Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader and Francois Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451: a Study of the Literary Theme in Both

February 15, 2021 by Essay Writer

Literature is a fundamental theme in both Schlink’s novel The Reader and in François Truffaut’s film adaptation of Fahrenheit 451. There is a perspicuous connection between reading and the human emotion of their retrospective characters, and through this literature is presented as a force which increases both emotional and social intelligence. Emotional intelligence, a term coined by Savaloy and Mayer, is defined as the ability to ‘recognise, and manage our own emotions [as well as] recognising, and understanding […] the emotions of others’ (Savaloy and Mayer:1996). The notion that reading fiction has an effect on one’s emotional intelligence is suggested by Bal and Veltkamp, who explore this in their journal ‘How Does Fiction Reading Influence Empathy? An Experimental Investigation on the Role of Emotional Transportation.’ The representation of literature in the works studied mirrors this theory, as both Schlink’s and Traffuat’s works portray literature as a means of enhancing the readers’ empathy, and thus emotional intelligence. This is expressed through the characters’ subsequent reformed stances on situations once exposed to literature. Furthermore, the two works express literature’s effect on emotional intelligence through the development of the character’s emotional management once having access to fiction. Finally, social intelligence is a term described as ‘a person’s ability to interact, maintain, and build relationships with others’ (Coleman:2011). Again, it is a Bas and Veltkamp conception which interlinks the theory with literature, as they state that reading can help ‘people understand the world and how they should interact with other people’ (Bal and Veltkamp: 2016). Here lies the argument that literature does in fact increase social intelligence; the perspective is present in regards to the two works, and the idea is developed primarily through the exploration of key characters whom do not partake in reading literature, and their irregular responses to social interactions.

The first way in which literature is presented as a medium to increase emotional intelligence is through the depiction of its ability to enhance character’s empathy. Veltkamp and Bals suggests the idea that people who have access to literature are more empathetic than those who do not, their explanation being that ‘people who read a lot of fiction become more empathetic, because fiction is a stimulation of social experiences, in which people practice and enhance their interpersonal skills’ (Veltkamp and Bal:2016). When considering both Schlink and Trauffaut’s works, one can argue that the characters presented in both appear to adhere to Veltkamp and Bals’ hypothesis. If we begin by contemplating The Reader, and more specifically, Hanna and her flippancy towards other people, we get a sense that the character lacks empathy. This can be seen when she is asked whether she was aware during her time as an SS guard of the murder that took place at the camps. The character states ‘yes but the old ones had to make room for the new ones’ (Schlink: 1998: 111); Hanna is presented as having no regard for the victims, this is exemplified in the quotation, as she describes the people as old and new ‘ones.’ This extremely impersonal choice of words acts in presenting not only a lack of respect for those who were murdered, but also a lack of understanding, and indeed empathy. It is also significant to discuss the opening of her statement, as the character begins with ‘yes but’ (Schlink:1998:111), there is an indication that Hanna stands by this decision, as through the use of the word ‘but’ she excuses the murders for something that had to be done, they ‘had to make room’ (Schlink:1998:111). This evidence suggests that the text’s illiterate character has no empathy, as if one cannot empathise with those who are unwilfully murdered, can one truly empathise with anything at all? The argument that it is literature which enables people to become more empathetic, and thus emotionally intelligent is further illustrated, as Schlink presents Hanna as being far more considerate of others once she has learnt to read. There is a sense that the character is somewhat reformed upon gaining a sustainable access to literature, this is displayed as she ‘lent some tapes [of Michael reading stories] to the aid society for blind people’ (Schlink:1998:205). To begin with, this selfless act is an example of the character’s empathy, as she helps the disabled and vulnerable, for no other reason than that she can relate to them, in the sense that she too was once incapable of experiencing literature. As a side note, it is also important to recognise that this act is not related to the Holocaust in any way, and so it is discernible that this a selfless act of kindness and not a plea for redemption. Here there is a clear distinction between empathy, or lack thereof, that Hanna showed prior to reading and the level of empathy shown once the character became literate, thus it is manifest that in this instance literature is presented a mode of enhancing one’s emotional intelligence.

