Guilt because he wants to understand why people

Guilt is a major theme featured in “The Reader” by Bernhard Schlink. Schlink portrays guilt as both destructive and necessary: destructive, because it creates conflict between Michael and Hanna, just as much as it does between the old and the new generations before and after the Second World War; necessary, because it helps Michael to take responsibility for his actions and see the impacts that they had on his life.At the beginning of the novel, Schlink uses symbolism to portray Hanna’s guilt as very repressed as she does not acknowledge it. Her illiteracy though maybe caused by educational problems, reflects her wilful ignorance of her own crimes and guilt, and therefore her inability to face it. Hanna’s past and deeds only stop being indifferent to her when “she began to read about concentration camps.” Once she attains literacy and understands the situation more fully than we can, she cannot live with herself anymore which leads to her suicide.Moreover, Schlink uses the motif of water to show Hanna’s guilt of her past. We can see this in Chapter 1, when she helps Michael get home after he is sick, and further into the novel when she bathes him: “She swung her arm, the water sluiced down across the walk and washed the vomit into the gutter.” Water represents cleanliness and purity, and this action of cleaning the sidewalk, and washing Michael, almost as if washing him of herself, reflects Hanna’s subconscious desire to cleanse herself of her past. However, Hanna’s guilt expands further than that.Michael feels guilty about his relationship with Hanna nearly during the whole story. Schlink’s use of a first person narrative gives the credibility necessary to this type of fictional, personal account. For example, the language Schlink uses to describe Michael’s memories of the first time seeing Hanna naked reflect his naivety. The scene in which Michael loses his virginity to Hanna is written as if the author is recalling his own life.Schlink also uses tone to show Michael’s guilt in the story. A lot of the novel sounds like a monologue thanks to Michael’s contemplative thought and rhetorical questions, for example when he sees Hanna for the first time in the courtroom. The feeling of guilt starts when Hanna gets upset after Michael leaves her a note which she cannot read and he takes all the blame on himself: “I had behaved thoughtlessly, inconsiderately, unlovingly. I understood that she was upset… In the end, I was happy that she admitted I’d hurt her.”Michael visits the concentration camp, Natzweiler-Struthof, because he wants to understand why people were able to commit such horrific acts. He feels shameful failure and thinks how to feel after such a visit as he leaves the concentration camp at night. He felt a great emptiness and desire to understand Hanna’s actions and judge them. Michael is in conflict with himself and does not know what to think. During his first journey he’s trying to see what happened there first hand as it is hard for him to fully understand what Hannah did; if he saw that Hanna really is guilty then he must be guilty too so during the trial he tries to come up with a reason which would prove that Hanna is innocent which would make him feel innocent too. When Hanna is convicted of her involvement in the SS, Michael even feels guilt himself: “And if I was not guilty because one cannot be guilty of betraying a criminal, then I was guilty of having loved a criminal.” It is not until his second visit at the concentration camp when Michael first thinks of Hanna as a monster. “Would she have sent me to the gas chamber if she hadn’t been able to leave me, but wanted to get rid of me?” This shows the first time when Michael really becomes aware of Hanna’s crimes and he realises he can no longer justify her behaviour.Additionally, Michael’s resulting decision “never to take guilt upon himself or feel guilty, never again to love anyone whom it would hurt to lose” closes him off emotionally, sabotaging his relationships with others. Yet however destructive guilt may be, it also motivates people to take responsibility for their actions, to recognize mistakes and wrongdoing, and to avoid them in the future.                                            Schlink’s WW1 setting of the novel is key to understanding how it tackles the problems of forgiveness and guilt, and the denial of truth in the wake of the Holocaust. Schlink’s central idea is how his generation, and the generations after the Third Reich, have struggled to come to terms with the crimes of the Nazis (“the past which brands us and with which we must live”pt3ch4). This is played out through the trial and the questions that Michael asks. Michael and his generation lay blame on not only the Nazi perpetrators but also the bystanders — the previous generation who looked the other way, either by their inaction during the Holocaust or by accepting Nazi sympathizers and perpetrators back into society after the war. However, Michael also holds responsible for his own generation for having accepted their parents, some of whom worked for Hitler’s regime and many of whom were bystanders. Blind following, Michael believes, “made them irrevocably complicit in their crimes.” For Michael, this guilt becomes a collective national inheritance passed down from generation to generation, an unavoidable “German fate.”The collective guilt that Michael’s generation inherits from the Holocaust is what drives them to acknowledge and condemn Nazi war crimes. After his marriage fails, Michael feels guilty for the negative impact of his divorce on his daughter, motivating him to become more open in his relationships. That the novel presents both positive and negative consequences of guilt suggests that guilt must be accompanied by a sense of responsibility. The responsibility not only to own one’s mistakes and crimes, but also to accept guilt in a way that is productive. Fundamentally, Schlink is arguing that Germany must face and deal with its Nazi past in order to move forward.At the end of the novel, the Jewish woman in New York, who is the only remaining survivor of the church fire, refuses to accept Hanna’s money, because to do so would be to grant her absolution, and thus to relieve a Nazi criminal of responsibility. The woman’s inability to forgive Hanna, suggests that some crimes are so abhorrent that they cannot be forgiven or atoned for. The guilty must always remain in a state of guilt, because to forgive would be to allow the guilty to forget their guilt and their victims. Though Hanna is already dead by the time Michael meets the woman, the woman’s refusal to grant Hanna absolution suggests that even the dead cannot be forgiven for such crimes.Hanna and Michael’s illegal relationship enacts, in microcosm, the relationship of older and younger Germans in the postwar years. “My love for Hanna was, in a way, the fate of my generation, a German fate,” Michael concludes. Implying that there was a love for the older generation that sometimes caused guilt to the younger members of society because of the older generations’ involvement in the war. This is enhanced when Michael hitchhikes to the concentration camp site to get what he hopes will be some first-hand knowledge. The driver, an older man offers an explanation for people’s actions.To conclude, during the novel, Michael and Hanna both suffer immensely from the choices they make and the guilt they experience as a result. Their guilt, though maybe not at first acknowledged by these characters has great impacts on their future lives.


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