The narrator, Michael Berg, tells the story of his teenage affair with a former Nazi prison guard and its aftermath. In Part 1, a 15-year-old Michael is on his way home when he becomes violently ill by the side of a building. One of the building’s tenants, 36-year-old Hanna Schmitz rescues him, cleaning him up and bringing him back home, where his doctor diagnoses him with hepatitis. Months later, after urging from his mother, Michael returns to the woman’s apartment in order to thank her, but as the woman is preparing to walk him out, he finds himself unable to stop watching her get dressed. Embarrassed to be caught, he flees and later is plagued with guilt for fantasizing about her. However, a few days later, he visits Hanna’s apartment again, intending to apologize. To his delight Hanna is not annoyed with him and merely asks him to fetch some coal from the cellar. He does so but returns covered in coal dust after accidentally dislodging a pile of coal. Hanna runs a bath for him and seduces him. The two then begin a continuing affair, including this ritual of showering and sex. Later, when Hanna becomes interested in Michael’s studies, she makes his reading aloud to her a condition for sex, and their routine soon incorporates reading before their shower.
During his Easter vacation, Michael plans a bicycle trip for the two of them. Hanna leaves all the logistics to Michael, who orders food from menus, registers them as mother and son at the inns, and plans their route on his maps. On their vacation, they begin their days making love and spend the rest of the day cycling. One morning, Michael decides to get Hanna breakfast before she wakes up and leaves a note. However, when she returns, she is furious. To Michael’s great shock, she hits him with a belt, and then bursts into tears, because he left with no explanation. Michael tells her that he left a note, but Hanna claims that there was no note.
When Michael starts a new school year in the 11th grade, he makes new friends, including Sophie, on whom he has a crush. He begins to go to the swimming pool with his classmates, and becomes torn between spending time with his friends and spending time with Hanna. Whenever he has fights with Hanna he comes increasingly resentful of how she bullies him into surrendering, but he also always begs for forgiveness, as he is afraid of losing her. As he grows closer to his friends but neglects to tell them about Hanna, he begins to feel as if he is betraying her by denying her importance in his life. One day, while Michael is at the swimming pool, he sees Hanna from a distance. Unsure of what to do, he hesitates before getting up, but in that moment she is gone.
The next day, Hanna is nowhere to be found, and after asking around at her building, her employer, and the citizens’ registration office, he discovers that she has denied a promotion and moved away. Plagued by guilt, Michael believes that his betrayal and his hesitation caused her to leave.
Part 2 begins with Michael’s struggle to overcome the pain of losing Hanna, who haunts his dreams and thoughts. As time passes, along with his pain and guilt, he appears to move on, adopting a mask of “arrogant superiority.” Though his friendships and relationships come easily to him, he is at times cold and at others overemotional. Six years later, Michael is a young law student taking a class that centers on a trial concerning the concentration camps. Michael, along with his classmates, become zealous crusaders intent on uncovering the atrocities of the Third Reich. The students condemn not only direct perpetrators of the crimes but also the bystanders and accommodators who had accepted the perpetrators’ activities during the Nazi regime and accepted them back into society after the war—in short, the previous generation.
As part of the class, the students attend the trial on a weekly basis. At the court, when the defendants’ names are called, Michael discovers that Hanna is one of the former Nazi guards on trial. However, despite the pain that Hanna’s departure once gave him, he “felt nothing” at learning this news. During her preliminary hearing, Hanna reveals that she rejected a promotion at her factory job shortly before signing up as a prison guard, making it appear to the jury that she had voluntarily, if not enthusiastically, joined the SS. Hanna’s lawyer does not do much to help her salvage this first bad impression, and Hanna is kept under detention for having ignored summonses. Unlike his classmates, who attend only weekly, Michael attends the trial every day, always watching Hanna. As Michael becomes exposed to more horrors for a prolonged period of time, he begins to feel numb and is emotionally distant, not unlike the survivors and even perpetrators of the Holocaust who are exposed to evil on a regular basis.
The main charges against Hanna and the other four women are that they were involved in selecting 60 people to send to their deaths every month and that they had locked hundreds of women and girls in a burning church. The trial goes poorly for Hanna, whose initially bad impression becomes worse as she continually contradicts the indictment, despite her opportunity to review it before the trial began, and who cannot seem to understand the gravity of her actions at the concentration camp. When the judge asks Hanna if she knew she was participating in murder, she seems entirely concerned with the task of clearing out barracks space and indifferent to the fact that she sent people to their deaths. Though Hanna denies certain charges, she admits others that she finds true, regardless of their impact on her conviction. For example, she admits to being aware that her prisoners would die. The other defendants’ lawyers use her admissions to their advantage, claiming that Hanna was the leader of the other guards, the most culpable and most cruel, and the only one aware that the prisoners would die. They point to Hanna’s “special prisoners,” young girls to whom Hanna would give better food and barracks space and with whom she would spend evenings before sending them off to Auschwitz. At this point, a Jewish woman who had survived the church fire with her mother suddenly remembers a secret that one of Hanna’s favorites had told her: Hanna had not molested the girls as they all thought, but rather had made them read to her. Though the woman’s testimony provides Hanna a good opportunity to gain the sympathies of the court, neither she nor her lawyer takes advantage of it.
