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! Recommended By Dianah H., Powells.com
Synopses & Reviews
Hailed for its coiled eroticism and the moral claims it makes upon the reader, this mesmerizing novel is a story of love and secrets, horror and compassion, unfolding against the haunted landscape of postwar Germany.
When he falls ill on his way home from school, fifteen-year-old Michael Berg is rescued by Hanna, a woman twice his age. In time she becomes his lover then she inexplicably disappears. When Michael next sees her, he is a young law student, and she is on trial for a hideous crime. As he watches her refuse to defend her innocence, Michael gradually realizes that Hanna may be guarding a secret she considers more shameful than murder.
About the Author
Bernhard Schlink was born in Germany in 1944. A professor of law at the University of Berlin and a practicing judge, he is also the author of several prize-winning crime novels. He lives in Bonn and Berlin.
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?