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“The Reader”, by Bernhard Schlink: Guilt and Shame

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“The Reader”, by Bernhard Schlink is set in postwar Germany and tells the story of fifteen-year-old Michael Berg and his affair with a woman named Hanna, who was twice his age. After some time, she disappears. When Michael next sees Hanna, he is a young law student and she is on trial for her work in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Their feelings of guilt and shame lead to Hanna’s tragic death near the end of the story. Bernhard Schlink is trying to portray these two emotions in his book as things that can destroy one’s life, and possibly the life of those around us. Examples of them can be found throughout the whole book. One of the first major examples is the shame that many adults, including Michael’s father, felt because of their tolerance and acceptance of the Nazi regime. The second is Michael’s feelings of guilt for “betraying” Hanna by not acknowledging her at the pool. The third example is the guilt that Michael feels for comparing his wife to Hanna. The fourth is Michael’s shame for having been in love with Hanna. The fifth, and possibly the most tragic example in the book is Hanna’s own shame of being illiterate.

During the time when the book was set, many parents lived in shame for tolerating the actions of the Nazi regime. Michael Berg explains how young people reacted to their parents as more and more was being discovered about Nazi atrocities by saying, “We all condemned our parents to shame, even if the only charge we could bring was that after 1945 they had tolerated the perpetrators in their mist”. (92) This shame prevented Michael’s father from ever creating a true bond with his children. Michael’s father was “…undemonstrative, and could neither share his feelings with us children, not could he deal with the feeling we had for him”. (139) Even though he was a philosophy professor who dealt with moral issues on a daily basis, Michael’s father, like many parents at the time, did not feel like he had any moral authority over his children. This left Michael, even after his father’s death, with the feeling that he was not properly taken care of by his father.

At one point in the story, Michael was at the pool with his friends, when he saw Hanna looking at him from a distance. He was not sure if she wanted to be seen with him, or if he wanted to be seen with her for that matter, so he did nothing. The day after this event, Hanna disappeared “Even worse than my physical desire, was my sense of guilt. Why hadn’t I jumped up immediately when she stood there and run to her!” (83) Michael later said. For years after Hanna’s disappearance, Michael blamed himself for Hanna leaving. He also struggled with his relationships because he tried very hard not to get emotionally involved, out of fear of being hurt, or even worse, hurting the other person.

Michael got married and had a daughter, yet he was not able to hold on to this marriage very long because of his own guilt. He could not stop “comparing the way it was with Gertrud, and the way it had been with Hanna”. (173) He felt so guilty that he chose to end his relationship with his wife, rather than trying to work things out or at least explain things to his wife. He divorced his wife when his daughter was five years old. It later tormented Michael that he deprived his daughter from the warmth and safety that she needed. He felt that he cheated his daughter of her rights by getting divorced. His feelings of guilt ruined his marriage.

During Hanna’s trial many of the atrocities that occurred in Auschwitz surfaced. Michael knew that Hanna could not have written the report, yet he did not tell the judge. He felt guilty and was also ashamed “of having loved a criminal”. (134) The guilt always haunted him on the inside, but the shame was the one that did not let Michael tell the judge. He could have saved Hanna from a long prison sentence, but chose not to act. He did not want the judge to see him trying to help someone who had been involved in any way with the concentration camps. He was even more ashamed of admitting to the judge that he once had a relationship with Hanna. Because he didn’t act, Hanna was sentenced to life in prison. After she committed suicide, Michael often blamed himself for Hanna’s death.

Perhaps the most tragic example in the book is Hanna’s shame of being illiterate. Michael always asked himself the question: “If Hanna’s motive was fear of exposure, why opt for the horrible exposure as a criminal over the harmless exposure as an illiterate”? (133) During the trial Hanna was accused of writing a report stating that she, among other guards in the camps, intentionally kept the doors of a burning church locked, while there were prisoners inside. Hanna first denied it, but the judge wanted to bring and expert to compare her handwriting to the one on the report. She then admitted to writing this report out of shame for her illiteracy. If she had admitted to being illiterate, she would have gotten a much lighter sentence, yet she chose not to because of shame. Hanna was sentenced to life in prison. Many years after the trial, the courts accepted her appeal and she was ordered to be released, but she hung herself the night before her release.

Through “The Reader”, the author attempts to show the reader the damage that guilt and shame can cause in one’s life. Michael’s father’s guilt scars him for life and leaves him feeling like he was never cared for by his father. Michael’s feelings of guilt for not acknowledging Hanna at the pool caused him to struggle with future relationships. His feelings of guilt for comparing his wife to Hanna lead to his divorce and made him feel even guiltier for making his daughter experience that. His shame of having been in love with Hanna prevented him from saving Hanna and left him feeling guilty of her death. Finally, Hanna’s shame of being illiterate sent her to prison and eventually leads to her death.

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