The Reader

The Reader

The Reader Part 1, Chapter 4 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
When Michael is ready to leave, Frau Schmitz says she’ll walk him out, but she decides to change her clothes first. Michael waits in the hall while the woman changes in the kitchen. However, the kitchen door is slightly open, and Michael watches her undress and put on stockings. Unable to stop himself from staring, he takes in the sight of her neck, her shoulders, her breasts, her hips, and her stocking-covered legs. But the woman soon realizes that he is watching her and returns his gaze with a look that is “surprised, skeptical, knowing, reproachful.” Michael, full of shame, flees the apartment and the building.
Michael’s nascent sexuality begins to grow as he stares at the half-naked woman. His gaze on her is both voyeuristic and objectifying, as he looks at her in this moment not as a whole person but as a series of body parts. Only when the woman returns his gaze, expressing her subjecthood with a “reproachful” look, does Michael become ashamed.
Themes
Guilt, Responsibility, and the Holocaust Theme Icon
The Image as Memory and the Gaze Theme Icon
On his way back home, Michael dawdles along the familiar streets and buildings, his heart still pounding. When he calms down, he is both angry with himself for running away like a child and puzzled about why he was unable to stop staring at her. Unlike the girls he liked to watch at the swimming pool, Frau Schmitz is much older and more womanly.
Michael is angry with himself not for violating the woman’s privacy but for acting like a child. His confusion over his attraction to an older woman stems from his usual attraction to girls from his own age group, whom he also subjected to his voyeurism.
Themes
Guilt, Responsibility, and the Holocaust Theme Icon
The Image as Memory and the Gaze Theme Icon
The narrator reveals that he realized years later it was not just the woman’s body that attracted him but the way she carried herself. Reflecting that the woman’s movements were seductive but not purposely so, he attributes this seductiveness to her apparent “[withdrawal] into her own body…unbothered by any input from her mind, oblivious to the outside world.” Michael identifies Frau Schmitz’s unselfconscious grace as “an invitation to forget the world in the recesses of the body.” However, the fifteen-year-old Michael does not realize this yet, and only focuses on the excitement the incident brings him, replaying in his mind the images of the woman again and again.
The teenage Michael uses his memories of the woman to fulfill his voyeuristic desire. The older Michael narrating the story reflects that is the woman’s obliviousness that he found attractive, yet it is precisely this obliviousness that also facilitated her crimes as a Nazi. That Michael succumbs to the temptation to “forget the world in the recesses of the body” — that is, to forget the recent past for the sake of their affair — renders him complicit and more deeply entrenches him in the generational conflict between Nazi perpetrators and accommodators, and their children (a topic that will be explored later in the book).
Themes
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