The reader is a novel by the German author Bernard Schlink. Schlink, a German law teacher by profession wrote this story about a German boy and his experiences in his young years, and how it has affected his personality in his adulthood. It was a story which is connected with the World War, with Germany being one of the antagonists. But this is not about the struggle with Germany against other countries; instead, it is more of an internal issue, of how things went for the people in the country after the war. And this was all reflected through the eyes of a three-staged man, Michael Berg, and his life experiences.
The first part of the story was more on the young Michael Berg. As the main character, it was in his perspective that the story unfolds. This part takes place in an unnamed city in Germany, where Michael Berg was only 15 years old. While on his way home, the young Michael got sick. This is when he meets the 35-year old Hanna Schmitz. This tram conductor took care of the sick Michael, cleaning him up and helping him get home. He became bed-ridden for a few weeks, and when he finally gets well, his mother tells him to visit the person who helped him.
During his visit, he Michael realized that he was attracted to Hanna, the woman even caught him having a glimpse while she is getting dressed. When he returns to visit again, she asks him to get some coal, which surely leaves him dirty. Because of that, Hanna bathes him, and they end up making love. Michael returned regularly, marking the start of their somewhat unique affair. They followed a certain routine, having baths then making love, and it is frequent that Hanna would ask Michel to read to her aloud several German Literature books.
But after a few months of their odd affair, Hanna grew cold and left. She leaves Michael without any trace. Michael thought that Hanna left because of his lack of attention, eventually thought that their relationship ended because of him, that it was his fault. His outlook in life was changed, affecting his every relationship with other women.
The second part of the story happens eight years later in Michael’s life. Michael Berg is already in law school, taking part on various observations on several war crimes trial. In one of the trials, he encounters a group of women in their middle ages being tried for the death of several Jewish women burned in a church. The happenings at that time were recorded through the writings of one of the few survivors, and were considered as the star witness of the case. These middle-aged women being tried served as guards at a Nazi camp during the war. But what surprised Michael the most was when he found Hanna inside the trial court – as one of the defendants of the case.
This greatly puzzled Michael’s mind. He was unaware that he fell in love with a criminal, someone involved in mass murders and the Holocaust. He can’t understand why Hanna is so strong-willed that she is taking all the responsibility of what happened to those people, taking the blame all by herself. Because of her acceptance of the case, pleading guilty of all the charges, she has been convicted to a life in prison.
Because of what happened to her, Michael took his time to analyze his feelings, to evaluate everything that has happened between him and Hanna. He clearly thinks of things about her. Then he came to a realization: Hanna was protecting something even deeper than being a Nazi guard or an instrument of mass murder – he realized that Hanna is illiterate. All became clear to him, why she would always ask him to read German Literature works, why it has been part of their routine, to have sex and to read. She was interested in the literary works, but was to ashamed of the fact that she can’t read or write, that’s why she has to limit her interests through hearing it from someone who is reading it. She can’t bear to expose that secret, even if it would cost her freedom or her life.
The third part of the story revolves on his renewed acquaintance with Hanna. He didn’t lose interest in her because of what happened. Instead, he gave all his efforts to reach out to her. This is through sending her some books and literary works, along with the audio-taped readings that he made for her. Through this effort, along with her own attempts to learn to read and write, she was able to do so.
The sad part of the story came when she ends her own life, on the day before her release in 1984. The jail warden told Michael that Hanna has read a lot of writings by Holocaust survivor authors, and that it may have contributed to her committing suicide. After looking through her things, he found a note that tells him to leave all the money and possessions that she has to the one who wrote about what happened in the burnt church, the person who was the key to her trial and conviction. Hanna’s conscience cannot deal with the living people whom she had been an instrument to make them suffer.
The story ended with Michael, visiting the woman who wrote the memoirs that pressed the conviction on Hanna. Michael followed what Hanna instructed regarding her possessions, but the woman didn’t accept it, instead she said that it is better to give it to a Jewish charity. Michael gave it to a charity that helps illiterate people. The woman was finally able to forgive Hanna, and at the end, Michael visits for the first and last time the grave of a dear person, Hanna Schmitz.
There are several points of discussion in the story, The Reader. One of the most surfaced topics is what happened to Germany and its people after the war. The reader is a clear reflection of the aftermath of the World War. It is not about who lost lives or properties or who killed whom, but it is about what you believe in and whether the war has changed that belief or not.
For the people who have suffered under the Holocaust, they would think that every culprit, every Nazi body would deserve to be beaten to death. After the war, it was them who became marginalized. Those who believed differently would surely look odd when they are mixed with people who believe in the same things. This is what happened to Hanna. Her life became attached to what has happened during the times of war, and she was unable to face the right direction, up until she learned to read, with the help of Michael Berg.
Germany at that time was suffering an internal conflict. There are still those who can’t accept change, or is not open-minded with regards to that topic. But as new generations arise, people’s thinking tends to be different from what they were used to. That’s why there is a generation gap between the two. And the embodiment of that generation gap is no other than Michael and Hanna. They were engaged in an affair yet they seem to be so far away from each other. Living in the times of war and living in the time after it is different from each other.
Another point of discussion is the issue about illiteracy. It is possible that people like Hanna do exist. They live devoid of the knowledge that they could acquire from reading or writing. There were those who were born in the times of war who can’t afford to study since they are always running for their lives. At birth, they didn’t have the concept of education from other people, or learning to communicate in another form which is writing. All they consider at that time is survival, since if you’re not that eager to survive, you would surely die at times of war. That is why most of them became illiterate. But the tides have already changed. Literacy had been another factor of the generation gap. If the people before were only thinking about surviving, the people of today are thinking of how they would be able to learn new things. Putting oneself in Hanna’s shoes, it is truly embarrassing to be the only one which doesn’t know how to read or even write her own name. But that didn’t stop Michael from helping her. There are other ways, as long as you are willing to learn, then you will.
Another issue that the novel has aroused was the morality of the story. Why would a woman in her full sense of sanity hit on someone more than half of her age? But what I think what was being depicted by the relationship of the two is that they are representing the various age brackets of the people. The age gap depicted the generation gap, how they were so far away from each other yet they have met, and they have had a past worth treasuring.
Book Browse. “The Reader”. 2005. BookBrowse.com. June 7 2007. <http://www.bookbrowse.com/reading_guides/detail/index.cfm?book_number=418>.