The Reader Part 3, Chapter 4 Summary & Analysis from LitCharts | The creators of SparkNotes
The Reader

The Reader

The Reader Part 3, Chapter 4 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
By this time, Julia is in kindergarten, Gertrud is working as a judge, and Michael has been having a difficult time deciding what legal profession he should pursue. His witnessing of Hanna’s trial led him to believe that prosecution, defense, and judging were all “grotesque oversimplification[s]”, and he finds administration “dreary.” Eventually, he falls into a research position. Despite Gertrud’s claim that it is “an evasion, an escape from the challenges and responsibilities of life,” Michael is glad to escape and pursues legal history as a career.
Michael’s desire to “escape…the challenges and responsibilities of life” by taking a research position echoes his previous attraction to Hanna’s obliviousness. Just as he succumbs to Hanna’s “invitation to forget the world,” Michael escapes into legal history.
Themes
Guilt, Responsibility, and the Holocaust Theme Icon
Secrets, Indifference, and Emotional Distance Theme Icon
Reading and Illiteracy Theme Icon
The narrator asserts that studying the past is just as rich as participating in the present, and that “doing history means building bridges between the past and the present…taking an active part on both sides.” He points to an example from his own life: law in the Third Reich was one of his research areas. He claims that his escape was not an obsession with the past but “a determined focus on the present and the future that is blind to the legacy of the past which brands us.”
While the narrator admits his profession is an escape, he also believes it is productive and allows him to better understand the present in light of the past. Though Michael had been avoiding confrontation with his past, his decision to study the Third Reich allows him take some responsibility for the past, even while escaping responsibility for the present.
Themes
Guilt, Responsibility, and the Holocaust Theme Icon
Secrets, Indifference, and Emotional Distance Theme Icon
Reading and Illiteracy Theme Icon
Yet at the same time, Michael found it “gratifying” to explore a past that was not immediately connected to him or his present. Michael’s study of Enlightenment legal codes, which were founded on the idea that good order is possible, made him happy, leading him to believe that the history of law was generally one of progress. Later, he dismisses this idea as a pipe dream and theorizes that law continually seeks its origin, much like Odysseus from The Odyssey, which Michael had been rereading at this time. The narrator claims that like The Odyssey, the history of law is “the story of motion both purposeful and purposeless, successful and futile.”
The narrator’s musings on the history of law compares the course of law to that of Odysseus, whose “story of motion [is] both purposeful and purposeless, successful and futile.” Like Odysseus and Michael’s conception of law, Michael is constantly seeking his own origin through Hanna, encountering both successes and failures during the affair and in the aftermath of the trial.
Themes
Generational and Parent-Child Conflict Theme Icon