The Reader: a review

Kate Winslet and David Cross in a bath scene from The Reader (2008) - Stephen Daldry

“The Reader” by Bernhard Schlink

Can a person change for the better? It’s a question many of us ask ourselves, and one which is central to Bernhard Schlink’s “The Reader.” The main theme of “The Reader” is forgiveness. In the book, Schlink conveys the message that knowledge is power, and that one should atone for his or her mistakes no matter the cost. The story is about a young boy (Michael) in post-war Germany who falls in love and has sexual encounters with a mysterious older woman (Hanna.) Unbeknownst to him, the woman has a past with a lot of secrets – one of which is that she is illiterate. Another is that she used to be a SS guard in a concentration camp during the Second World War. Nevertheless, Hanna tries to seek forgiveness for what she has done when she is sentenced to prison, and learns to read – uncovering in her reading the full extent of the horrors of the Holocaust. The author shows Hanna change her behavior in three ways: she atones for what she has done, she seeks forgiveness and she becomes more knowledgeable.

With knowledge there comes power, and with power comes responsibility. Hanna’s story illustrates this. After teaching herself how to read and write, she begins to read books about World War 2 and the Holocaust. When Michael looks inside of Hanna’s prison cell, he sees her bookshelf filled with books about survivors who lived through the concentration camps such as Primo Levi, Jean Amery, Tadevsz Borowski and Elie Wiesel, as well as the autobiography of Rudolf Hess, Hanna Arendt’s report on Eichmann in Jerusalem, and scholarly literature on the camps. This bibliography shows that Hanna wanted to understand the evil she had helped to perpetuate within the concentration camps. At the time, she hadn’t realized what she was doing – she simply believed she was helping with the war effort. In the eighth chapter of the third part, Michael goes to pay her a visit, after receiving a letter concerning her release. They have a conversation about whether she regrets her past. She says, “I always… Here in prison they were with me a lot. They came every night, whether I wanted them or not. Before the trail, I could still chase them away when they wanted to come.” This quote reveals that Hanna’s thoughts of the dead did not start haunting her until she learned more about the Holocaust. From then on, she begins to regret the crimes she has committed. After she learns about her role in these crimes, she accepts the responsibility to interpret her past actions and respond.

Atonement is the act of reparation or expiation – it is paying for mistakes in the past and hoping to be forgiven. An example of Hanna’s desire to atone is when the prison warden tells Michael what Hanna has done with the tapes which Michael recorded for her (of Michael reading classic literature.) The warden says, “Frau Schmitz (Hanna) always lent some tapes to the aid society for blind prisoners.” This shows that Hanna wants to help people with disabilities – and symbolically, it reflects Hanna’s own blindness to the harm she was causing. Another illustration to prove this point is Hanna’s transformation throughout the course of the novel. She used to take good care of herself and was very well respected by other inmates. But when she becomes more knowledgeable about her deeds, she begins to let herself go, and stops bathing. She loses the respect of the other inmates. This shows she has given up on herself and on her sense of dignity – she only wants to atone for what she has done.

Seeking forgiveness is an act that can be performed in many different ways. Hanna tries to seek forgiveness by allowing herself to be sent to prison for twenty years. But she does more. For instance, after she passes away in the tenth chapter of the 3rd part, she leaves a letter to the warden that tells Michael to give a tin box along with 7000 German Marks (which what was left in her bank account) to a young woman who survived a fire in a church set by the Nazis. Michael goes to New York to fulfill Hanna’s request. The woman takes the tin box, which has symbolic value to her, but she doesn’t forgive Hanna, telling Michael to give the money to a Jewish organization that teaches people to read. The survivor shows Michael that Hanna can be forgiven in a different way, by donating money to help people who are also illiterate. Hanna’s final act seeking forgiveness is her suicide. What is symbolic about this is that the knowledge she gains through her reading opens her eyes to the atrocities she committed. So she kills herself to seek forgiveness from all the people she helped kill during the war. This shows that Hanna was committed to seeking forgiveness in any way she could.

Our history defines us and it can help shape our future. Throughout history, people like Napoleon, Ceaser and Hitler used knowledge to manipulate people and to inspire the masses to their advantage. If Hanna knew how to read and write, she could have been more of a free thinker and known what she was doing in those concentration camps was wrong. Knowledge, then, both empowers and destroys.

-Lukas Knecht-Boyer