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Themes in “The Reader” by Bernhard Schlink Essay

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Updated: Jun 10th, 2020


Authored by Bernhard Schlink, The Reader is a captivating novel that captures an affair between Michael, a 15-year-old, and Hanna who was more than twenty years old. The masterpiece is set in the 1950s, shortly after the Second World War. The relationship between the two characters is a depiction of the connection between the wartime generation and the post-war generation. The story is divided into three parts. The first section addresses Michael and Hanna’s meeting together with the affair that developed between them. The affiliation ends because of the abrupt departure of Hanna. The second part is where they meet again during Hanna’s trial. These circumstances are not ideal for the couple. The final part of the story depicts Michael sending audio correspondence to Hanna, despite the fact that she could not read it. She was awaiting her release. This paper examines the novel, the different themes, and literary elements found in it.


Michael Berg is a fifteen-year-old boy who lives in west Germany in 1958. He is recovering from hepatitis. He falls sick on the road one day. He meets Hanna Schmitz who is more than double his age. He later returns to her apartment to thank her. This scenario marks the beginning of an affair. They begin a ritual of making love, showering, and reading books. With his innocence gone, Michael finds it hard to stay away from her. He starts to skip classes to make love to Hanna. He falls deeply in love with her. She finds out about his missing school and becomes very agitated, insisting that he has to attend all his classes.

As much as Michael loves Hanna, she does not love him back. He begins to spend more time with friends and other girls just like a typical teenage boy. He feels guilty of not introducing Hanna to his friends. His group of friends mostly meets at the pool where Hanna appears one afternoon. Michael does not approach her. Instead, he turns to the other side, only to find her gone. Hanna then leaves and quits her job without telling Michael. This move leaves him with feelings of guilt, wondering whether he drove her away. He spends years meditating about the life he lived when he was with her, although the memories fade with time (Schlink 192).

Michael studies law, but does not get into practice. Rather, he prefers to become a researcher of legal history. In an academic seminar, he is tasked with hearing criminal cases from the Nazi regime. He is astonished to find Hanna being on trial for killing prisoners in a fire as an SS guard. Hanna fails to defend herself properly. She bewilders people in the court for her constant self-incrimination. Hanna admits to filing a report that she had denied working on it before. Finally, Michael comes to the realization that Hanna is illiterate and that she is going to great lengths to hide it.

He is faced with the dilemma of exposing her illiteracy to reduce her sentence (Schlink 215). When in prison, Michael reads books on tape-record and sends them to Hanna. Sometimes, he receives a thank you note from her. Years later, he is informed of her upcoming release since he is her only contact to the outside world. He secures a job and an apartment for her, although he does not directly communicate with her. On her last night in prison, she hangs herself in her cell. Michael then donates money in Hanna’s name to the Jewish League Against Illiteracy before visiting her grave for the first and last time.


One of the themes depicted in the novel is guilt. An instance where guilt is portrayed is when Hanna quits her job and leaves without informing Michael. He is guilty for acting as if he did not recognize her at the pool. He feels like it is him who drove her away. Guilt is also shown after Hanna’s death when Michael feels tormented by thoughts of having denied her. Throughout the novel, Hanna seems to have no guilt over any of her actions in general and particularly towards Michael. However, her sense of subconscious guilt is shown through her constant need to do washing and cleaning. Their schedule has been ritualized into making love, showering, and reading. The showering is emphasized to bring out the theme of guilt.

War guilt is an idea that is very prevalent in the novel. The guilt is faced by both the wartime generation and the post-war age group. Michael and Hanna represent the two different generations. He is guilty because of her actions. The numbness felt by Michael and the rest in the trial is a representation of ordinary Germans trying to distance themselves from the actions of the previous generation. He then suffers a fever that frees him from the numbness. This situation represents the need for the Germans to face the past in order to recover (Schlink 18).

Another theme represented in the novel is blame. Guilt attracts the need to put the blame on someone. The younger generation blames the older one to absolve itself from guilt. During her trial, Hanna blames her orders to guard the prisoners for making her unable to unlock the burning church. She fails to show remorse on her part. However, she is humanized when she finally admits guilt and feels haunted by the victims of the holocaust.

The novel seems to communicate the need for Germany to accept its guilt before it can move on. Hanna shows cruelty and abuse by making the prisoners read for her. This behavior has prolonged the execution, thus giving prisoners a sense of desperation when reading for her to avoid death. She also turns violent whenever she feels she is losing control. Therefore, she uses sex to control Michael who is far younger than her (Schlink 70). She feels threatened whenever she is confronted with her illiteracy.

Her illiteracy also brings out the theme of shame. In her fear of it being exposed, she manipulates Michael to make it seem like a romantic gesture. Hanna becomes infuriated and violent when he writes her a note and creeps out to get her a rose and breakfast because she cannot read. He puts her in a situation where she feels vulnerable. Hanna also fails to defend herself against murder charged in the fear of having her illiteracy unraveled. Her shame controls her actions in the courtroom. To ensure that her illiteracy is not found out, she admits writing a report that she actually did not develop (Schlink 214).

Lack of moral awareness has also been predominant in the novel through illiteracy. Since meeting Michael, Hanna has been shown to lack the feeling of guilt, despite her actions confirming that she is remorseful. Besides seducing an underage boy, she is involved in the murder of prisoners in a church. Without notice, she also leaves Michael. She makes helpless prisoners read for her (Schlink 146). At this point, she is uneducated. However, when she goes to prison, she begins to learn how to read and write and even sends an appreciation note to Michael. Due to this newly found knowledge, Hanna begins to show feelings of guilt and facing her actions. Finally, guilt overwhelms her until she hangs herself on her last night in prison.

