The Use Of Dialogue To Convey The Theme Of Generational Guilt In The Reader

The reader, by Bernhard Schlink, explores the generational guilt that many German people felt after the holocaust and the second world war. The novel, set-in post-war Germany explores this idea through the first-person view of Michael Berg. Michaels relationships with Hanna, a woman 20 years his senior, his family, and people in general are essential in exploring guilt and how its pervasive and unavoidable nature leads to conflict across and between generations. Throughout the novel, Schlink uses dialogue between characters as a means to convey these ideas. The majority of The Reader is written from the first-person perspective of Michael. Small amounts of dialogue scattered throughout the novel, allow Schlink to emphasize and highlight critical moments and offer insight into perspectives other than Michael’s.

Hanna’s personal guilt about her past actions is evident throughout The Reader. She is often distant about her past reflecting her attempts to ‘forget’.

Schlink develops the theme of generational guilt through dialogue between Michael and Hanna. A example of this is seen 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 piece of dialogue, both Hanna and Michael are talking and with equal exchanges. Neither appear to be in power over the conversation, this is contrasted to dialogue from the beginning of Michael and Hanna’s relationship in which Hanna was usually in control. At the end of the phrase Hanna’s tone is resigned. This could be representative of the end of

Hanna’s denial and therefore the end of her life. The reference to reading in this dialogue is significant. Towards the end of her time in prison, Hanna’s ability to read allows her to understand the implications of her crime. In this phrase Schlink’s use of dialogue allows an audience to understand the mindset of those involved in the crimes of the holocaust, and the guilt than can be felt by the perpetrators. He shows through Michael’s dialogue that younger generations are looking to move to accept and move forward from the past. Through Hanna’s words, Schlink demonstrates the importance of recognising one’s actions to be able to move forwards. “that’s over now isn’t it” shows that Hanna has acknowledged her past. It also shows that the past can never truly be forgotten, therefore accepting is the only option. Therefore, Schlink positions his audience to understand the nature of guilt and that it is both necessary to be able to recognise what is right and wrong.

Schlink’s portrayal of Michaels relationship with his close family is essential in conveying how guilt is passed and conflict is between generations. In parts 2 and 3 of the reader, Michael is often conflicted by guilt for having accepted and loved Hanna. This is representative of the generations after WWII, who felt guilt for accepting those who committed crimes.

This idea is seen in the dialogue between Michael and his father 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.”

The phrase is spoken by Michal’s father and overall offers an audience further insight into his personality and views. Schlink’s word choice of dignity, freedom, and happiness, connote emotion and allow an audience to connect with the story on a personal level. The juxtaposition of happiness, against dignity and freedom, suggests that to Michael’s father, there cannot be happiness in dignity and freedom. The use of ‘we’re’ could be suggestive of Michael’s father’s generation as a whole and therefore shows the contrasting views between generations. Furthermore, Michaels father’s didactic and patronising tone and his obvious control over the situation, supported by Michal’s short responses shows his control over Michael and again their difference in views. Michael emotional distance and conflict with his parents is demonstrated though the final declarative line of dialogue. Michaels father’s reference to the past while speaking of the present shows that guilt does not disappear and remains between generations.

Michaels guilt stays with him throughout his life. Throughout, and until the end of the novel Michael is constantly trying to come to terms with this guilt, accept it and move forward. Evidently this proves difficult and leads to a distant relationship with his daughter and failure to commit in a relationship. Michaels attempts to come to terms with his guilt is seen when he visits a concentration camp. Michael and his driver are have opposing opinions. Their conflicting opinions represent the opinions of different generations. The dialogue between them shows the conflict between generations and hence different perspectives. When Michael asks the driver if he was a soldier Michael is kicked out of the vehicle. In this ‘patch’ of dialogue, whilst both sides are talking it is evident that the driver is leading the situation. This is shown through his lengthy monologues in response to Michaels relatively small remarks. This conflict is seen in the phrase spoken by the driver,

An executioner is not under orders. He's doing his work, he doesn't hate the people he executes, he's not taking revenge on them, he's not killing them because they're in his way or threatening him or attacking him. They're a matter of such indifference to him that he can kill them as easily as not.”

‘No “buts”? 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? 

In this phrase, Schlink employs emotive word choices such as hate, killing, threatening, attacking These words connote images of violence to an audience through the drivers words. In this way, Schlink could be challenging his audience to consider a perspective of another perpetrator other than Hanna. The driver’s tone is sarcastic and mocking, giving insight into a perspective other than Michaels. His responses to Michael are consistently long, showing his control over Michael in this situation. This is reflective of the current conflict in Germany between generations before and after the war.

Through this phrase Schlink positions his audience to understand the ‘pointlessness’ of the holocaust. He positions indifference as a bad thing by using it as a ‘excuse’ to kill. Schlink therefore foregrounds the importance of acceptance, of all people and of causes of the generational conflict. This is reflective of the Michaels conflict of whether he should accept older generations, and Hanna’s actions.

Schlink further explores the theme of generational guilt through the dialogue between the daughter, the Jewish women. This is 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.

Hanna wants to give the Jewish her money. This phrase is reflective of the conflict that still exists after the holocaust and even today as even though Hanna and the Holocaust have gone, the Jewish woman does not want to grant Hanna her absolution. In this phrase the Jewish woman’s tone is questioning whilst Michaels is calmer and somewhat hopeful. Unlike the woman, he is not asking questions, only accepting what the woman says. This could be reflective of Michaels attempts to accept his past. Whilst Michael attempts to accept his guilt, this in contrast to the Jewish woman who is rightfully unable to forgive the heinous crimes Hanna committed. Hence this shows how guilt necessary to be able to take responsibility, yet destructive in the fact that if Hanna were to be forgiven for her crimes, then it is as if her crimes were ok. This destructive nature of guilt shown throughout the novel, and in the dialogue between the Jewish woman and Michael, suggests that guilt will never dissipate, and therefore be passed on through generations. Overall the dialogue offers a view again that is different from Michaels. In the case of the Jewish woman, an audience is offered insight into how people are directly affected by the holocaust and are unable to accept the actions of those who committed war crimes. The use of a question, spoken by the woman, as the first lines is important as it positions an audience to understand the many remaining questions people have regarding the holocaust and how to move forward.

The use of dialogue in conveying the theme of generational guilt, allows an modern audience to understand the perspective of post war generations and the guilt they experience/d. Schlink employs dialogue as a means of showing deeper emotional insights into Michaels, Hanna’s, and others perspectives. This then allows an audience to gain a greater understanding of the nature of guilt and its role in the generations that come after WWII. Though this Schlink is able to comment on guilt and how it is necessary to be able to recognise the past and move forward, accepting what has happened. 

16 August 2021
Your Email

By clicking “Send”, you agree to our Terms of service and  Privacy statement. We will occasionally send you account related emails.

close thanks-icon

Your essay sample has been sent.

Order now
Still can’t find what you need?

Order custom paper and save your time
for priority classes!

Order paper now