Michael Berg is 15 and suffering from hepatitis. When he gets sick in the street one day on his way home from school, a woman brings him into her apartment and helps him to wash up. Later, he visits the woman to thank her and is drawn into a love affair that is as intoxicating as it is unusual—their meetings become a ritual of reading aloud (Michael reads to Hanna, at her request), taking showers and making love. When Hanna disappears after a misunderstanding, Michael is overcome with guilt and loss.
Years later, when Michael is studying law at the university, he is part of a seminar group attending one of the many belated Nazi war crime trials. He is shocked when he recognizes Hanna in the courtroom, on trial with a group of former concentration camp guards. During the proceedings, it becomes clear that Hanna is hiding something that is—to her—more shameful than murder, something that could possibly save her from going to prison. She chooses not to reveal her secret and, as a result, is sentenced to life.
Married and divorced, Michael has become a scholar of legal history and suffers from a haunting emotional numbness. To help himself through nights of insomnia, he begins to read his favorite books aloud into a tape recorder and sends the tapes to Hanna in prison. The bond between the two is continued in this unique way until Hanna's release from prison, when, in the face of Michael's ambivalence and Hanna's shame, their story reaches its anguished conclusion.
A parable of German guilt and atonement and a love story of stunning power, The Reader is also a work of literature that is unforgettable in its psychological complexity, its moral nuances and its stylistic restraint.
Bernhard Schlink was born in 1944 near Bielefeld, Germany, to a German father and a Swiss mother. He grew up in Heidelberg and studied law in Heidelberg and Berlin. He is a professor of Constitutional and Administrative Law and the Philosophy of Law at Berlin's Humbolt University and a justice of the Constitutional Law Court in Bonn.
Schlink has authored works in both fiction and nonfiction. Before publishing The Reader (original title: Der Vorleser) in 1995, he wrote several prize-winning mystery novels.
Since its publication, The Reader has become a phenomenal international bestseller and has been translated into 39 languages and was the first German novel to reach number one on the New York Times bestseller list. The movie rights to The Reader have been sold to Miramax Films. The film stars Ralph Fiennes, David Kross and Kate Winslet, and is directed by Stephen Daldry. Learn more about the film at TheReader-Movie.com.
Watch a preview of the movie
I am most at home with 19th-century literature—Stendhal, Hawthorne, Chekhov, Keller and Fontane. These are books I read and reread to be happy. I never felt the urge to analyze why I am happy with them; and also with the Odyssey, a book that keeps surprising and amazing me.
Then there are books that I will never forget because I read them when I started reading in English. The reading was hard and I made them mine sentence by sentence, word by word. I thought I should start with something easy—mysteries—and happened to find Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice, Chandler's The Long Goodbye and Ambler's The Intercom Conspiracy—books about entanglement, love, guilt and the possibility or impossibility of redemption. Simple, precise and magical books.
Loving books means taking time for the unexpected, reading a book you have never heard about before or that you missed when everybody talked about it years ago, a book on a friend's bookshelf that somehow triggers your curiosity even though it doesn't fit into your taste or reading habits. Sitting on a train with a book I have picked up in a hurry at the small train station bookstore and finding out that the book is great, as it just happened to me with Toni Morrison's Beloved and also with Pat Barker's Resurrection—that is a perfect moment.
View printable version
The questions, discussion topics and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading of Bernhard Schlink's The Reader, a haunting story of love and guilt in which the legacy of Nazi crimes enters a young man's life in an unexpected and irrevocable way.
At what point does the significance of the book's title become clear to you? Who is "The Reader"? Are there others in the story with an equally compelling claim to this role?
When does the difference in social class between Hanna and Michael become most clear and painful? Why does Hanna feel uncomfortable staying overnight in Michael's house? Is Hanna angry about her lack of education?
Why is the sense of smell so important in this story? What is it about Hanna that so strongly provokes the boy's desire? If Hanna represents "an invitation to forget the world in the recesses of the body" (p. 16), why is she the only woman Michael seems able to love?
