The Reader Schlink Essay Outline

  • 1

    Why do you think Hanna was so ashamed of not being able to read, and was her shame enough of a reason to become a guard in the SS?

    Hanna was deeply ashamed of her illiteracy, probably because she seems to value education so highly, and is therefore frustrated that the one thing she values, she does not have. Not being able to read probably also suggests a background from which she was anxious to escape. She is not a stupid woman and has the intelligence to understand the plots and meanings of the books that Michael is reading to her, and so is clearly capable of learning. She is not, however, capable of seeing what keeping her illiteracy hidden is doing to her life, as she misses out on several promotions during Michael's relationship with her, and it is anxiety of being promoted, and therefore revealed as illiterate, that prompts her to leave the Siemens factory and sign up as a guard. Wanting to keep your illiteracy a secret is not a good reason for becoming an SS guard, and becoming complicit in the torture and murder of prisoners, although it is unlikely that this is what she believed she would be doing when she signed up, probably believing she would be a prison guard in the accepted sense, guarding those who had transgressed and were in prison being punished for their actions.

  • 2

    Do you think Hanna seems to have remorse for her actions in the war?

    Hanna is very defensive, and also wants the facts to be reported honestly and accurately. This is why she is brutally honest about what she did, and about what happened, and this can make her look heartless, and remorseless. She seems to lack the humanity to realize what she was a part of; to Hanna, she was ordered to fulfill a task, that of marching her "prisoners" as instructed, and this is what she did. She did not question it, or think about it afterwards. She did not make the connection with the fact that her part in the death march and the fire that burned all but two prisoners to death was in any way her fault, and her excuse for not unlocking the church door was that she would have been making it easier for the prisoners to escape, which she had expressly been told not to do. It's hard to see remorse in a woman who fell back on the popular Nazi excuse of "just following orders". It can be argued that she felt some remorse as the first books she read after learning how to read were all about the Holocaust, and the death camps, so it is possible that she had not realized the bigger picture of what had been going on and wanted to educate herself, and make herself stare her own evil in the face. Similarly, leaving her money to the survivor of the fire could be seen as remorse, but it could also be seen as an effort to appease her own need to feel better about what she did and to get some kind of public recognition of being remorseful. Overall, she does not seem to have any truly genuine remorse for her actions at all.

  • 3

    Does Michael make excuses for Hanna?

    Michael does seem to search for excuses that explain some of Hanna's actions, but they are not so much excuses for her as for him; he feels very guilty that he loved a woman who was a death camp guard and a murderer, but by attributing a spark of humanity and kindness to her in her treatment of the prisoners he is also making it possible for himself to feel redeemed for loving her. For example, he tells himself that Hanna selected the weakest and sickest prisoners to read to her because she knew they were going to be killed and she wanted to make their last few days more bearable by giving them an easy, indoor job to do that required no manual labor. He also tells himself that she bequeathed her money to the survivor of the fire as an act of remorse, not as an act of appeasement for all of those who saw her as a monster.

  • These notes were contributed by members of the GradeSaver community. We are thankful of their contributions and encourage you to make your own.

    Michael Berg is a German who has grown up very aware of what was perpetrated by the Nazis during the Third Reich, and like many young men his age feels anger and shame which he directs mostly at his parents' and grandparents' generation for sitting by and enabling it to happen. Michael begins the novel by telling the reader that as a fifteen-year-old boy he became involved with a woman in her mid-thirties, and that he has remained infatuated with her memory ever since. Going home from school one afternoon, he began to feel nauseous and vomited violently all over himself; a woman sees him and brings him into her apartment to clean him up before he goes home. He has hepatitis and is sick for some time, but when he is feeling better his mother dispatches him to the woman's apartment so that he can thank her properly. The woman is busy with errands but Michael finds himself strangely attracted to her and runs out of the apartment like a child.

    When Michael returns, he helps her by bringing coal up to the apartment but is so covered in dirt from it that she runs him a bath. Seeing each other naked they are drawn inexplicably to each other. From that day Michael goes to her every day. She shares with him only the bare facts of her life; her name is Hanna, she is a conductor on the street car and she lives alone. She also loves Michael to read aloud to her which he does every day. Hungry to spend more time together, Michael tells his parents he is taking a short trip with a friend during the summer vacation, but he is actually going on a trip with Hanna. He maps out their route, prepares their bicycles and makes all the plans. They both greatly enjoy the trip and it seems to increase their addiction to each other even more.

    In the Fall, Michael goes back to school, where he makes more friends and is moderately attracted to a classmate called Sophie. He enjoys her company and enjoys being with his friends at the local swimming pool where the kids congregate. One afternoon he looks up and sees Hanna on the other side of the pool. She doesn't wave and when he looks again she has gone. Michael feels guilty for not having gone over to speak to her and so he goes to her apartment but finds that she has upped and left without saying a word.

    The next time Michael sees Hanna, he is a law student and she is on trial for Nazi war crimes. During the war she was an SS guard at Auschwitz and along with three other women guarded Jewish prisoners on a "death march" through a village that was long deserted. The church was empty, as were the cleric's living quarters. The guards took the cleric's house for themselves and locked the prisoners in the church, but the church caught on fire and nobody could escape. None of the guards unlocked the doors. Only two people - a mother and her daughter - survived. The daughter wrote a book about their experiences which enabled authorities to identify Hanna and the other guards and bring them to justice. Michael is a law student whose class is studying the trial so he is present in court every day. He realizes that Hanna cannot read and joined the SS to avoid the promotion in her job that would reveal her illiteracy. Hanna comes over as remorseless and brutal in court. She is sentenced to eighteen years in prison. Michael continues to send her cassettes of him reading aloud and she responds back after a year or two with scratchy penmanship - he realizes she has learned to read and write in prison.

    Almost eighteen years later, the prison warden contacts Michael and asks him to help Hanna acclimate to the outside world when she is released; however when he goes to pick her up he learns that she hung herself the evening before. She has left instructions that her money should be bequeathed to the surviving daughter from the burning church. Michael takes the money to her but she wants only the tea canisters it was kept in. He decides to donate the money to a Jewish literacy program in her name.

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