The Reader

The Reader

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The Image as Memory and the Gaze Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Guilt, Responsibility, and the Holocaust Theme Icon
Secrets, Indifference, and Emotional Distance Theme Icon
Generational and Parent-Child Conflict Theme Icon
Reading and Illiteracy Theme Icon
The Image as Memory and the Gaze Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Reader, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
The Image as Memory and the Gaze Theme Icon

A recurring motif in the novel is the idea that images function as memory. For example, Michael remembers a younger Hanna through “pictures” on a “mental projector,” and for post-Holocaust Germany, images of Nazi atrocities “derived from Allied photographs and the testimony of survivors” become part of the nation’s collective memory, serving as both a record of knowledge and a warning to avoid past mistakes. As a law student, Michael and his classmates use the image and the gaze as a means to bring Nazi war crimes to light by pointing to and reinforcing this collective memory: “Even when the facts took our breath away, we held them up triumphantly. Look at this!” As a facilitator of memory, the gaze is thus presented by the novel as the acknowledgment or recognition of evil.

However, the gaze can also lead to the desensitization of its viewers and thus the dehumanization of others. Unlike his classmates, who “kept being horrified all over again” because they attended the trial on a weekly basis, Michael becomes numb to the horrors of Nazi war crimes because he attends the trial every day. He no longer feels the same righteous, voyeuristic fervor he once brought to uncovering the atrocities of the Holocaust. The defendants, who were exposed to the Holocaust’s atrocities on a daily basis, and the trial’s regular spectators are also subject to this numbness, which makes them more susceptible to dehumanizing others. As Michael recalls from survivor literature, “the gas chambers and ovens become ordinary scenery” for the perpetrators, who became used to committing murder. Desensitized to the trial’s horrific evidence, the spectators also engage in dehumanization (though to a much lesser degree) in their demonization of Hanna and the other defendants. By showing the gaze’s potential both to uncover and to cause evil, Schlink presents the gaze as a double-edged sword, one that must be used economically in order to reinforce, rather than anesthetize, our humanity.

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The Image as Memory and the Gaze Quotes in The Reader

Below you will find the important quotes in The Reader related to the theme of The Image as Memory and the Gaze.
Part 1, Chapter 4 Quotes

I remember that her body and the way she held it and moved sometimes seemed awkward. Not that she was particularly heavy. It was more as if she had withdrawn into her own body, and left it to itself and its own quiet rhythms, unbothered by any input from her mind, oblivious to the outside world. It was the same obliviousness that weighted in her glance and her movements when she was pulling on her stockings. But then she was not awkward, she was slow-flowing, graceful, seductive — a seductiveness that had nothing to do with breasts and hips and legs, but was an invitation to forget the world in the recesses of the body.

Related Characters: Michael Berg (speaker), Hanna Schmitz (Frau Shmitz)
Page Number: 16
Explanation and Analysis:

After recounting his voyeuristic gaze at Hanna putting on her stockings, the narrator reflects on why he found her so attractive. It was Hanna’s seemingly un-self-conscious demeanor, her “obliviousness” to the world that Michael found seductive.

However, the temptation of this obliviousness is problematic, as forgetting the world and its other inhabitants can lead to disaster. Because Hanna’s actions, like the rhythms of her body, are “unbothered by any input from her mind,” she is indifferent to the suffering of her victims in the concentration camps. The seduction of Michael, who succumbs to this obliviousness, is then an allegory for the accommodation of Nazi perpetrators in Germany after the war. Just as regular German people figuratively got into bed with Nazis, turning a blind eye to their crimes, Michael literally gets into bed with Hanna.

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Part 1, Chapter 12 Quotes

It is one of the pictures of Hanna that has stayed with me. I have them stored away, I can project them on a mental screen and watch them, unchanged, unconsumed. There are long periods when I don't think about them at all. But they always come back into my head, and then I sometimes have to run them repeatedly through my mental projector and watch them.

Related Characters: Michael Berg (speaker), Hanna Schmitz (Frau Shmitz)
Page Number: 62
Explanation and Analysis:

Referring to the image of Hanna in his father’s study the first time he invited her to his house, Michael describes the visual manner in which he stores memories of Hanna in his mind. Like the images of Nazi atrocities during the trial (later in the novel), Michael’s images of Hanna become engrained into his mind as memories. That these images often pop into Michael’s head suggests that the memory of Hanna is still haunting him. Michael’s urge to “run them repeatedly through [his] mental projector” evokes in the reader a sense of nostalgia, but also a kind of nostalgia that is impossible to escape. Michael’s nostalgia as well as his sense of being haunted by Hanna are manifestations of his inner conflict about her after the revelations of the trial.

