The Reader by Bernhard Schlink, Part 3



I promised an entry about the questions and thoughts The Reader generated for me. Let me just say that I still don't have a firm grasp on exactly what my thoughts are in regards to the subject matter of the book. I believe that a book that stays with you after reading and makes you wonder how you might react in the same sort of situation is the best kind of book, though.

While initially very disturbed by Hanna Schmitz's decision to become involved with a teenager, even one she assumes to be 17 and not his actual 15, I decided that, in many ways, she was actually more on a par with Michael than she would have been with someone her own age. At least as portrayed through his eyes in the book, she is working-class poor and very isolated, and, as he realizes during the trial, she's illiterate. By comparison, he comes from a background of relative wealth and education, and he has a strong family support system.

Even more horrifying is the discovery of her activities as a guard during the war. Not having been there and directly involved, I know I would like to think that I wouldn't have made the same decisions that she did, but how can I really know? If pushed into a decision between, say, my daughter's safety and speaking out on the behalf of strangers, what would I do? Yes, I would like to believe that I would take the path of decency, but I can't know that. And I know that I prefer not to face a real-world test.

Coming from my own solid middle-class, well-educated background, can I even fairly compare decisions I believe I would have made with Hanna's decisions, anyway? And, by the time the trial section of the novel ends, I wonder how much of Hanna's life is based on actual decisions and how much is going along with whatever happens to, and around, her.

Hanna isn't a monster. That's entirely too easy to portray concentration camp guards in that manner, anyway. She's just a regular person, one who seemingly struggles more with her illiteracy than with questions of morality and ethics. And, in a sense, would something beyond the day-to-day struggle to live be too much to expect from her?

I think that, while in a sense condeming her, Michael also works to make excuses for her because he loved Hanna. I think that's very human to justify our own choices and those of the ones we love. I wish I knew more about Hanna, what she really thought and felt, and I might also understand the choices she made and why. Since Michael can't know her true thoughts and motivations, neither can we.
I think a second book (The Listener?) written from her perspective could be even better than The Reader.

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