"The Reader", by Bernhard Schlink : Guilt and Shame

Essay by alexandro_420High School, 12th gradeA, January 2006

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"The Reader", by Bernhard Schlink is set in postwar Germany and tells the story of fifteen-year-old Michael Berg and his affair with a woman named Hanna, who was twice his age. After some time, she disappears. When Michael next sees Hanna, he is a young law student and she is on trial for her work in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Their feelings of guilt and shame lead to Hanna's tragic death near the end of the story. Bernhard Schlink is trying to portray these two emotions in his book as things that can destroy one's life, and possibly the life of those around us. Examples of them can be found throughout the whole book. One of the first major examples is the shame that many adults, including Michael's father, felt because of their tolerance and acceptance of the Nazi regime. The second is Michael's feelings of guilt for "betraying" Hanna by not acknowledging her at the pool.

The third example is the guilt that Michael feels for comparing his wife to Hanna. The fourth is Michael's shame for having been in love with Hanna. The fifth, and possibly the most tragic example in the book is Hanna's own shame of being illiterate.

During the time when the book was set, many parents lived in shame for tolerating the actions of the Nazi regime. Michael Berg explains how young people reacted to their parents as more and more was being discovered about Nazi atrocities by saying, "We all condemned our parents to shame, even if the only charge we could bring was that after 1945 they had tolerated the perpetrators in their mist". (92) This shame prevented Michael's father from ever creating a true bond with his children. Michael's father was "...undemonstrative, and could neither share his feelings with us...