Reader Essay

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Bernhard Schlink ‘The Reader’ Schlink uses the relationship between his two central characters to explore German guilt and the legacy and shared responsibility passed from one generation to the next. ‘…the pain I went through because of my love for Hanna was, in a way, the fate of my generation, a German fate.’ He struggles to reconcile the conflicting images of the Hanna he loved, a strong, feminine figure who smells of soap and sweat, with his post-trial images of her as a ‘cruel and impervious’ SS guard capable of murder. With Hanna’s fall from grace and Michael’s loss of innocence Schlink captures Germany’s downfall after the Second World War. Once a figure of national pride, the motherland became shrouded in guilt and shame after the war ended and the horrors of the Holocaust were exposed. Just as Hanna’s acts changed the way Michael saw her, so too Germany’s war crimes had a lasting effect on how it was perceived by subsequent generations and the world at large. Michael’s harsh view of Hanna is tempered when he realises that she is hiding another secret, her illiteracy, which she is willing to protect at any cost, even if it means serving a life sentence. Hanna’s illiteracy offers explanations for a lot of unanswered questions about her unpredictable behaviour during their affair, why she insisted he read to her and why she left so suddenly. More importantly, it offers a logical explanation about why she entered the SS, why she singled certain girls out as ‘favourites’ and why she is willing to admit that she wrote the report that implicates her as the ringleader in the church fire that killed hundreds of Jewish women. With his realisation Hanna is partially vindicated but Michael becomes implicated. Now he must decide whether to betray Hanna by exposing her secret to the judge, which would undoubtedly shorten her sentence, or whether to stand idly by as

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