If we now consider, Trauffaut’s film adaptation of Fahrenheit 451, we can also draw connections between Veltkamp and Bas’ argument and the levels of empathy and thus emotional intelligence shown by readers and non-readers. For example, if we focus on the scene where the woman is burnt alive with her books, we can easily distinguish between the emotive reactions of Montag, who at this stage is reading literature, and his fellow fireman who are not. Whilst the chief of the fire brigade allows the woman a countdown from ten before he sets her alight along with her books, there is a manifest sense of indifference on his part in regards to the woman’s life. As previously stated this is contrasted with Montag’s concern over the matter, this is seen as he exclaims ‘she must leave,’ and in response the chief states ‘well she refuses to leave.’ (Trauffaut:1966). Montag is clearly empathetic of the woman, and tries to prevent her death, this is expressed through his shouting ‘she must be forced to leave’, to which the chief simply says ‘look out’ (Trauffaut:1966). It is palpable when watching this scene that Montag is both emotionally and physically distressed, he is wide-eyed, red in the face, and as previously stated is shouting. If we compare this to the almost nonchalant air of the chief and other firemen, there is a distinct difference in the attitudes towards the woman’s life. The fact that the chief ignores Montag’s last statement and shouts ‘look out,’ is a clear indication of his eagerness to simply get the job done, he has no time for debates, and is not interested in the life of this woman. This is also further presented, as once the woman has begun to burn, all of the firemen bar Montag evacuate the house, here we get the impression that the character is so shocked by the horror of the men’s actions that he is fixed frozen in his place, again suggesting that he is more empathetic than the others, who seem rather apathetic throughout the entire ordeal. This is presented as none of them attempt to prevent this unnecessary death, as well as the fact they leave without so much as a glance towards the woman they played a hand in murdering. With this in mind, it appears that Fahrenheit 451 does in fact express the notion that reading literature has a positive effect on a people’s emotional intelligence, as it has the ability to enhance one’s potential to empathise.

Another way in which literature and its influence is presented, is the notion that is has the capacity to strengthen people’s emotional intelligence through allowing them to better understand, and in turn, control their emotions. This is displayed through the characters in the two works studied. The Reader incorporates this interpretation through Hanna’s vast difference in emotive behaviour succeeding her literacy. Early in the novel Hanna is depicted as having difficulty understanding how to manage her anger stemming from her inability to read. The character takes this anger out on Michael, this is described through her violent outbursts, as she held ‘the narrow leather belt that she wore around her dress, she took a step backwards and hit [him] across the face’ (Schlink:1998:55). First and foremost, it is clear that the character struggles to contain this anger, as well as dealing with the cause of it. Following this paragraph further, the character then ‘beat her fists against [Michael’s] chest then gave a deep sigh and snuggled into [his] arms’ (Schlink:1998:55); here this rapid change in emotion reiterates the idea that the character has difficulty controlling it, as her acts’ begin with extreme violence and quickly flow into a state of warm affection, as seen through the use of the word ‘snuggled’ (Schlink:1998:55). However, if we initially consider the act of violence alone, and compare it to the unmistakeably calmer actions taken by Hanna once she is literate, there is the potential to believe that the character has gained a better understanding of her emotions and how to manage them. This is expressed in the description of Hanna’s action regarding the prison library cuts, where she ‘held a sit-down strike until [they] were reinstated’ (Schlink:1998: 204). At this stage in the novel, Hanna’s passion for literature is clear and one can assume the pain and anger the character would feel regarding the cut backs. In this instance, the calm and collected actions of the character can be perceived as an example of literature having a positive effect on the way people control and recognise their emotions, as it seems there has been an enormous improvement from her prior violent outburst. With this in mind, it is a clear example of literature proving its ability to increase the emotional intelligence of its reader.

The same can be said for Fahrenheit 451, in this instance, this presentation of literature is portrayed through the character Linda and her immoderate reaction to a disagreement with her husband. The scene in question consists of Montag disillusioning his wife, and her belief that she alone was part of the television programme The Family. In response to this, Linda replies ‘That’s not true, I mean even if it was true you didn’t have to tell me, that was very mean’(Truffaut:1966). The use of the word ‘mean’ is vital here in presenting the triviality of this disagreement, the word does not inspire images of spite or hatefulness, but rather comes across almost childlike. As viewers, it seems a relatively ordinary exchange between husband and wife, and the disagreement appears as a minor contretemps. However, it is the actions which follow that present the idea that those who do not read, such as Linda, have difficulties understanding their emotions and how to manage them. In the next scene where the character is present, she is unconscious after having overdosed on prescription medication; due to this, the drastic act is presented as a direct result of the conversation. The mere fact that Linda attempts to end her life over such a minor matter, one which she herself does not describe as overtly nefarious, insinuates the notion that the character indeed has difficulty handling her emotions. We are left with the impression that those who do not read have a limited emotional intelligence, as the characters cannot comprehend the intensity of their feelings and in turn how to suitably manage them.

