Indifference and emotional distance are near constant presences in Michael’s and Hanna’s lives. As the novel moves forward, we learn that part of this distance is caused by the secrets they keep from those around them. When Michael tries to keep his relationship with Hanna a secret, he becomes increasingly distant from his friends and family. For example, after returning home from sleeping with Hanna for the first time and lying about where he has been, Michael “felt as if [he] were saying goodbye. [He] was still there and already gone,” foreshadowing his emotional absence throughout the novel. After Hanna leaves him, Michael tries to hide and repress his emotions, wavering between “callousness and extreme sensitivity.” Even years after the affair is over, Michael is unable to form successful relationships with others because he is unwilling to fully confront his past with Hanna. Like Michael, Hanna also has a secret that dramatically influences the course of her life and causes her to become distant from others. Hanna’s shame over her inability to read constantly pushes her to rearrange her life. In order to hide her illiteracy, Hanna takes jobs she views as “idiotic,” and when presented with the possibility of a promotion, she quits and moves to a different town in order to prevent her employers from discovering her secret. Hanna’s secrecy brings her down a path that leads to the SS. When faced with the choice of either hiding her illiteracy and being sentenced to life in prison, or of admitting her illiteracy and receiving a shorter sentence, she chooses to keep her secret. Though Hanna is physically intimate with Michael, her unwillingness to share her past or her illiteracy causes her to be emotionally absent—and not only does she keep herself distant from Michael, but she is also distant from herself. When Michael questions her about her life, Hanna is evasive and only divulges basic facts “as if she rummaged around in a dusty chest to get [him] the answers…as if it were not her life but somebody else’s, someone she didn’t know well and who wasn’t important to her.”
Hanna’s disconnection to herself is perhaps a consequence of the exhaustion of maintaining her secret. When Michael, as an older man, researches illiteracy, he discovers “how much energy it takes to conceal one’s inability to read and write, energy lost to actual living.” Like Hanna, whose secrecy is partly responsible for her distance, Michael spends a considerable amount of energy repressing his emotions for and about Hanna. And because they decide to keep their secrets, Michael and Hanna become emotionally distant from others, which prevents them from living their lives.
However, as the novel presents a strong relationship between indifference and the potential for evil evil, the emotional distance that Hanna exhibits also speaks to the horrors that she committed and to which she was exposed during the Holocaust. When Michael hitchhikes to Struthof, a concentration camp, his driver claims that the Nazis killed not out of hatred but out of indifference, recalling Hannah Arendt’s ideas about the “banality of evil” in Eichmann in Jerusalem. Arendt proposed that Adolf Eichmann, a powerful Nazi organizer, did not commit his crimes out of monstrous bloodlust or ideological zealotry; rather, his actions were motivated by his desire to advance his career, a desire accompanied by indifference to the suffering caused by his work. Like Eichmann, Hanna regards her role as a concentration camp guard as a professional obligation without consideration the consequences of her actions. And like Eichmann, she is partly responsible for the Holocaust because of her indifference.
Indifference can allow evil to flourish not only at the hands of perpetrators like Hanna but also because of the inaction of its bystanders. The novel assigns guilt to the “willfully blind, accommodators and accepters” of the Holocaust, because they were indifferent in both attitude and action. Just as indifference can lead to the rise of evil, evil can foster indifference. As Michael and the other spectators at the trial experience, frequent exposure to evidence of atrocities leads to emotional numbness. Reflecting on survivor literature, Michael notes that like the victims, the perpetrators too are emotionally numb, “exhibiting a mental paralysis and indifference” that allows them to continue their atrocities. This suggests that not only is the relationship between evil and indifference reciprocal, but it is also one of positive feedback: evil can lead to indifference, which can lead to even more evil, and so on. The implication of this feedback loop of indifference and evil is that emotion and openness are necessary to recognize and stop wrongdoing. The novel’s main project, the emotion of guilt, motivates Michael and his classmates to uncover acts of evil committed by the Nazis, as well as more personal secrets within the lives of the two main characters.
Secrets, Indifference, and Emotional Distance ThemeTracker
Secrets, Indifference, and Emotional Distance Quotes in The Reader
I remember that her body and the way she held it and moved sometimes seemed awkward. Not that she was particularly heavy. It was more as if she had withdrawn into her own body, and left it to itself and its own quiet rhythms, unbothered by any input from her mind, oblivious to the outside world. It was the same obliviousness that weighted in her glance and her movements when she was pulling on her stockings. But then she was not awkward, she was slow-flowing, graceful, seductive — a seductiveness that had nothing to do with breasts and hips and legs, but was an invitation to forget the world in the recesses of the body.
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 felt as if we were sitting all together for the last time around the round table under the five-armed, five-candled brass chandelier, as if we were eating our last meal off the old plates with the green vine-leaf border, as if we would never talk to each other so intimately again. I felt as if I were saying goodbye. I was still there and already gone. I was homesick for my mother and father and my brother and sisters, and I longed to be with the woman.
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.
The trip on the streetcar had been like a bad dream. If I didn't remember its epilogue so vividly, I would actually be tempted to think of it as a bad dream. Standing at the streetcar stop, hearing the birds and watching the sun come up was like an awakening. But waking from a bad dream does not necessarily console you. It can also make you fully aware of the horror you just dreamed, and even of the truth residing in that horror.
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.
I know that even if I had said goodbye to my memory of Hanna, I had not overcome it. Never to let myself be humiliated or humiliate myself after Hanna, never to take guilt upon myself or feel guilty, never again to love anyone whom it would hurt to lose — I didn't formulate any of this as I thought back then, but I know that's how I felt.
I adopted a posture of arrogant superiority. I behaved as if nothing could touch or shake or confuse me. I got involved in nothing, and I remember a teacher who saw through this and spoke to me about it; I was arrogantly dismissive.
After a time I thought I could detect a similar numbness in other people.… The effect was strongest on the judges and the lay members of the court. During the first weeks of the trial they took in the horrors — sometimes recounted in tears, sometimes in choking voices, sometimes in agitated or broken sentences — with visible shock or obvious efforts at self-control. Later their faces returned to normal; they could smile and whisper to one another or even show traces of impatience when a witness lost the thread while testifying. When going to Israel to question a witness was discussed, they started getting the travel bug. The other students kept being horrified all over again. They only came to the trial once a week, and each time the same thing happened: the intrusion of horror into daily life. I, who was in court every day, observed their reactions with detachment.
"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.
“You're right, there was no war, and no reason for hatred. But executioners don't hate the people they execute, and they execute them all the same. Because they're ordered to? You think they do it because they're ordered to? And you think that I'm talking about orders and obedience, that the guards in the camps were under orders and had to obey?” He laughed sarcastically. “No, I'm not talking about orders and obedience. An executioner is not under orders. He's doing his work, he doesn't hate the people he executes, he's not taking revenge on them, he's not killing them because they're in his way or threatening him or attacking him. They're a matter of such indifference to him that he can kill them as easily as not.”
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.