One reviewer has pointed out that "learning that the love of your life used to be a concentration camp guard is not part of the American baby boomer experience."* Is The Reader's central theme—love and betrayal between generations—particular to Germany, given the uniqueness of German history? Is there anything roughly parallel to it in the American experience?
In a novel so suffused with guilt, how is Michael guilty? Does his narrative serve as a way of putting himself on trial? What verdict does he reach? Is he asking readers to examine the evidence he presents and to condemn him or exonerate him? Or has he already condemned himself?
When Michael consults his father about Hanna's trial, does his father give him good advice? Why does Michael not act upon this advice? Is the father deserving of the son's scorn and disappointment? Is Michael's love for Hanna meant, in part, to be an allegory for his generation's implication in their parents' guilt?
Do you agree with Michael's judgment that Hanna was sympathetic with the prisoners she chose to read to her, and that she wanted their final month of life to be bearable? Or do you see Hanna in a darker light: Do the testimonies about her cruelty and sadism ring true?
Asked to explain why she didn't let the women out of the burning church, Hanna remembers being urgently concerned with the need to keep order. What is missing in her reasoning process? Are you surprised at her responses to the judge's attempt to prompt her into offering self-defense as an excuse?
Why does Hanna twice ask the judge, "What would you have done?" Is the judge sympathetic toward Hanna? What is she trying to communicate in the moment when she turns and looks directly at him?
Why does Michael visit the concentration camp at Struthof? What is he seeking? What does he find instead?
Michael comments that Enlightenment law (the foundation of the American legal system as well as the German one) was "based on the belief that a good order is intrinsic to the world" (p. 181). How does his experience with Hanna's trial influence Michael's view of history and of law?
What do you think of Michael's decision to send Hanna the tapes? He notices that the books he has chosen to read aloud "testify to a great and fundamental confidence in bourgeois culture" (p. 185). Does the story of Hanna belie this faith? Would familiarity with the literature she later reads have made any difference in her willingness to collaborate in Hitler's regime?
One might argue that Hanna didn't willfully collaborate with Hitler's genocide and that her decisions were driven only by a desire to hide her secret. Does this view exonerate Hanna in any way? Are there any mitigating circumstances in her case? How would you have argued for her, if you were a lawyer working in her defense?
Do you agree with the judgment of the concentration camp survivor to whom Michael delivers Hanna's money at the end of the novel? Why does she accept the tea tin, but not the money? Who knew Hanna better—Michael or this woman? Has Michael been deluded by his love? Is he another of Hanna's victims?
Why does Hanna do what she does at the end of the novel? Does her admission that the dead "came every night, whether I wanted them or not" (pp. 198–99) imply that she suffered for her crimes? Is complicity in the crimes of the Holocaust an unforgivable sin?
How does this novel leave you feeling and thinking? Is it hopeful or ultimately despairing? If you have read other Holocaust literature, how does The Reader compare?
*Suzanna Ruta, The New York Times Book Review, July 27, 1997: 8.
"A counterpointing of two stories, or a story and a history, of victim and victimizer, culpability and disavowal, indictment and extenuation. ... Bernhard Schlink has taken on a grievously formidable subject. ...We praise books that, as we say, make us think. The Reader makes us think ... about things we would rather not think about, issues which the book leaves open and we might wish to have closed one way or another."
— The New York Review of Books
"Beautiful, disturbing ... ensnares both heart and mind."
— Los Angeles Times
"It speaks straight to the heart."
— Suzanne Ruta, The New York Times
"A compact portrayal of a teenaged German boy's love affair with an emotionally remote older woman, and the troubled consequence of his discovery of who she really is and why she simultaneously needed him and rejected him. Seven years after their intimacy, university student Michael Berg accidentally learns that (now) 40ish Hannah Schmitz had concealed from him a past that reaches back to Auschwitz and had burdened her with nightmares from which her young lover was powerless to awaken her. Toward its climax, the novel becomes, fitfully, frustratingly abstract, but on balance this is a gripping psychological study that moves skillfully toward its surprising and moving conclusion."
— Kirkusny Minghella