A Theme Of Guilt In The Reader By Bernhard Schlink

The Reader written by Bernhard Schlink is a powerful novel exploring the generational guilt that many German people felt after the Holocaust and World War II. The novel, set in post-war Germany explores these ideas through the first-person perspective of Michael Berg, a fifteen-year-old boy. Michael’s relationships with Hanna, a woman twenty years his senior, and his family, are essential in exploring guilt. Schlink uses this opportunity to show that German guilt is pervasive and unavoidable as it is passed on through generations and leads to conflict. Throughout the novel, Schlink employs dialogue between characters as a means to convey these ideas. The Reader is mostly written from the first-person perspective of Michael. Therefore, dialogue as a literary technique allows Schlink to highlight critical moments by creating contrast from Michael’s narration. Furthermore, dialogue allows Schlink to show perspectives other than Michaels, and therefore, a better and well-rounded picture. Use of dialogue allows tone and power dynamics between characters to be clearly illustrated, making it an essential device to convey important themes, such as guilt, in the novel.

Dialogue between Michael and his father is essential in conveying how guilt has led to conflict and emotional distance between generations. Michael and his father’s conflicting views are evident when Michael asks his father for advice, in the phrase, ‘We’re not talking about happiness, we’re talking about dignity and freedom. Even as a little boy you knew the difference. It was no comfort to you that your mother was always right.’ Michael’s father’s frank dialogue reveals insight into his personality and views, as well as his emotional detachment from his son. Schlink’s of the nouns ‘dignity’, ‘freedom’, and ‘happiness’ connote what would typically be considered values of a good life. The juxtaposition of dignity and freedom with happiness, suggests that to Michael’s father, you can have one without the other. Schlink also suggests that Michael and his generation, who likely felt shame and guilt for having accepted older generations, may have lost their ‘happiness’. Hence, they value happiness over dignity and freedom. Conversely Michael’s father, representative of generations involved in WWII and the holocaust, likely lost his dignity for having been involved in such crimes. Hence, this has led him to value dignity more. Michael’s father’s didactic tone illustrates his control over Michael. He states ‘Even as a little boy’, suggesting that this somewhat emotional control has existed since Michael was a young child. The phrase ‘It was no comfort to you that your mother was always right’ directly shows the distance between Michael and his parents, as Michael was never comforted by them. Hence Schlink’s use of dialogue illustrates that guilt, for both accepting those involved in WWII and for having been directly involved, creates conflict and emotional distance between generations.

Through Michael and Hanna’s relationship, Schlink illustrates how generational guilt is pervasive and unavoidable. Throughout The Reader, Michael is constantly positioned as conflicted by guilt for having accepted Hanna. His attempts to understand and resolve this is seen when Michael visits Struthof, a concentration camp. Michael attempts to understand are seen through dialogue between him and the driver in the phrase, ‘Come on, tell me that one person cannot be that indifferent to another. Isn’t that what they taught you? Solidarity with everything that has a human face? Human dignity? Reverence for life?’. The driver’s mocking and sarcastic tone created through his words ‘Come on’ and his repeating rhetorical questions positions him as being desensitized from the harsh reality of the Holocaust. Furthermore, his lengthy responses and his objectification of Michael and his generation through ‘what they taught you’ show his control over Michael in this situation, as well as his indifference to Michael. The driver’s dialogue reveals a perspective that Michael’s narration alone cannot. The driver, like Hanna is representative of those directly involved in the crimes of the Holocaust. Hence, through the use of dialogue between Michael and the driver, Schlink is able to critically comment on the importance of guilt, despite its destructive nature. He positions an audience to understand that recognition and guilt for heinous crimes are the first steps in moving forward to a better future.

