Analysis of The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

Analysis of ‘The Reader’, by Bernhard Schlink

The Reader – Bernard Schlink

Background

Analysis of ‘The Reader’ by Bernhard Schlink – ‘The Reader’ by Bernhard Schlink was a novel published in Germany in 1995. The English version was released in the US in 1997. The story which has many autobiographical elements deals with the problems the second generation had with understanding the Holocaust and also in handling second hand guilt which was very real. Books like The Reader helps the next generation come to terms with the past and understand their parents’ generation better. As perpetrators and victims alike die and living memory becomes hazy, many questions do not find ready answers.

The Reader met with an enthusiastic response both in Germany and in other countries. It has been translated into several languages and it is now prescribed for study in colleges as Holocaust literature. The book was made into a film which won an Oscar award for the best female actress.

Summary – Analysis of ‘The Reader’ by Bernhard Schlink

The story is set in post Germany somewhere between the late 1950s and the mid ‘90s. The story narrated by the protagonist Michael Berg is an account of a relationship he had with an older woman when he was a very young man and the long term emotional and psychological effects it had on him.

One October afternoon, fifteen year old Michael is sick on his way home. A strange woman comes to help him, cleans him up and helps him get home. Michael is sick for many months with hepatitis but when he recovers, he goes with some flowers to thank the woman who helped him. She did not expect him to visit, but lets him wait while she changes her clothes. From where Michael is, he can see her through an open door. When she notices him watching her undress she is annoyed but before she can react, he runs away.

Next week he comes back; this time she seduces him and they become lovers. Her name is Hanna Schmidt and she worked as a conductor in a tram. Michael regularly comes to her after school and she makes him read out to her from various books that he brings. This is a routine for them until August when she suddenly disappears leaving no address behind. Michael is devastated.

Analysis of ‘The Reader’ by Bernhard Schlink

After a few years, he sees her again when as law student, he attends a war trial where Hanna is one of the defendants. Michael is shocked to discover that as SS guards, she and the others accused had stood by when a large group of Jewish prisoners under their protection had burned to death in a locked church during an Allied bombing raid. The other guards, in an attempt to mitigate their own crime, pin the blame on Hanna saying that she was the leader of the guards and that it was she who wrote the report describing the incident and then signed it. Though she initially denies it when told to give a sample of her handwriting, she accepts the charge.

Michael realizes that she is illiterate but does not want to admit that. Michael remembers that when he used to offer her books to read she would never accept them saying that she preferred being read to. He doesn’t know whether he should help her by telling the judge her secret or keep silent since she does not want the world to know that she is illiterate. Michael finds it difficult to reconcile that the woman he loved was complicit in the killing of hundreds of prisoners under her care. He restrains himself from interfering in the case and Hanna receives a maximum sentence of life in prison.

Analysis of ‘The Reader’ by Bernhard Schlink

Some years down the line, Michael marries and has a daughter. But it is difficult for him to maintain a relationship with any woman as he was haunted by the desire and love he had for Hanna and his guilt regarding Hanna. He starts a project of recording his own reading of various books on cassettes for Hanna. Though he regularly mails these to her, he never writes or visits her. When Hanna has spent eighteen years in prison, the parole board decides she can be released.

Analysis of ‘The Reader’ by Bernhard Schlink

Michael undertakes the task to find some sort of accommodation and a job for her. He visits Hanna for the first time in prison on her last day there. The next morning when he goes there to collect her, they tell him she committed suicide. The warden gives him Hanna’s will in which she had left her life’s savings to the survivor of the burning church incident.

Michael travels to New York to honour Hanna’s last wishes. The daughter of the survivor who had written of the death march from Auschwitz can see the conflicting emotions in Michael when he speaks of Hanna. For the first time he speaks to someone of his relationship as a very young man with Hanna. Though the woman empathizes with him and understands how that one relationship has coloured all the others, she does not accept the money. Michael decides to donate the money in Hanna’s name to a Jewish organization that works to eradicate illiteracy. When he gets back to Germany, Michael visits Hanna’s grave.

Plot

Set between the 1950s and the mid 1990s, the main protagonist, Michael Berg narrates the story of a troubled relationship he had with a much older woman which made it impossible for him to connect with any other woman in his life.

Fifteen year old Michael Berg is on his way back home from school one October afternoon when he falls sick. An unknown woman helps him and sends him home. When he recovers after several months, he goes with some flowers to thank her. She did not expect to see him again but calls him inside. While she changes her clothes, Michael sees her though an open door. When the woman spots him watching her, he gets confused and embarrassed and runs away.

He visits her again in the following week; the woman seduces him and they become lovers. She is Hanna Schmidt and she is much older than Michael. He visits her every day and seeing his school books with him, she makes him read out to her. When he offers to lend her his books, she declines, saying she prefers to listen to him read. This routine continues till August when Hanna suddenly disappears. Michael is devastated.

Analysis of ‘The Reader’ by Bernhard Schlink

Michael sees Hanna again, under strange circumstances. He is now a law student and he is attending a war crime trial. A group of female SS guards are being tried for having wilfully caused the death of innocent prisoners who had been held in a church. The building catches fire during an Allied bombing raid. Though the women plead for the doors to be unlocked, the guards remain unmoved. Only a handful of the prisoners survive. Michael is horrified that Hanna was one of the guards charged with the crime.

