlink is conveying the message
that 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 binary
composition. Guilt is not just black and white.

At the heart of Bernhard Schlink’s
The 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 the
surface level emotion. There is the collective and intergenerational guilt, the
numbness and failure to understand guilt, and the complexity of the emotion and
how we deal with it. Schlink has purposefully used symbols of relationships and
characterisations and explored the theme of guilt to represent a deeper
underlying issue. It is the fact that not only sufferers of the Holocaust are
victims of Hitler, but in reality his first victims were the German people. Schlink
explores the theme of Guilt in a way that shows the collective and
intergenerational guilt of Germans from the atrocities of World War 2 is a
nuanced and complex emotion, and is not easy to deal with.

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