Part 2, Chapter 4 Quotes

After a time I thought I could detect a similar numbness in other people.… The effect was strongest on the judges and the lay members of the court. During the first weeks of the trial they took in the horrors — sometimes recounted in tears, sometimes in choking voices, sometimes in agitated or broken sentences — with visible shock or obvious efforts at self-control. Later their faces returned to normal; they could smile and whisper to one another or even show traces of impatience when a witness lost the thread while testifying. When going to Israel to question a witness was discussed, they started getting the travel bug. The other students kept being horrified all over again. They only came to the trial once a week, and each time the same thing happened: the intrusion of horror into daily life. I, who was in court every day, observed their reactions with detachment.

Related Characters: Michael Berg (speaker)
Page Number: 101-102
Explanation and Analysis:

When he discovers that Hanna is one of the defendants on trial, Michael starts watching the trial every day rather than once a week, like the rest of his classmates. However, the longer he stays, and the more often he’s exposed to the horrifying evidence of the Nazis’ crimes, the more numb and detached he feels. Like Michael, the judges and other spectators of the court also seem to feel this numbness. Whereas in the beginning of the trial, they had strong emotional responses to witness testimony, after a few weeks, they become somewhat indifferent. By contrast, Michael’s classmates are horrified each time they visit, as the images of Nazi atrocities are not part of their daily lives, but are only a weekly spectacle. Michael’s experience with and observations of this phenomenon demonstrate that repeated or prolonged exposure to trauma can cause this numbness or indifference.

Part 2, Chapter 13 Quotes

When I think today about those years, I realize how little direct observation there actually was, how few photographs that made life and murder in the camps real…. We were familiar with some of the testimony of prisoners, but many of them were published soon after the war and not reissued until the 1980s, and in the intervening years they disappeared from publishers' lists. Today there are so many books and films that the world of the camps is part of our collective imagination and completes our ordinary everyday one…not just registering, but supplementing and embellishing it. Back then, the imagination was almost static: the shattering fact of the world of the camps seemed properly beyond its operations. The few images derived from Allied photographs and the testimony of survivors flashed on the mind again and again, until they froze into clichés.

Related Characters: Michael Berg (speaker)
Page Number: 147-148
Explanation and Analysis:

When the court flies to Israel to receive another witness testimony, Michael has two weeks away from the trial to himself. Yet he can’t help but think of the images from the trial, mixed with his own images of Hanna. Michael compares the scarcity of images of Nazi horrors back then with the preponderance of Holocaust media today. For Michael at that time, the atrocities of the Holocaust were so horrifying they were impossible to imagine and could only be understood through “clichés” from the few (and thus overused) photographs and testimonies that were available. Michael’s desire to break free of these clichéd images is then what pushes him to visit a nearby concentration camp.

Part 3, Chapter 9 Quotes

Only occasionally, when I was driving my car, or when I was in Hanna's apartment, did thoughts of it get the upper hand and trigger memories. I saw her on the bench, her eyes fixed on me, saw her at the swimming pool, her face turned to me, and again had the feeling that I had betrayed her and owed her something. And again I rebelled against this feeling; I accused her, and found it both shabby and too easy, the way she had wriggled out of her guilt. Allowing no one but the dead to demand an accounting, reducing guilt and atonement to insomnia and bad feelings — where did that leave the living? But what I meant was not the living, it was me. Did I not have my own accounting to demand of her? What about me?

Related Characters: Michael Berg (speaker), Hanna Schmitz (Frau Shmitz)
Page Number: 201
Explanation and Analysis:

Michael has been preparing for Hanna’s release and can’t help but think of how she “wriggled out of her guilt,” claiming that only the dead can hold her responsible for her wrongs. Michael, however, feels that Hanna has wronged him, and that he deserves his “own accounting to demand of her.”

Though Hanna seems to accept at least some guilt for her actions during the war, she does not take responsibility for how she treated Michael. Her disregard for Michael’s feelings had been a major element of their relationship when he was a teenager, and it continues to haunt him in the form of his recurring memory-images as an adult. Not only did she often ignore his feelings but she kept her Nazi past a secret from him, apparently indifferent to the effect that her past might have on him. Later, when Michael meets with the Jewish woman, we are presented with another reason (albeit muted in Michael’s perception) for Michael to hold Hanna responsible: the affair itself. Michael had only been 15 when he met Hanna, and effect of the affair sabotaged his relationships with his family, his friends, his wife, and his daughter.