Thursday, 13 October 2011

The Reader - Bernhard Schlink

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“The Reader” � Bernhard Schlink Stephanie Ayres, 11

“Maybe I did write our story to be free of it, even if I never can be”

The relationship Michael shares with Hanna is plagued by issues of denial and betrayal even the death of Hanna does not absolve Michael from her power. There are many sides to a relationship as complicated as that of Michael and Hanna, yet from whichever viewpoint we take, all we see is a web of deceit, disavowal, denial and betrayal, from which Michael cannot ever completely disentangle himself.

From the very beginning we can see cracks in Hanna and Michael’s relationship; Hanna denies Michael his side of what turns into a predominantly one-sided relationship. Hanna’s absolute power over Michael, due in part to their age difference, lends to their constant misunderstandings, and Michael’s invariable surrender when they fight. Michael himself admits this “If she threatened, I instantly and unconditionally surrendered.” After the disappointment of Hanna’s apparent ignorance of him on the tram, Michael surrenders without a great fuss, and he does not force the issue when Hanna claims that he did not leave a note for her on their trip to Wimpfen. Yet her power does not stop at their own personal relationship. It extends to Michael’s other relationships everything in his relationships can be traced back to Hanna. He asks girlfriends to put on stockings as Hanna had done, and later admits “the woman had to move and feel a bit like Hanna, smell and taste a bit like her, for things to be good between us.” Hanna was the most vital part of his life for over a year, and she abused this by taking advantage of him.

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Michael engages himself in disavowal of Hanna among his friends even though he himself cannot deny his betrayal of Hanna “you, who are doing the disavowal, you know what you’re doing.” The first time we are made aware of the fact that Michael wishes to keep his relationship concealed from his friends is at the theatre in the next town, at which he puts his arm around Hanna and feels proud about not caring but acknowledges to himself, “I know that in the theatre in our home town I would care.” In Blumenstrasse, Michael’s group of friends is oblivious to all but the fact that Michael sometimes comes to the pool late or leaves early. Given opportunities, or even when asked, as he is by Sophie at the bus shelter, he gives away nothing about Hanna and his friends slowly begin to take precedence in his life as he continues in his path of betrayal. When Michael’s friends hold a party for him at the pool and Hanna takes second place, unaware that it is his birthday, she sees that Michael “wanted to be somewhere else, at the pool, with my classmates, swept up in the exuberance of our talk, our banter, our games and our flirtations.” This is the beginning of the end for their relationship, as they both start to see it more clearly.

However, Michael is not the only one guilty of betrayal in this multi-faceted relationship. For the entire duration of their relationship, Hanna is hiding shameful truths. We know before the demise of the relationship that it will end in pain as Michael reflects on memories of past happiness in chapter nine. Hanna’s past and her refusal to inform Michael of it completely change the nature of the relationship when he finds out. Everything he was led to believe about the relationship is lessened and knowing he was in love with a criminal all that time has to inevitably change the way he thinks and feels about that time, as images of an “imperious, cruel Hanna” undermine his personal memories of her. Not only does Michael feel betrayed by Hanna’s actions, he also feels 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.” The relationship inexorably crumbles in the wake of the shock of Hanna’s hidden past.

Hanna’s death comes as a shock to Michael and in the aftermath he cannot get a grip on his own emotions, much less resolve the issues of denial and betrayal that hung over his head since his relationship with Hanna years before. After the trial involving Hanna, Michael continues to associate with her through cassettes and, when news of her release reaches him, he prepares a flat and a job for her. Perhaps Hanna killed herself for reasons concerning Michael � did she perhaps feel that she would be too much of a burden or that she would be placing too much reliance on him as she adapted to her return to the outside world? Or maybe it was simply atonement for what she had done, as she read about the Holocaust while in prison and may have developed a clearer picture of the impact of her own actions. In any case, her dying wish is directed via Michael. This in itself is a symbol of her continuing power over him. In the autumn after Hanna’s death, Michael carries out her instructions still, she is impacting his life. Michael donates her money to a fund for illiteracy, so he is obviously still bothered by these issues. Even months after her death, Hanna is controlling Michael’s thoughts and actions.

There is little doubt that Hanna and Michael betrayed each other, even less doubt that they denied each other some of their most simple rights. However, Hanna’s death does not provide Michael with an outlet for the emotions he associates with these turns of events. He cannot resolve these issues so easily. After all, Michael may have only written the story to be free of it � “even if I never can be.”

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