The other guards in the group claim that Hanna was their leader and it was she who wrote and signed the report on the incident. Though Hanna refutes the charges first, when told to give a sample of her handwriting for comparison, she accepts the responsibility for the carnage. Michael slowly realizes that Hanna is illiterate but rather than admitting it, she takes on the blame for the massacre.

Michael is torn between the revulsion he feels for Hanna for being involved in the crime and the attraction he still has for her. For a brief moment he ponders whether he should tell the judge the truth about Hanna which would exonerate her from being the main accused. However, he decides to let law prevail and punish her for her crime.

Analysis of ‘The Reader’ by Bernhard Schlink

In a few years, Michael get married and has a daughter. But his past relationship with Hanna makes it difficult for him to connect with women in a lasting way and he and his wife part. Michael takes to recording his own readings of various books on cassettes and sends them to Hanna in prison. He never writes to her nor does he visit her. After eighteen years in prison, the parole board decides that Hanna is eligible for bail. The warden contacts Michael asking him whether he can help Hanna find some accommodation and a job. He agrees to do that and on her last day in prison, he visits her.

The next day when he comes to fetch her, he is told that she has committed suicide. She entrusted her life’s saving to Michael to be handed over to the daughter of the survivor of the carnage who testified against Hanna.

When he visits the US, he travels to New York to visit the daughter and hand over the money which had been stored in tea caddy by Hanna. She understands the conflict in Michael’s mind regarding Hanna and Michael speaks hesitantly of his relationship with Hanna. She refuses to accept the money but takes the tea caddy as it had belonged to her when she was in Auschwitz with her mother.

Michael decides to donate the money in Hanna’s name to a Jewish organization that works to eradicate illiteracy. On his return to Germany, he visits Hanna’s grave for the last time.

Characters – Analysis of ‘The Reader’ by Bernhard Schlink

Michael Berg

Michael Berg is a young man of fifteen when he has an affair with Hanna Schmidt who is much older. In this relationship, it is Hanna who plays the dominant role. Hanna has the power to hurt Michael physically, verbally and emotionally but he does not retaliate as he is too young. It is only when Hanna is in jail that the roles change. Michael’s relationships with all other women are coloured by his connection with Hanna. While he was deeply in love with her, for her it was just a physical relationship.

As a student of law Michael comes to know of the role Hanna played in the death of the prisoners and her cold reaction to the tragedy, Michael is filled with revulsion for her. He chooses not to reveal the fact that she was illiterate for two reasons – her wish to keep it a secret and the other was the hatred he felt towards her due to her crime. While he makes amends by helping her to read and write though indirectly, he cannot and will not do anything to mitigate her punishment. The catharsis for Michael comes at the end when having donated the money to the Jewish organization. He visits her grave.

Hanna Schmidt

Hanna is the thirty six year old woman who has an affair with Michael Berg when he is a very young man. Throughout the relationship, she is cold and unemotional. She is also physically abusive, hitting Michael with a leather strap till she draws blood. She exploits Michael’s love for her; forcing him to read extensively from his books before making love. But this crime pales before the crime for which she is imprisoned for life. She along with other SS guards had held nearly 300 Jewish women in a church which was hit in the Allied bombing.

As the church began to burn, the women pleaded with the guards to open the doors. But they remained unmoved and let the women die. But for Hanna this crime was less shameful than her illiteracy. If she had told the judge that she was illiterate and could not have written the report, she would have been treated like the other guards. But she chooses not to reveal her illiteracy. Once in prison, with the help of Michael’s cassettes she teaches herself to read and write. She wishes to hear from him, see him but he comes only on the last day of her imprisonment. But the final punishment for her is yet to be; she is her own judge and executioner.

Themes – Analysis of ‘The Reader’ by Bernhard Schlink

Guilt

Guilt in different forms is the predominant theme in The Reader. Right from the time when Michael forms a special friendship with Sophie and neglects Hanna to some extent, guilt is woven into Michael’s emotions. The sight of Hanna in the court where she is arraigned triggers off the guilt of having loved a criminal. He remembers the violence she is capable of and her cold and unemotional nature. Her love for Michael was exploitative. When Michael realizes Hanna is illiterate and could not have written and signed the report as made out by the other guards. He is in a position to help but he chooses not to interfere in the process of law adding to his burden of guilt.

Michael’s way of atoning is sending Hanna the recordings of his readings. For Hanna this is an immense source of solace. When he confesses to the daughter of the Holocaust survivor, Michael is able to share and lessen his guilt. But catharsis for him has to wait till he visits Hanna’s grave.

Holocaust

Holocaust refers to the mass destruction of Jewish lives by the Nazis before and during WWII. All over parts of Europe under German rule, Jews were hunted down. Their fabled wealth confiscated. Their houses looted and the people were thrown into concentration camps where they were subjected to hard labour. Millions of Jews were gassed to death in an act of genocide which the world had not seen till then.

Holocaust and German guilt regarding it especially among the second generation has formed a constant theme in German literature in the late 20th and 21st centuries. In the mid 1900s many war crime trials were conducted by Germans. On the Germans who were part of the war time Nazi establishment. Children of Nazi supporters and also those who had assumed a passive role often accused their parents of being complicit in the genocide.

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