The primary concern of this novel is the guilt that is spread through the parent generation (Hanna’s generation) and the baby boomers (Michael’s generation) that came after WW2 and the holocaust. An important motif that runs throughout The Reader is how guilt effects and portrays characters throughout the story.
Schlink portrays guilt as necessary and destructive. Guilt creates inner conflict as well as conflict within relationships and across generations which is seen as destructive. An example of guilt’s destructive capability is the damage that Michael’s guilt over Hanna inflicts on him. Michael’s resulting decision is to “”never to let myself be humiliated or humiliate myself after Hanna, never to take guilt upon myself or feel guilty, never again to love anyone whom it would hurt to lose”. The use repetition of the words humiliate and guilt express how important it is to Michael that these experiences do not surface again even though it is normal to feel such things in humanity which makes Michael an arrogant and detached person , because of the guilt that he held onto when Hanna left him.
Michael makes himself become strong in the sense that he does not want to be manipulated or deceived by someone again and I think he is isolating and detaching himself from the world which makes him hard-hearted, sabotaging his relationships with others. Another example is when Michael feels that he has no one else to blame in part 3 chapter 1, especially not his mother and father, whom he is now embarrassed to have condemned during his concentration camps seminar. “I had no one to point at.
Certainly not my parents, because I had nothing to accuse them of…. But what other people in my social environment had done, and their guilt, were in any case a lot less bad than what Hanna had done. I had to point at Hanna.” The repetition of the verb “point” conveys a sense of desperation to michael as he is looking for someone to blame other than himself and hanna but cannot find one so he is left in a state of responsibility and guilt. This brings about problems for Michael as he chose to love a criminal which makes him just as guilty and is therefore complicit in his crimes. Even though guilt can be destructive it also encourages people to take responsibility for their actions, to recognize their mistakes and wrongdoings, and to avoid them in the future. For example, In part 2-chapter 9 Michael is enlightened to the reasons for Hanna’s disappearance which is very different from the conclusion that his guilt leads him to believe.
“However, the fact that I had not driven her away did not change the fact that I had betrayed her. So, I was still guilty. And if I was not guilty because one cannot be guilty of betraying a criminal, then I was guilty of having loved a criminal.” This shows how his feeling of guilt is still present but for different reasons.
It is not portraying Hanna as a character in Michael’s life that should not of been betrayed but instead that of evil that should not of been loved by him. This could be seen as more rational thinking about the character of Hanna and how the experience of guilt has taught Michael a lesson about her. Though he knows intellectually that he may not be guilty of betraying her by keeping the affair secret, he still feels guilty because he loved her. The repetition of “guilt” throughout this quotation connotes the feeling of guilt is engrained in Michael to the point where that’s the most important topic in his mindMichael feels that he has no one else to blame in part 3 chapter 1, especially not his mother and father, whom he is now embarrassed to have condemned during his concentration camps seminar. “I had no one to point at.
Certainly not my parents, because I had nothing to accuse them of…. But what other people in my social environment had done, and their guilt, were in any case a lot less bad than what Hanna had done. I had to point at Hanna.” Michael realizes that the only person guilty that he knows personally is Hanna and that he must “point at” her.
However, this brings about problems for Michael as he chose to love a criminal which makes his just as guilty and is therefore complicit in his crimes. Michael tries to rationalize his love by comparing it to the innocence of filial love, but then decides that love for one’s parents is the only love that can be excused as people did not choose them, but Michael chose to love Hanna. When Hanna left Michael and the sensation of guilt eventually went away Michael experiences a vigorous evolution. Michael describes this time as “effortless,” in that relationships and friendships came easily to him and “nothing weighed heavily” exhibiting happiness during his for his first years of school.
The words and phrases Michael used express how effortless his life is which elucidates how the guilt placed on him by Hanna during their time together meant that his social life was suffering as a result but her leaving has caused him to evolve. Michael takes on “a posture of arrogant superiority” and behaves cruelly toward others, for instance Sophie, whom he has intimate relations with but isn’t interested in. The sybalance of the word arrogant has a very hard a and g sound expressing the harshness and intense cruelty that he has. His newfound indifference makes him detached from others emotionally as well, meaning that he does not take responsibility for his actions because he does not feel guilty. This shows how guilt is necessary to Michael because without it he loses the ability to sympathise with others and becomes emotionless.
Thus even though it seemed like guilt had only brought him down a certain degree of guilt is needed in order to develop the character of michael in the right way. Further evidence for why a certain degree of guilt is needed is expressed further on as despite his coldness and apparent indifference, Michael is at times extremely emotional, as “the smallest gesture of affection would bring a lump to his throat.” This shows how Michael is suppressing his feelings and causes a physical effect on his body which he tries to stop, with the noun “lump” signifying something that is growing in him that he must subdue like a tumour which is connected to negative things such as death showing that the feeling of emotion is so bad that it feels life threatening. Michael was bedevilled with guilt after Hannah’s death and often questioned whether he had betrayed her, whether he was guilty of loving her, and sometimes whether he was to blame for her suicide. Soon after, Michael decides to write their story “to be free of it” but finds that he is not capable of conjuring the right memories. The use of the word free connotes that the guilt he feels is like a prison and writing a book is the key to get out, which is in contrast to Hanna’s time in prison and due to her not being able to escape mentally and physically led to her suicide, that is a position that Michael does not want to be in.
Only after Michael “made peace with it” do the details of their relationship resurfaces. Michael notes that this story is so ingrained into his life that new feelings of pain and guilt easily allow his old pain and guilt to re-emerge, and he admits that he may never be free of it. Nonetheless, he finds he is only able to write about their story when he leaves the memories alone, rather than forcing them to the surface. which is in correlation with the point that guilt is a destructive but necessary emotion The narrator closes by saying that he donated Hanna’s money to the Jewish League Against Illiteracy. Michael’s choice of donation is a form of active hope, an attempt to use the tragedies of the past to avoid future tragedies and to combat ignorance, indifference, and evil in all its varied forms.
Thus, the book we are reading is, perhaps, a kind of therapeutic exercise for Michael, an acknowledgement of the truth of his past and his complicated connection with Hanna. The novel presents both positive and negative consequences of guilt suggest that guilt must be accompanied by a sense of responsibility. This responsibility can be used to not only accept the person’s wrongdoing but to use it in a way that will better them and others for the future.