The Motif of Death in The Reader

Suicide is a dark subject, usually avoided in every-day conversation and in Youth Literature. This is understandable. Some topics require a developed level of maturity in order to be fully comprehended. However, the darkness of a subject, while understandably deeming it a taboo topic, should not render it impossible to discuss in a society which desperately needs to understand it. The importance of being comfortable shrinks in comparison with the importance of trying to save lives. Society must face its fear of discomfort in order to achieve the greater good. Hence, in the novel The Reader by Bernhard Schlink, the author uses Hanna’s suicide as a motif to analyze differing attitudes toward death.

One motive for Hanna’s suicide appears to be the need to escape the moral weight of her wrongdoing. After Hanna learns to read, she spends time studying “a general concentration-camp bibliography, and… some books on women in the camps, both prisoners and guards” (Schlink 205). With the knowledge she gains from these books, Hanna fully realizes the implications of her actions at the Nazi guard camp. She cannot escape the truth in written ink, and this truth convicts her. She is weighed down by the loss of life she had caused, which cannot be undone. Ironically, before, it was Hanna’s fear which rendered her innocent, as her illiteracy prevented her from understanding the full effects of her actions at the prison. After overcoming this fear, she is faced with yet another obstacle; her maturity from this new knowledge burdens her with a heavy conscience. Overall, she is too overwhelmed to face her problems, which may have contributed to her motivation to take her own life. Therefore, this motivation would consider death to be freedom from the seemingly unbearable pain of life.

Another motive for Hanna’s action is the realization that her hope in the possible romance with Michael is just the product of a long-term accumulation of imagined fantasies. At first, Michael is presented as the one who fantasizes, because of his description of his infatuation, claiming: “I could barely sleep, I was yearning for her, I dreamed of her…” (Schlink 27). However, in truth, Hanna idealizes Michael in the same way. For example, in the last scene before she leaves him in his youth, when she sees him at the pool, Hanna expects Michael to act as if he recognizes her as his lover (Schlink 79-80). Here is where Hanna’s image of Michael is shattered for the first time. She has unrealistic expectations of him which do not hold up to the reality of his youthful character. The second time Hanna realizes Michael does not meet her ideal is the day before she is supposed to be released from prison. Michael is cold and casual in conversation, and does not perceive Hanna in the same light as before (Schlink 195). He is obviously no longer interested in her romantically, and she wastes no time trying to convince him or herself that the situation is fixable. Instead of choosing to live in a reality which consistently crushes her dreams, Hanna chooses to live in a dream world of her own. She would rather live in the reality she perceives than face yet another obstacle to her own happiness. Therefore, this rationale would define death as an eternal sleep, an alternative world to the loveless one she was living in.

The final possible motive for Hanna’s action is she feels she has nothing more to live for. In her own perspective, she pays the price for her actions as a Nazi guard with her time spent in the prison. In the prison, she is not only punished in the inherently restrictive nature of losing all her freedom and choice, but she even rejects the respect of her fellow inmates by “redefine[ing] her place in a way that was right for her, but no longer impressed the other women” (Schlink 207). Hanna purposely lets herself become unattractive and unappealing in order to cease the adoration she receives from the other women. The nature of prison is not a punishment enough in her opinion, possibly because her life before prison was already severely restricted by her illiteracy, so a controlled environment was all too common to her. Hence, she purposely isolates herself as a penance for her deeds. In addition, Michael’s rejection of Hanna makes her lose hope of any love in her life, as she doesn’t have any family left either. Because she considers her penance paid and her possibility of finding love non-existant, Hanna gives up. There is no story left for her on earth. Hanna has never known anything in life other than the fear of her secret being discovered; her “motive was fear of exposure” (Schlink 132). After she overcomes that fear, though she is free to live, she is too set in her ways to find new meaning. She was so filled with fear for most of her life, that once she is rid of it she can’t fill the whole in her heart with anything else. Quite simply, she’s all empty. If life does not offer hope to Hanna, death does. It is, in her mind, the next logical step, the next step forward. This logic would define death as “but the next great adventure” (J. K. Rowling). Hanna cannot find meaning in the physical world, so she looks to the unknown for answers.

To clarify, while death is inevitable, Hanna’s choice was done out of angst and her mentality was unhealthy. Schlink does not pardon Hanna; he simply looks to explain people like her, to offer another perspective of the effects of the Holocaust. Understanding Hanna is vital in order to move forward as a society. She found death to be freedom, a dream world, and the next great adventure because she was desperate. Her desperation is the same one the actors within the Holocaust felt. It is a desperation which allows for cruelty, both to oneself and to others. It can be found at the core of almost every evil deed. This desperation cannot be dealt with by condemning a large group of people as bad, and leaving them to sit with blame. This only fuels hatred. Desperate people must be understood in order to be helped. Schlink’s message is the world does not need damned, it needs to be understood. Hanna overcame her fear and learned to read, but it was too late for her to save herself. Society, too, must face its fear of taboo and dark subjects in order to face the increasing issue of suicide. It must put in the effort understand, to offer sympathy where it is needed, and to move forward in light of whatever understanding it gains. If society does not take up its torch now, it may be too late.

Sources: The Reader by Bernhard Schlink Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling