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Bernhard Schlink's Reader - Analysis and Interpretation

This is an interpretation and analysis of the novel "Der Vorleser" by Bernhard Schlink. A short summary of the content and the people can be found on our website, here we would like to inform you in detail what "the reader" deals with and which topics are considered.


The basis of this analysis is the novel “The Reader” published by Diogenes Verlag.

Many topics play a major role in Bernhard Schlink's novel “The Reader”. Not only is the concept of guilt a central problem that the main character Michael Berg has to deal with, but also responsibility towards different people. Michael Berg is a teenager who is still inexperienced and young at the beginning of the novel. He meets Hanna Schmitz, a woman with whom he slowly learns to become more independent and through her gets to know many sides of life that were previously closed to him.


Michael's family consists of himself, two sisters and an older brother, as well as father and mother. The father is a philosophy professor and has no relation to his family, the brother and Michael have not had a good relationship since Michael's illness, the sisters are hardly considered in the novel. But Michael's family is a support for him, but at the same time it seems to be a reason why he gets involved with Hanna. She gives him what he does not experience at home, the security and affection he finds in Hanna remains with him from his parents' house.


The boy gets to know sexuality through Hanna, gets a first idea what it means to be sexually active and lives according to Hanna's rules and ideas. She bathes him, he has to read to her and it becomes a ritual, first love, later wash and then Michael Hanna has to read from books.


The novel tells of an epoch in Michael's life that takes place over a longer period. The boy Michael becomes a man, eventually he marries and is an adult. Hanna plays a large and central role in his life. At first regarded as a mother, later as a friend, the woman Michael takes home when he collapses on the street becomes the center of his life.
The initially naive boy Michael Berg directs his life according to her, visits Hanna after school and lies to his parents. He begins to build a second life with Hanna, but there remains a distance between the two. She only calls him “little boy”, he doesn't know her name for a long time and the resulting difference between the two, who are so close in bed and bathing, seems strange to the reader and is a central theme of the novel. The two are strangers, hardly know each other and yet are so close, through a ritual which consists of three acts.


After years of friendship between the two, Michael loses sight of Hanna and begins to develop a new life. He marries, has a daughter, but he still cannot forget Hanna, he thinks of her and about her and thus also finds out about Hanna's secret.


In the excerpt from pages 134-139, a conversation between Michael and his father is shown. Michael seeks advice from his father and wants to ask him a question about the guilt and responsibility of Hanna and Michael. Michael's guilty feelings towards Hanna are great, but he wants to help her, but doesn't know how to behave. After having had no contact with her for several months and years, he saw Hanna again in a lawsuit.


Michael is a young law student and is attending a trial that deals with Jewish prisoners as part of a seminar. Hanna is one of the accused. As a guard in a Jewish camp, she is said to have not opened the doors during a fire in a church in which the prisoners were. As a result, the people in the church were all burned and died. Hanna was not the only guard who was present, but the greatest guilt rests on her. Before she started working as a guard, she had a job offer as a foreman at Siemens, but turned it down and became a guard. In the camp she is said to have decided according to her preferences who should be transported, all prisoners who read to her were allowed to stay longer and were not immediately taken to the concentration camps, and she is said to have written a letter that was considered a death sentence for the Jews.


Hanna is the main accused, she testifies and takes the blame on herself. Michael, who has followed the process from day one and knows Hanna from earlier, suddenly realizes that Hanna is illiterate. He derives it from many different statements and experiences, so reading aloud by Michael was not just part of the ritual, Hanna could not read the books herself and got to know the books through Michael. Nor could she read his name on the school books that lay on her desk every day, and so she did not want to become a foreman at Siemens because she would have needed reading and writing skills to do so. She had only carried out the simple job of a conductress, had not accepted a promotion here either, and had not been able to read names or scriptures in the camp, let alone write a letter stating who was to be evacuated. So Hanna was innocent, but she refused to admit it out of shame and feelings of guilt, but took all the guilt upon herself so that her life lie would remain undetected.


In conversation with his father, Michael tries to find out if he can help Hanna by telling the judge that she is illiterate. Michael doesn't know if he should do it because he is afraid of Hanna's reaction when she learns that he has exposed her life lie. But the sentence would certainly be much milder if the court were informed of the circumstances.


The excerpt begins with Michael's decision to talk to his father. He makes it clear, however, that there is no father-son relationship between them (cf. “Not because we would have been so close”), since the father cannot do anything with his children and cannot do anything with the feelings that they have offered to him. Michael suggests that his father's reaction came from the past, perhaps he was rich in feelings as a young man and had let them wither over the years. But it is precisely because of this distance that Michael is interested in a conversation with his father. He wants to hear the opinion of someone who is not guided by feelings and can help him neutrally. The father is a philosopher and Michael wants him to discuss the problem in an abstract way. The distance between father and son also emerges in the next section. So the father treats his children like his students and makes them wait until they have an appointment to speak to him.


