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Original Essays | September 15, 2014

Lois Leveen: IMG Forsooth Me Not: Shakespeare, Juliet, Her Nurse, and a Novel



There's this writer, William Shakespeare. Perhaps you've heard of him. He wrote this play, Romeo and Juliet. Maybe you've heard of it as well. It's... Continue »
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    Juliet's Nurse

    Lois Leveen 9781476757445

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The Reader

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The Reader Cover

ISBN13: 9780375707971
ISBN10: 0375707972
Condition: Standard
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Reading Group Guide

1. 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?

2. 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?

3. 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?

4. 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." [Suzanna Ruta, The New York Times Book Review, July 27, 1997: 8] 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?

5. 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?

6. 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?

7. 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?

8. 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?

9. 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?

10. Why does Michael visit the concentration camp at Struthof? What is he seeking? What does he find instead?

11. 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?

12. 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?

13. 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?

14. 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?

15. 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?

16. 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?

What Our Readers Are Saying

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Average customer rating based on 3 comments:

Zicky, January 2, 2010 (view all comments by Zicky)
I couldn't put this book down! it totally changed my feelings about relationships (and age differences) and the irrationality of people's actions during wartime.
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(1 of 2 readers found this comment helpful)
OneMansView, December 24, 2008 (view all comments by OneMansView)
Absorbing and Cautionary (4.5*s)

Like any fifteen-year-old boy would be, Michael Berg was essentially overwhelmed with the icy good looks of thirty-six-year-old Hanna. Their multi-month affair was intense, awakening, and to some degree exploitative; however, there was a certain reserve and sharpness about Hanna that Michael could never penetrate. Her sudden departure and her memory haunted him for years, but he was completely unprepared for the devastating impact of seeing Hanna as a defendant in a war crimes trial, which he was observing as an assignment for a law school seminar.

The facts that Hanna was a Nazi concentration camp guard and that she was one of several guards charged with overseeing female prisoners who burned to death in a locked cathedral after an allied bombing raid are not in dispute. At this point the questions are many: had he years before not seen or simply ignored a propensity for cruelty, could a person in her position realistically defy orders, what is the complicity and culpability of the entire German society relating to Nazi atrocities, and do laws and legal process actually lead to justice? Beyond these reflections, Michael had to decide whether he should make contact with her and in what way.

Michael finds no easy answers and is quite equivocal in the manner in which he should now relate to Hanna. It is the discovery of a secret, an unusual shortcoming, of Hanna’s that permits him to at least partially understand her past actions and to embark on a course of action that was perhaps all that circumstance allowed.

The book is structured as a book within a book with Michael finally capturing the history and his thoughts of his long association with Hanna. Perhaps the reader will want to question what Hanna or Michael could have done differently, but they, as in life, only get one chance. The book proceeds reasonably well considering the frequent reflection and the author’s tendency for a somewhat difficult writing style. It is definitely an absorbing and cautionary tale
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(8 of 12 readers found this comment helpful)
Markin, December 28, 2007 (view all comments by Markin)
Much enjoyed. The ways it plays with one's moral sense was well crafted.
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(12 of 22 readers found this comment helpful)
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Product Details

ISBN:
9780375707971
Author:
Schlink, Bernhard
Publisher:
Vintage Books USA
Translator:
Janeway, Carol Brown
Author:
Janeway, Carol Brown
Author:
Various
Location:
New York :
Subject:
General
Subject:
Literary
Subject:
Fiction
Subject:
World war, 1939-1945
Subject:
Germany
Subject:
Romance
Subject:
Legal
Subject:
War crime trials
Subject:
World War, 19
Subject:
Man-woman relationships
Subject:
Psychological fiction
Subject:
Literature-A to Z
Subject:
fiction;germany;holocaust;wwii;novel;historical fiction;german;illiteracy;coming of age;romance;german literature;guilt;love;literature;20th century;war;history;oprah s book club;historical;relationships;contemporary;nazis;literacy;war crimes;movie;sex;na
Copyright:
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Series:
Vintage International
Series Volume:
98-499
Publication Date:
19990331
Binding:
TRADE PAPER
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Illustrations:
Y
Pages:
224
Dimensions:
8 x 5.16 x 0.6 in 0.47 lb

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The Reader Used Trade Paper
0 stars - 0 reviews
$3.25 In Stock
Product details 224 pages Vintage Books USA - English 9780375707971 Reviews:
"Staff Pick" by ,

A young man and an older woman have a torrid love affair, until she disappears one day without a trace. Ten years later, he's in law school, watching a trial, and there she is: charged with Nazi war crimes! Yes, she does have a secret, but it's not what you think. Excellent!

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