First Person Point of View

Schlink uses a first person point view or rather the author’s perspective to narrate the fictional story. The author’s point of view is normally used in autobiographical novels to allow readers to have an in-depth understanding of the themes of the novel through the emotions and thoughts of the narrator. This writing style has been used by several authors such as Harper Lee in To A Kill a Mockingbird and Ernest Hemingway in The Sun also Rises to help the audiences have a first-hand account of the characters’ dialogue. In The Reader, the main character in the text, Michael Berg narrates the story. Eventually, in the last chapter, the protagonist asserts that he wrote the narrative. The meta-fictional component combined with the authoritative skills creates an artificial sincerity of the content.

Through the first person point of view technique, readers can note the sympathetic nature of Michael, particularly how he talks about Hanna. He becomes isolated, emotionally detached, and egotistic. Moreover, through his narration, it is evident that he is learned, unlike Hanna who is an illiterate Nazi war perpetrator. The audiences’ understanding of Hanna is limited by Michael’s perspective. He portrays the offender, Hanna, as the victim of war since she commits the atrocities due to her illiteracy. Moreover, Michael introduces her as a woman of good personality, hence encouraging the readers to have a positive predisposition of Hanna. The author also uses a language, which is lucid and blunt at crucial parts of the plot, for instance, when introducing a chapter. The first statement in chapter seven reads, “The next night I fell in love with her” (Schlink 27). This simple language boosts the substance of his writing. The short chapters also make it easy for readers to follow and understand the plot.


The element of metaphor is intense in The Reader. The use of metaphor is not only artistic but also enables the reader to have a profound insight on the message the writer seeks to communicate. Interpretation of metaphors often differs depending on the context and object used. For instance, when Shakespeare writes that “Juliet is the sun” in Romeo, the meaning can be decoded from the plot of the text. Metaphors allow the readers to envisage the authors’ intention through a figure, which they (readers) are quite conversant with.

Schlink uses the unbalanced relationship between Michael and Hanna to portray the asymmetrical link between junior and senior Germans after the Nazi war. Michael confesses that the agony he endures because of his intimate relationship with Hanna is only comparable to the pain of post Nazi conflict generation (Schlink 27). Hanna’s illiteracy also acts as a metaphor of women who concealed the criminal acts of their spouses during the war. She seeks to disguise her illiteracy from the public just as women strived to keep the deadly activities of their husbands furtive. Moreover, the concept of illiteracy is a metaphorical depiction of the unawareness that influenced the ordinary citizens to engage in heinous crimes.Germans lacked the moral literacy to notice that mass murder of the Jewish population was immoral (Schlink 146).

Additionally, the intimate and maternal relationship between Hanna and Michael represents the generation during the Nazi war and after the conflict. The use of Hannah’s relationship reveals that just like any member of the second German generation, Germans could ultimately heal if they came to terms with the Holocaust happenings. Michael is a part of the second-generation people who are haunted by the events of fascism. However, unlike the old generation, these people do not amenably blame Nazism on their parents. Through the artistic power of metaphor, the audiences can compare how the second-generation people blame their parents to Michael’s pain caused by his lover, Hanna.

The parable also creates a moral dilemma, particularly when sued for her criminal acts during the Nazi war. Michael explains that her actions are influenced by her illiteracy. It is evident that she regrets her actions. One wonders whether she should be absolved. Michael expresses his difficulty in balancing how to empathize with her and/or condemn her. Condemning her would mean betraying his affection to her (Schlink 28). Second-generation Germans were crippled with the dilemma of reproaching their parents as appalling acts of fascism were revealed. Schlink utilizes his legal knowledge through the protagonist to address the ethical dilemma and German culture. The author strives to revive the ‘Väterliteratur’ model of the rapport between Nazi war perpetrators and the post-war generations.

Reception and Criticism

The Reader received a positive reception from readers all over the world. In Germany, it sold more than half a million copies. It was also accorded several literary awards. It was also listed fourteenth among Germans most popular books. Despite its worldwide positive reception, the book has had an equal share of criticisms. In particular, most readers criticize how the novel exonerates an SS soldier who is responsible for assassinating more than 300 Jews. By failing to sternly condemn the perpetrators of the mayhems, the author breaches a moral limit.

The author’s strategy of using the notion of illiteracy to seek empathy on the perpetrators is misleading. Germans must have been aware that Adolf Hitler intended to kill the Jews. In fact, Hitler shared the information with the public through media stations. Hence, Germans participated in the Nazi war out of their volition but not illiteracy. Michael should have harshly reproached Hanna for her actions, rather than empathizing with her. The victims of fascism in this novel are the perpetrators, and hence the unfortunate irony. Although the author wants the audience to sympathize with Hanna, she is indifferent. The scenario where she whips Michael with straps until he bleeds proves that she is cold and not ready to account for her wrongs.


The Reader is artistic and captivating. The author uses the bond between Michael and Hanna to illustrate the dilemma that the second-generation Germans faced as they tried to come to terms with the effect of the Nazi war. The book addresses themes that are crucial for contemporary society, especially in promoting peaceful coexistence. Schlink’s profound skill of analyzing the issue of perpetrators of fascism, which has been ignored by most writers, attracts many readers. However, the book continues to trigger moral discussions on whether the society should sympathize with the perpetrators of war.

Work Cited

Schlink, Bernhard. The Reader, New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1995. Print.

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