Michael seeks the conversation and the following conversation is the content of the text passage. Michael presents his problem and waits for his father's reaction. He immediately recognizes that Michael is dealing with the process (cf. “It has to do with the process, doesn't it?”). But he doesn't expect an answer, he doesn't want to know anything that Michael doesn't say of his own accord and doesn't want to question any feelings. He seems to understand Michael's situation, but does not develop a personal connection to the topic.


The father presents the solution or an approach to the problem of whether Michael should tell the judge about Hanna's problem as a lengthy speech. He teaches Michael about person, freedom and dignity (cf. "... about the human being as a subject and about the fact that one should not make him an object."), It seems as if he cannot do anything with the problem and generalizes it.


In the next section, Michael speaks from the future and looks back on the conversation with his father. He had forgotten it until his father's death and then began to look for memories. The conversation was one of the few things he can remember. But at the time of the conversation Michael was rather confused by his father's abstraction, which was also vivid at the same time.


Michael realizes by himself that he didn't have to talk to the judge and that he wasn't allowed to talk to him, which makes him easier. The father realizes that he has helped, but he does it without really wanting to. He inadvertently gives Michael the help he was hoping for. But in the next section, he speaks to Michael not as a father but as a philosopher and asks him whether he likes philosophy so much. Whether it can be used as a solution aid. He seems to be asking his son if he likes the job, if he likes the way in which one can solve problems. Michael tries to explain to his father why he had to look for a solution and says that he didn't know if you had to act in his situation when you weren't actually allowed to.

He is reassured that one should not act where his father helped him. The father answers Michael and also describes the central motive of responsibility (cf. “Of course you have to act when the situation you described has grown or assumed responsibility”). He says that Michael is still faced with a choice of whether to act or not, his problem does not have a pleasant solution. The father goes on to say that if you know what is good for the other, you have to try to open the eyes of the other, but give them the last word. You should talk to the person concerned yourself, and not behind your back with someone else. With these words, the father tells Michael what he has to do, which is basically the truth, because Michael should seek a conversation with Hanna, of which he is very afraid. Hanna has to tell the truth if she wants mitigation, and Michael should go up to her and talk to her about it.

Michael built up his personal relationship with Hanna through the relationship in the years before, but he doesn't know what to say to her. He is afraid that she will find out that he has discovered her life lie and knows that she will not let him tell her that she is sacrificing her life to lie and that she will condemn herself. He is afraid of the consequences that would develop from the conversation with Hanna and runs away from it by not talking to her. He also asks this question to his father, what if you don't want to talk to the person? The father doubts and Michael leaves the moral plane. He asks his father a personal question that he has no use for. The conversation ends with what Michael initiated with the personal question.

His father talks about his own failure in not helping his son and opens up emotionally for the first time in the course of the conversation. He says that he failed as a father and that the experience that he cannot help his children is almost unbearable. However, Michael thinks that his father is making it easy for himself and also knows that there were several situations in which the father could have helped. In the next step, Michael thinks about whether the father is aware of his own guilt, which makes it even harder for him to deal with it.


The son sees the conversation as ended because he cannot tell his father everything that concerns him.
The passage ends with the father's words that Michael could come at any time. The son doesn't believe him, but he nods. This sudden father attitude surprises Michael, but he knows that it is not. He seems to know his father better than he assumed and, looking back on the conversation, he sees it as a positive memory and it may also help him deal with the fact that he is not allowed to talk to the judge because it about Hanna, with whom he should deal first.


Dealing with guilt and responsibility are central motifs in the novel "The Reader". Hanna's guilt because she hid the truth not only from the court, but also from Michael, the indictment against Hanna because she had the Jews burned, Michael's guilt against Hanna because he did not tell the judge that Hanna was illiterate Feelings of guilt towards Michael Hanna because he wants to betray her and the general question of guilt are all themes in the novel and form the central theme of the story. Because even Michael's detour to Hanna's apartment, he, his parents, found him guilty. He lies to her so that he can be close to Hanna, keeps inventing excuses for being late and occasional trips. Hanna's guilt to the court for not telling them that she is illiterate has serious consequences for her, the prison.


Bernhard Schlink has also incorporated the motive of guilt into the text passage on pages 134-139. Michael goes into the conversation with his father with feelings of guilt, shortly before he had asked himself whether the conversation with his father would betray Hanna and whether he should therefore do it. By only telling his father in general what is on his mind, he betrays Hanna, but the gravity of the betrayal is significantly lessened.

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