Though Michael does not remember the Friday seminars for his concentration camp seminar, he does remember his Sundays, which he would spend immersed in nature. One day when he is walking the woods, thinking about Hanna, he realizes, as if he had known it all along, that Hanna is illiterate. Her illiteracy explains many facets of her life — why she made Michael read to her, why she let Michael make all the arrangements for their bicycle trip, why she rejected promotions, why she became a Nazi prison guard, and why she falsely confessed to writing the report.
Michael finally realizes that Hanna is illiterate and that her determination to keep it secret explains many of her interactions with Michael and the life choices she has made. This is the key he’s been looking for—but finding it only leads to more frustration, as Hanna has seemingly privileged keeping this secret above everything else, including the lives of others and even her own life.
Michael wonders whether Hanna had sent her favorite prisoners to Auschwitz to keep her secret. Though he understands how Hanna’s shame might push other people away, he has difficulty grasping the idea that this shame is enough to commit murder, that the reputation of a criminal is better than that of an illiterate. However, Michael rejects the idea that Hanna had actively chosen crime to hide her shame and chooses to believe that Hanna simply wanted to make the weaker prisoners’ last month bearable. He believes that Hanna “did not calculate” or weigh her illiteracy against her crimes, but rather was “fighting for her own truth” by keeping her illiteracy secret.
Michael is initially torn between his urge to understand Hanna’s motivations for her crimes and his suspicions that she is calculating and cruel. Ultimately, however, Michael choses to see the best in Hanna. Michael’s rejection of the possibility that Hanna actively chose crime to hide her illiteracy implicitly endorses Hannah Arendt’s theory of the “banality of evil,” the idea that evil is not always created by sadistic monsters but can be caused by the indifference and ignorance of regular people.
Michael realizes how different Hanna’s worries must have been from what he had imagined. Michael thought that his betrayal made Hanna leave, but she was actually trying to hide her illiteracy from the streetcar company. Nevertheless, Michael does not absolve himself of responsibility for betraying Hanna. He believes that even if he wasn’t guilty for betraying a criminal, he was guilty for loving one.
Though Michael had sworn off guilt after Hanna left him, his old feelings return even after he realizes that he did not cause Hanna to leave. Though he knows intellectually that he may not be guilty for betraying her by keeping the affair secret, he still feels guilty because he loved her.