The novel, which is deeply concerned with guilt, explores the tension that collective guilt creates between parents and children. The generation of Michael’s parents, as well as that of Hanna, is a “generation of perpetrators, voyeurs, and the willfully blind, accommodators and accepters.” Their children face the uncomfortable question of whether they too are complicit by loving their parents, and therefore accepting the previous generation’s crimes. Michael and his peers “condemned [their] parents to shame, even if the only charge [they] could bring was that after 1945 they had tolerated the perpetrators in their midst.” However, Michael is unable to maintain this condemnation, thus representing the anxiety of his generation to reconcile their love of their parents with the moral responsibility of condemning them for their actions or inaction.
Michael’s struggle to negotiate his love for his parents with their supposed complicity foreshadows his struggle between “understanding and condemnation” of Hanna’s crimes. Like Michael’s relationship with his parents, Hanna’s and Michael’s affair can also be viewed through the lens of parent-child conflict. Though Hanna is not Michael’s parent, she does take the role of a mother figure for him. Over 20 years his senior, Hanna often addresses Michael as “kid,” bathes him as part of their sexual ritual, insists that he does well at school, and engages in fingerplay with him, as if he were a small child. When Hanna and Michael vacation together, they rent a room under the guise of mother and son. Michael’s affair with Hanna puts him in a unique situation that separates him from the rest of his generation. Whereas Michael and his peers did not choose their parents, regardless of their complicity in the Holocaust, Michael chose Hanna, a former Nazi prison guard, as his lover, adding another layer of conflict—guilt—to their relationship. Yet despite the separation Michael feels from his peers, he nevertheless identifies his conflicting feelings about Hanna as “the fate of [his] generation, a German fate,” suggesting that his relationship with Hanna both deviates from and magnifies, almost allegorically, the generational conflict created by the Holocaust.
Generational and Parent-Child Conflict ThemeTracker
Generational and Parent-Child Conflict Quotes in The Reader
My mother had pushed a chair up close to the stove for me to stand on while she washed and dressed me. I remember the wonderful feeling of warmth, and how good it felt to be washed and dressed in this warmth. I also remember that whenever I thought back to this afterwards, I always wondered why my mother had been spoiling me like this…Because the woman who didn’t yet have a name in my mind had so spoiled me that afternoon, I went back to school the next day.
I asked her about her life, and it was as if she rummaged around in a dusty chest to get me the answers. She had grown up in a German community in Rumania, then come to Berlin at the age of sixteen, taken a job at the Siemens factory, and ended up in the army at twenty-one.… She had no family. She was thirty-six. She told me all this as if it were not her life but somebody else's, someone she didn't know well and who wasn't important to her. Things I wanted to know more about had vanished completely from her mind, and she didn't understand why I was interested in what had happened to her parents, whether she had had brothers and sisters, how she had lived in Berlin and what she'd done in the army.
She didn't know it was my birthday. When I had asked her about hers, and she had told me it was the twenty-first of October, she hadn't asked me when mine was. She was also no more bad-tempered than she always was when she was exhausted. But I was annoyed by her bad temper, and I wanted to be somewhere else, at the pool, away with my classmates, swept up in the exuberance of our talk, our banter, our games, and our flirtations. Then when I proceeded to get bad-tempered myself and we started a fight and Hanna treated me like a nonentity, the fear of losing her returned and I humbled myself and begged her pardon until she took me back. But I was filled with resentment.
I never found out what Hanna did when she wasn't working and we weren't together. When I asked, she turned away my questions. We did not have a world that we shared; she gave me the space in her life that she wanted me to have. I had to be content with that. Wanting more, even wanting to know more, was presumption on my part. If we were particularly happy with each other and I asked her something because at that moment it felt as if everything was possible and allowed, then she sometimes ducked my questions, instead of refusing outright to answer them.
It was evident to us that there had to be convictions. It was just as evident that conviction of this or that camp guard or enforcer was only the prelude. The generation that had been served by the guards and enforcers, or had done nothing to stop them, or had not banished them from its midst as it could have done after 1945, was in the dock, and we explored it, subjected it to trial by daylight, and condemned it to shame… We all condemned our parents to shame, even if the only charge we could bring was that after 1945 they had tolerated the perpetrators in their midst.
I was oddly moved by the discrepancy between what must have been Hanna's actual concerns when she left my hometown and what I had imagined and theorized at the time. I had been sure that I had driven her away because I had betrayed and denied her, when in fact she had simply been running away from being found out by the streetcar company. However, the fact that I had not driven her away did not change the fact that I had betrayed her. So I was still guilty. And if I was not guilty because one cannot be guilty of betraying a criminal, then I was guilty of having loved a criminal.
I wanted simultaneously to understand Hanna's crime and to condemn it. But it was too terrible for that. When I tried to understand it, I had the feeling I was failing to condemn it as it must be condemned. When I condemned it as it must be condemned, there was no room for understanding. But even as I wanted to understand Hanna, failing to understand her meant betraying her all over again. I could not resolve this. I wanted to pose myself both tasks — understanding and condemnation. But it was impossible to do both.
I had no one to point at. Certainly not my parents, because I had nothing to accuse them of…. But what other people in my social environment had done, and their guilt, were in any case a lot less bad than what Hanna had done. I had to point at Hanna. But the finger I pointed at her turned back to me. I had loved her. Not only had I loved her, I had chosen her. I tried to tell myself that I had known nothing of what she had done when I chose her. I tried to talk myself into the state of innocence in which children love their parents. But love of our parents is the only love for which we are not responsible.
But why should I have given her a place in my life? I reacted indignantly against my own bad conscience at the thought that I had reduced her to a niche. "Didn't you ever think about the things that were discussed at the trial, before the trial? I mean, didn't you ever think about them when we were together, when I was reading to you?"
"Does that bother you very much?" But she didn't wait for an answer. "I always had the feeling that no one understood me anyway, that no one knew who I was and what made me do this or that. And you know, when no one understands you, then no one can call you to account. Not even the court could call me to account. But the dead can. They understand. They don't even have to have been there, but if they were, they understand even better."
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?