Schlink further develops the theme of guilt through dialogue between Michael and Hanna. Michael’s relationship with Hanna negatively impacts his entire life. He feels guilty and conflicted for accepting and loving Hanna hence he doesn’t visit her until just before she dies. Michael’s guilt is seen when he visits Hanna in prison, in the phrase, ‘I’m glad you’re getting out. You are? Yes, and I’m glad you’ll be nearby. Do you read a lot? A little. Being read to is nicer. That’s over now isn’t it.’ In this dialogue, both Hanna and Michael are conversing with equal exchanges, suggesting neither has more power over the other in this situation. At the end of the phrase, Hanna’s tone is resigned. Hanna shows that she has acknowledged her past when she states, ‘that’s over now isn’t it”. Her firm, short phrases and the use of a rhetorical question imply that Hanna has recognised the past and her position now. This is likely representative of the end of Hanna’s denial as well as the end of her life. Schlink therefore, positions his audience to understand that perpetrators can and do feel guilty for the crimes they committed. Hence, Schlink shows the importance of having the ability to recognise the implications of one’s actions. He shows through Michael’s dialogue, that younger generations are looking to accept and move forward from the past. Additionally, through the use of dialogue in this phrase, Schlink illustrates that guilt about the past, due to its destructive nature, can never truly be resolved. Therefore, accepting is the only option. Schlink positions his audience to understand that guilt is necessary to be able to recognise what is right and wrong.

In Part Three of the novel, Michael visits the Jewish woman who testified at Hanna’s trial, in a desperate attempt to atone for his guilt and to make reparation on Hanna’s behalf. Michael is following Hanna’s wishes by attempting to give the Jewish woman – whose name is never revealed – a meagre sum of money accrued by Hanna over the course of her life. Through dialogue between Michael and the Jewish woman, Schlink not only reveals Michael’s attempts to atone for his guilt, but also the lasting impact the holocaust had on those effected.

These ideas are seen in the phrase, ‘Why me? I suppose because you are the only survivor. And how am I supposed to deal with it? However you think fit. And grant Frau Schmitz her absolution?’. The woman’s angered tone is conveyed through her short, direct phrases which leave little room for Michael to respond. She states, ‘And grant Frau Schmitz her absolution’ showing her inability to forgive Hanna for her heinous crimes. Although at the end of the novel, Hanna has recognised what she did and feels guilty, Schlink suggest that perpetrators should not be released from guilt as granting absolution would be to forgive those heinous crimes. Hence Schlink shows that guilt cannot be resolved because of its destructive nature. As this phrase takes place at the end of the novel, after Hanna’s death, Schlink illustrates how guilt will likely never dissipate, hence will become somewhat of a German fate. Overall, the Jewish woman’s dialogue operates as a window into the perspective of those affected by the Holocaust.

The Reader primarily explores the theme of guilt. Through the novel, Schlink shows the importance of discussing guilt, as it is something that many people felt after the Holocaust and the Second World War. Schlink employs dialogue as a means of conveying guilt because it allows him to explore perspectives other than Michaels. Michael’s narration tends to focus on his sexual obsession with Hanna, his failed relationships and his own guilt. Therefore, dialogue allows Schlink to present a fuller picture of guilt felt collectively by Germany, revealing what Michael’s narration cannot. Schlink uses Michael’s father’s dialogue as a means to impart didactic moral lessons about the values of post-war generations, thus showing how guilt has led to emotional distance and conflict between generations. The use of dialogue between Michael and the driver, illustrate Michael’s, attempts at resolving his guilt. The driver’s dialogue sarcastically mocks Michael’s generation, highlighting the indifference perpetrators had for victims of the Holocaust. Dialogue between Hanna and Michael is significant because it illustrates the conflict guilt creates, that is pervasively passed through generations. Finally, Schlink uses Dialogue between Michael and the un-named Jewish woman as a way of showing how guilt is unavoidable because if those who are guilty of crimes were to be released from their guilt then they would be forgiven. In conclusion, through dialogue Schlink allows a modern audience to understand the unavoidable and pervasive nature of guilt. He shows that it is necessary to be able to recognise this, to be able to simply accept and be able to move forward in the future. 

16 August 2021
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