Shame And Guilt: Hidden Metaphors In Bernard Schink’s The Reader
Guilt is a powerful concept. When an individual commits something they know is morally wrong, a heavy feeling settles in their chest, all-consuming and at times, unbearable. They carry that guilt for a long time, looking for any and every way to rid themselves from it. In Bernard Schlink’s award-winning novel, The Reader, we can see exactly how much of an effect guilt has on an individual’s life. Critically acclaimed by the Los Angeles Times as a “formally beautiful, disturbing, and morally devastating novel”, The Reader tells the story of a young man whose life was forever changed when he was just a teenager. Micheal Berg had been diagnosed with hepatitis in the fall of his fifteenth birthday and the illness lasted until spring. One October afternoon, Michael was walking home from school when his queasy stomach got the best of him. Even though his sickness was one that he had no control over Micheal feels guilty about it, saying that he was “ashamed of being so weak and even more ashamed when he threw up”. The fact that the novel opens with Micheal’s illness and feelings of shame creates a mood of disquietude and anguish in the novel, setting the stage for the complications of guilt and shame that the author will later elaborate on as the novel progresses. A middle-aged woman came to his aid, handling him roughly, an assistance Micheal felt was “almost like an assault”. The woman’s actions are simultaneously presented as both good-natured and hostile, which again foreshadow feelings that Micheal will later have about her. As the novel progresses, Micheal learns that the woman’s name is Frau Schmitz (Hanna), and returns to the area to thank her for helping him. Eventually, he finds out where she lives. He can’t seem to recall what they were talking about, but he clearly remembered watching her, transfixed, as she was ironing her clothes. He vividly describes her features by stating that she had a “ high forehead, high cheekbones, pale blue eyes, full lips that formed a perfect curve without any indentation, square chin”. What’s striking about Micheal’s description is that it aligns perfectly with the Nazi racial ideology of the superior “Aryan Race”, representing one of the major themes in the novel.`
Hanna catches Michael watching him, and he flees the apartment, mortified that he was caught. Micheal “had run away like a child, instead of keeping control of the situation, as he thought he should”. This line foretells the nature of Michael and Hanna’s relationship and sheds light on what kind of a role Micheal takes on as his connection with Hanna intensifies. By subtly incorporating all of these details about Hanna, the author did an excellent job of foreshadowing and highlighting upcoming events in the novel. In the days that follow, Micheal couldn’t seem to get the older woman out of his mind, completely enticed by her obliviousness to the world and how she carried herself. He described her unmindful grace as “an invitation to forget the recesses of the body”. Although her oblivion was something that Michael was initially drawn to, it’s also going to be something that would cause severe mental turmoil to him later on in the novel, as it is the very same oblivion that facilitated her crimes as a Nazi prison guard.
A week later, the two meet again and have sex in her apartment. Hanna embodies the role of a mother by offering to clean Michael, but at the same time, she is aware of his attraction towards her. Hanna would often call Micheal “kid” and she treated him exactly the way she would refer to him. She didn’t at all consider the immorality of engaging in sexual intercourse with a fifteen-year-old boy, nor did she care about how this might affect him in any way. As their relationship intensifies, they develop some kind of a ritual before sex, whereby Micheal reads aloud to Hanna. Micheal never seemed to understand why Hanna wanted him to read out loud to her, almost as if it was a prerequisite for going to bed with him, but he doesn’t question it out of fear that he might lose her if he did. Micheal looks back on their relationship years later, stating how he feels like he’s been “indulged”. He has a strong urge to go to school the next morning to show off his new “manliness”, creating a clear cut line between his affair and his education. Hanna symbolizes his desire to forget the world and all it’s burdens, and thus become willing to forget the pain and the suffering inflicted to so many by her generation.
Looking back, adult Micheal is filled with sadness and uncertainty when it comes to his affair. It pains him to think back to those days, but he doesn’t know if it was because nostalgia was taking over, or because he learned about Hanna’s “dark truths” later on in the novel. Hanna “certainly didn’t nourish herself on promises, but was rooted in the here and now”. She is often detached from both Michael and herself, living alone in her own little bubble that Micheal tries so hard to be a part of. Her evasiveness, despite his best efforts, is something that Michael has no control over, and he is often ridiculed by Hanna whenever he tries to make romantic gestures towards her. As time passes, Hanna becomes more and more hostile towards Micheal, their relationship becoming more of an ownership. Whenever she threatens to leave him, Micheal “instantly and unconditionally surrendered. He took all the blame, admitted to mistakes he hadn’t made, intentions he never had”. This clearly shows how toxic and manipulative Hanna was to Micheal, but he is so blinded by his childish admiration for her that he didn’t want to see what kind of a negative impact she had on him. The abuse reached it’s peak when the two took a trip outside of the city the week after Easter break. Micheal had to lie to his parents about who he was going with, yet another toxic trait he developed because of his secret affair.
The fact that Hanna left all of the planning and preparations to Michael, even the little things like getting a room at a hotel, is a subtle hint at her illiteracy. One morning, Micheal decides to get up early to bring Hanna some breakfast, leaving a note for her in case she wondered where he went. When he returned, however, he was greeted with a furious Hanna. She was so inexplicably angry that she takes out a leather belt and hits Micheal across the face with it before she breaks down right in front of him. This sudden act of violence sheds new light on Hanna, something that even Michael can’t seem to shake off. After Hanna calms down, Michael explained that he left a note saying where he was, but Hanna insists that there was no note in the first place, another hint at her illiteracy. Despite Hanna hitting him, Michael believes that the fight “made their relationship more intimate” , believing that it has brought them closer together when it was actually the first of many factors that drove them farther apart.
- Wikipedia contributors. ‘Nazism and race.’ Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 30 Dec. 2018. Web. 14 Feb. 2019
- Schlink, Bernard. The Reader, Diogenes Verlag,1995, Print.
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