When the judge asks the defendants why they didn’t unlock the church doors, most of the defendants claim that they were otherwise preoccupied, despite a report that they had actually been guarding the church to prevent the prisoners from escaping. The women claim that the report is false, and one defendant accuses Hanna of writing the report as a cover up. However, Hanna tells the judge that they had all decided together what to say on the report. When a prosecutor suggests calling in an expert to compare the defendants’ handwriting to that of the report, Hanna confesses to writing the report.
Michael realizes that Hanna cannot read or write, and he debates whether or not he should tell the judge, as testimony of Hanna’s illiteracy would most likely result in a shorter prison sentence for her. However, Hanna clearly does not want to be exposed as illiterate, and Michael seeks his father’s advice as a philosopher. His father tells him that though he may believe he knows what is good for his friend, he cannot go behind her back, as it would violate her human dignity; rather, he must try to convince her to do what is best for her. However, Michael is unsatisfied with this answer, as he does not feel ready to meet Hanna face-to-face. Michael decides to visit the judge but cannot bring himself to visit Hanna. He chats amicably with the judge but does not mention Hanna or her illiteracy. At the end of the trial, Hanna is sentenced to life in prison.
In Part 3, after the trial is over, Michael spends much of his time obsessing over his studies and avoiding others, so that the numbness that had come over him during the trial remains. Despite his aloofness, Michael is invited to a ski trip with his classmates and he accepts. Both emotionally numb and indifferent to the cold, Michael comes down with a fever, but once he recovers, he feels the pain and horror he had during the trial.
By the time Michael finishes his studies, the student movement is already underway, and the narrator contemplates his generation’s struggle to deal with collective guilt for the Nazi past. Like most of his generation, Michael had assigned blame to his parents. Though Michael eventually realizes that his parents are blameless, Hanna is not, and he feels guilty for having chosen and loved her.
As a law clerk, Michael marries his girlfriend Gertrud when she gets pregnant. Over the course of their marriage, Michael never tells her about Hanna but often compares Gertrud to Hanna in his mind. The marriage lasts only five years, and Michael’s guilt over making his daughter Julia suffer through their divorce pushes him to become more open about Hanna in his relationships. However, he doesn’t appear satisfied with the women’s reactions to his past with Hanna and he eventually stops talking about her.
After the divorce, Michael is restless and feels haunted by thoughts of Hanna. To pass the time, he records himself reading books aloud to her and sends her the cassette tapes. Though the tapes become Michael’s way of communicating with Hanna, he never includes personal messages on the recordings. Four years later, Michael receives a handwritten thank you note from Hanna. While Michael is delighted that Hanna has finally learned to read and write, he feels sorry for how long it took her, and for how it delayed her life. Hanna begins to send Michael notes regularly, commenting on her life or the books, but Michael never writes back. However, he continues sending her tapes for the next ten years, until she is granted clemency by her parole board.
When the warden at Hanna’s prison writes Michael a letter to ask for his assistance during Hanna’s upcoming release, Michael is hesitant, as he still cannot face Hanna. Though he agrees to set up an apartment and job for her, he does not visit her in prison or write her letters. After a year, the warden calls to let him know what Hanna will be released in a week. When Michael finally visits the prison, he is shocked to find Hanna an old woman, and he cannot find in her the woman he once loved. Their reunion is awkward and bittersweet. Though Hanna is happy to see him, both realize that they can no longer continue the relationship they had built through the cassette tapes. Michael still feels uneasy about trial and asks her whether she had thought about her time in the SS when they were together. Hanna evades the question, claiming that only the dead can “call [her] to account,” but tells Michael that the dead visit her every night in prison. Michael, however, believes this is too easy of an excuse and secretly feels that he deserves to call Hanna to account too. The next week, the day before Michael is to pick Hanna up, he decides to call her at the prison, asking her to think about what she wants to do the next day. When Hanna teases him, he notices that her voice still sounds young.
The next day, Hanna kills herself. The warden shows Michael Hanna’s cell and reveals that Hanna had been reading up on survivor literature and books about the concentration camps. When Michael sees that Hanna had kept a newspaper photo of his high school graduation, he begins to cry, realizing how much Hanna must have cared for him. The warden informs him that Hanna had left a will. She wanted Michael to give the money in her bank account and some money in her tea tin to the daughter who had survived the church fire.
Months later, Michael visits the Jewish woman in New York to explain the situation. The woman refuses to take direct responsibility for Hanna’s money, nor to allow it to be donated to a Holocaust organization, as to do so would be to grant Hanna absolution. She does, however, take Hanna’s tea tin, as it reminds her of the tea tin that had once held her childhood treasures and that was stolen from her at a concentration camp. The woman tells Michael that he can choose an organization and donate the money himself. Michael donates the money under Hanna’s name to the Jewish League Against Illiteracy before visiting Hanna’s grave for the first and only time.