I was surprised, after puzzling through the youthful sexual awakening of young Michael in Schlink’s The Reader, to find myself drawn into the questions, truly deep questions about one’s responsibility to life. I should shout LIFE in three-inch capitals and then spend the next three months defining the concept I am presenting with the four-letter word. But, I won’t. I will let others ponder that personal relationship with all that is affected by existing and acting on during that existence. How one defines and views life is personal.
Schlink presents the character Michael’s understanding of his own life as intricately chained to the woman who awakened him to sex and to himself. As a youth, he was ashamed to acknowledge her, and as an adult he continues to be ashamed, “I had to point at Hanna. But the finger I pointed at her turned back to me. I had loved her. Not only had I loved her, I had chosen her. I tried to tell myself that I had known nothing of what she had done when I chose her. I tried to talk myself into the state of innocence in which children love their parents. But love of our parents is the only love for which we are not responsible.
“And perhaps we are responsible even for the love we feel for our parents. I envied other students back then who had dissociated themselves from their parents and thus from the entire generation of perpetrators, voyeurs, and the willfully blind […]” (170-171).
Unfortunately, even though he tries to disassociate himself from Hanna, she is as intimate as his skin. He knows she has touched and molded his personhood with the personal intensity of a parent’s relationship to a child. Michael’s bond to his father is less strong than his bond with Hanna, but he is a crippled soul. He cannot visit Hanna; he can only read to her on tapes.
This novel, that I had thought would simply develop into another bildungsroman, opened complexities. It jabbed a question that made me uneasy, “What would you have done?” (128). The question was asked by an illiterate woman who had tried to figure out the actions of a war-beleaguered modern world without having read stories, essays, religious tracts, letters to the editor, or any of those things that make a reader pause and adjust the way conscience sits on her head. Without having been able to hold words still before her eyes with awareness of all the potency of their meaning, how could she extend herself and her decisions beyond the present, beyond immediate reaction to an act? She couldn’t. She was limited by her inability to read. She could not delve more deeply than the oily surface of life that was presented to her.
There is the crux of Schlink’s message to each person who prides herself as civilized: one must read stories of others who have made good and bad choices if one is to be capable of decision. “What would you have done?” Hanna asks the judge with the sincerity of a person who encountered a machine that needed to be fixed but had no schematic. She reaches from her sensible simplicity, from her neat uniforms and cleanliness to the complicated messiness of law and judgments. At a moment when a simple action would have saved lives, she chose no action, because she could not act in a manner that would be orderly. Is this an inability to be moral? Is this an inability to see beyond what is practical?
Michael, having studied law, is aware of judgments expected by society’s codes of honor. He judges his parents; he judges his parents’ generation. But Hanna taught him a different connectivity to people, and he has lost understanding of her sensible touch.
As predictable as the ending was, it made me very sad. It seems to affirm my own lack of reaching out with understanding. How brutal I can be when I keep my life confined in the same way that Michael confined his visits to Hanna. He visited with someone else’s words on little plastic cassettes.
Schlink, Bernhard. The Reader. Trans. Carol Brown Janeway. New York: Vintage International, 2008.