The novel presents the inability to read as a form of dependence. Hanna’s illiteracy severely limits her options, determining the course of her life. Because she is unable to read, she is forced to decline promotions and must resort to jobs she views as “idiotic.” Not only does Hanna’s illiteracy limit her life choices, but her shame for being illiterate pushes her to make certain choices to hide her secret. These choices — her decision to work for the SS, her false confession to being the leader of the prison guards — prove disastrous and life-altering.
Reading in the novel can also mean the interpretation of contexts and people, and the understanding of one’s actions and their consequences. For example, Michael might be considered a skillful “reader,” as he is able to easily decipher the mistakes made by Hanna and her lawyer during the trial. By contrast, Hanna seems unable to fully understand why she is on trial in the first place and how she comes across to the jury. When the judge asks Hanna if she was aware that she had sent prisoners to their deaths, she gives the trial’s spectators the impression that she cared more about the logistics of clearing out space for new prisoners than about the lives of the people she sent to Auschwitz. Hanna’s inability to read the written word thus mirrors her inability to comprehend situations around her.
Further, Hanna’s illiteracy serves as a metaphor for the willful ignorance of her generation to the evils or existence of the Holocaust. Reflecting on the impact of her illiteracy at her trial, Michael notes that the enormous amount of energy Hanna must have spent on hiding her illiteracy could have been applied to learning how to read. Rather than address the problem, Hanna chooses, for most of her life, to hide it, leading her to work for the SS, where she seems unaware of the untold harm she is inflicting on others. Similarly, those of Hanna’s generation who perpetrated or turned a blind eye to the Nazis’ Final Solution could have spent their energy trying to understand why they were targeting the Jews, but instead agreed, either actively or passively, to mass murder without considering the consequences, or at the very least without caring enough about the consequences to intervene.
The book’s title, The Reader, prompts us to ask who, exactly, is the reader. The readers within the novel represent three major groups of people involved in the Holocaust: the victims, the perpetrators, and the next generation. Michael, a member of the generation that followed the Holocaust, reads aloud to Hanna as part of their ritual of reading, showering, and sex. The victims of the Holocaust, the concentration camp prisoners, read to Hanna in secret before she sent them off to Auschwitz. While in prison for her crimes, Hanna teaches herself to read from Michael’s tapes and begins to learn about the concentration camps through Holocaust literature. Hanna’s newfound ability to read is especially important as it demonstrates the possibility of remorse through understanding. It is only by learning how to read that Hanna is finally able to understand her role as a perpetrator of the Holocaust and the impact her actions have had on her victims.
Reading and Illiteracy ThemeTracker
Reading and Illiteracy Quotes in The Reader
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.
"Did you not know that you were sending the prisoners to their death?"
"Yes, but the new ones came, and the old ones had to make room for the new ones."
"So because you wanted to make room, you said you and you and you have to be sent back to be killed?"
Hanna didn't understand what the presiding judge was getting at.
"I ... I mean ... so what would you have done?" Hanna meant it as a serious question. She did not know what she should or could have done differently, and therefore wanted to hear from the judge, who seemed to know everything, what he would have done.
During the trial the manuscript was available, but to those directly involved. I had to read the book in English, an unfamiliar and laborious exercise at the time. And as always, the alien language, unmastered and struggled over, created a strange concatenation of distance and immediacy. I worked through the book with particular thoroughness and yet did not make it my own. It remained as alien as the language itself.
Years later I reread it and discovered that it is the book that creates distance. It does not invite one to identify with it and makes no one sympathetic, neither the mother nor the daughter, nor those who shared their fate in various camps and finally in Auschwitz and the satellite camp near Cracow…. It exudes the very numbness I have tried to describe before. But even in her numbness the daughter did not lose the ability to observe and analyze.
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 don't know if Hanna knew how she looked, or maybe she wanted to look like that. She was wearing a black suit and a white blouse, and the cut of the suit and the tie that went with the blouse made her look as if she were in uniform. I have never seen the uniform of the women who worked for the SS. But I believed, and the spectators all believed, that before us we were seeing that uniform, and the woman who had worked for the SS in it, and all the crimes Hanna was accused of doing.
I don't know what I would have done if a professor of legal history had not offered me a research job. Gertrud said it was an evasion, an escape from the challenges and responsibilities of life, and she was right. I escaped and was relieved that I could do so…. Now escape involves not just running away, but arriving somewhere…. Doing history means building bridges between the past and the present, observing both banks of the river, taking an active part on both sides. One of my areas of research was law in the Third Reich, and here it is particularly obvious how the past and present come together in a single reality. Here, escape is not a preoccupation 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 and with which we must live.
I also read books I already knew and loved. So Hanna got to hear a great deal of Keller and Fontane, Heine and Morike. For a long time I didn't dare to read poetry, but eventually I really enjoyed it, and I learned many of the poems I read by heart. I can still say them today.
Taken together, the titles in the notebook testify to a great and fundamental confidence in bourgeois culture. I do not ever remember asking myself whether I should go beyond Kafka, Frisch, Johnson, Bachmann, and Lenz, and read experimental literature, literature in which I did not recognize the story or like any of the characters. To me it was obvious that experimental literature was experimenting with the reader, and Hanna didn't need that and neither did I.
I read the note and was filled with joy and jubilation. "She can write, she can write!" In these years I had read everything I could lay my hands on to do with illiteracy. I knew about the helplessness in everyday activities, finding one's way or finding an address or choosing a meal in a restaurant, about how illiterates anxiously stick to prescribed patterns and familiar routines, about how much energy it takes to conceal one's inability to read and write, energy lost to actual living. Illiteracy is dependence. By finding the courage to learn to read and write, Hanna had advanced from dependence to independence, a step towards liberation.
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."