Furthermore, in Bal and Veltkamp’s journal, they state that it is ‘the imitation of real-world experiences in fiction [that] might be associated with processes that people use in daily life to comprehend what happens in the world. Consequently, [it is] through this sense making process [in which] people gain a better understanding of the world and how they should interact with other people’ (Bal and Veltkamp:2016).

The representation of literature as a force which has the ability to educate people on how to correctly, and appropriately interact with others is common within the two works studied. Together, they exemplify the idea that literature can influence our social intelligence. This representation is presented through the characters who do not have access to reading, and their consequent lack of apt social interactions and behaviour throughout the texts. If we first take Schlink’s novel into consideration, and study the actions of Hanna, the illiterate female protagonist, we can identify the character’s inability to understand the ways in which to treat people in order to ‘maintain a relationship’ (Coleman:2011). An example of this is when the narrator Michal states ‘Hanna forced me to be home on time’ (Schlink: 1998: 41). This notion of force is implicit in presenting Hanna’s domineering and inequitable relationship with Michael; although it is arguable that one can use force and pressure without it necessarily concerning their social intelligence, it is clear throughout the text that this is not an isolated incident. This is presented as later in the narration, Michael explores another event stating that ‘she threatened, I instantly and unconditionally surrendered’ (Schlink: 1998:49). It is manifest through the use of violent terms such as ‘forced’ and ‘threatened’ that the character Hanna is depicted as a figure who treats her lover in a cruel manner which suggests her poor ability to interact and ‘maintain a relationship’(Coleman:2011). As previously stated, the fact that these are not isolated events also indicates the idea that the character shows no remorse for her actions, as they are ongoing. On the other hand, it could be the case that Hanna in fact does not understand her wrongdoings, which coincides with the consequence of Bal and Veltkamp’s theory: that without access to literature, people may have a weaker understanding of how to suitably interact with others, and in turn, a lesser social intelligence.

This representation is also prevalent in Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451, however, in this case, it is the contrasting social skills of a character who reads with one who does not, which exemplifies this point. To begin, it is the character Clarrise who acts as the figure of the reader; if we focus on the character’s introductory scene, we notice that she is presented as extremely sociable, and talkative. The character approaches Montag, stating ‘I think we’re neighbours’(Truffaut:1966). Here she is clearly instigating a conversation and in turn trying to ‘build[..] a relationship’ with Montag (Colemean:2011). A point that may be overlooked upon first watching this scene, is the character’s friendly behaviour as she laughs and smiles throughout this exchange; the reason behind the viewers’ potential failure to notice this is due to the normality of the behaviour. It is only when contrasting this with the extremely antisocial conduct of the character Linda, a non-reader, that one might begin to acknowledge these traits, as the two characters act in mutually highlighting one another’s level of social intelligence. This contrasting relationship is further developed through the director’s choice of having the two characters’ introduction scenes directly follow one another. The character Linda’s antisocialism is presented in her exchange with her husband Montag, where she appears to not acknowledge his presence immediately, as she watches television. The characters’ eyes do not divert from the screen at any point during this conversation, and her extreme disinterest is presented through her delayed responses, to the point where Montag is left to ask ‘are you listening?’ (Trauffaut:1966). In this film, those who read are presented as having a better sociality and in turn understanding of how to communicate with others, than those who do not. In relation to the two developments discussed here, it is manifest that literature is portrayed in both works as a medium which allows people to understand how to appropriately interact with others, and in a broader sense, it is represented as a means to increase social intelligence.

To summarise, in the case of the two works studied, literature is represented as an instrument of enhancing both social and emotional intelligence amongst readers. With regard to the social aspect, the two works exemplify this point through the depiction of differing social abilities amongst the literate and illiterate characters. They present the notion that reading improves one’s abilities to interact with others, in order to build upon a relationship. As regards the emotional intelligence, the works’ involvement in the portrayal of literature’s capacity to increase this is illustrated through the ideas that reading holds the power to improve one’s empathy, as well as that it can better one’s ability to control and understand one’s emotions. This analysis could be taken further, in order to discuss the ways in which the medium affects this representation of literature, exploring the differences portrayed by film and novels.

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