Guilt And Shame In The Reader Essay

, Research Paper Sebastian Hinds Mr. La Bonne EHRS/pd0 Guilt and Shame in The Reader The Holocaust was a tragic event in history which took the lives of many

, Research Paper

Sebastian Hinds

Mr. La Bonne



Guilt and Shame in The Reader

The Holocaust was a tragic event in history which took the lives of many

people, and deeply affected those who witnessed the tragedy. Not only did this

affect the people who lived through it, it also affected everyone who was connected

to it. The survivors were lucky to have made it but there are times when their

memories and flashbacks have made them wish they were the ones who died

instead of living with the horrible aftermath. This is called survivors guilt. The

psychological effects of the Holocaust on people from different sides such as

soldiers and German citizens and survivors of the ghettos and camps vary in many

ways yet in others are profoundly similar. Many contrasting opinions have been

published about the victims and survivors of the Holocaust based on the writers’

different cultural backgrounds, personal experiences and intellectual traditions.

However this had not only an effect on the victims but also on the people who were

responsible for the atrocities. An aspect of the Holocaust that is tapped in to very

rarely is the psychological effect that their participation had on people like the

concentration camp employees. Did the horrors of what they had done haunt them

forever? How could they live with the guilt and shame? Even Heroes who did

everything they possibly could have, felt extreme guilt about not having done

enough. In the scene in “Schindlers List” when he is saying good bye to all the

people he s saved, he breaks down and expresses the anguish he felt for having

three people pinned to his shirt (the golden pin), another two on his finger (his ring)

and another five lives wasted in the metal next to him (his car). In another

interesting movie I saw “The Young Lions,” Marlon Brandow plays a “good”

German soldier. Even though he is ordered to, on several occasions he refuses to

obey orders, such as beating up a teenager in the French resistance, like shooting a

unarmed British soldier, and other atrocities. At the end of the war he walks into a

concentration camp and refuses to help the commandant slaughter the remaining

prisoners. Ironically, When he finally smashes his rifle representing German

aggression and his part in the war, he gets shot almost by mistake by a Jewish

American soldier. In Germany still today people who lived through the war; and the

younger generations too are dealing with German guilt. It is almost impossible to

comprehend how so many normal people could have gotten involved in such

inhumane acts. Bernard Schlink s book The Reader written in 1995 by virtue of

its moral force and artistic quality, brings something entirely new and profoundly

original to the never-ending labor of grief for Germany s past.

-Jorge Semprun, Le Journal du Dimanche

The Reader is about two people who had a very taboo and uncommon

relationship. Michael, the narrator, is only fifteen when he meets and falls in love

with Hanna who is more than twice his age. Hanna seduces him after seeing

his interest in her. Their relationship becomes a love affair with very strict habits.

Every time they would meet they would do the same things. First Michael would

read to Hanna, afterwards they would make love and sleep. There were one or two

occasions in the book in which this strict schedule is not followed. What leads

Hanna to participate in this relationship? Hannah was illiterate. She feels extreme

shame for this. It is top priority to her to keep this a secret from the world. But

like every Human Hanna was curious about the world and books in particular.

When she saw Michael she realized that he would be a perfect means of

transmitting this information to her without revealing her secret. She knew that

Michael was too young and naive to ask questions. She could do with him what she

wanted without having to worry about being found out. She seduced him into

becoming her story teller.

To do something like this one most have some very serious feelings. Hannah

had an incredible amount of shame for the fact that she could not read or write.

Her shame went so far as to quit and turn down great jobs, live a lonely life with out

opening up to anyone, and even to go to jail for the rest of her life, taking the blame

for a crime she didn t commit. She would rather go through all of this than be found

out as an illiterate. It is amazing the determination she had to keep this a secret from

the world.

Now many people may believe that Hanna was kind of a pervert or

something along those lines as she was engaging in sex with someone much

younger than herself. In essence this is true except for the fact that Hanna was most

likely haunted by her memories from her duty as prison guard. As witnessed in

books such as “Night” by Elie Wiesel many people associated with the holocaust

became very ill minded and did inhumane things to each other. Also witnessed is

that when the need to survive is strong enough that a human will do almost

whatever it takes to fulfill this need no matter the embarrassment to ones self or the

welfare of others.A witness from the camps in the play The Investigation by Peter

Weiss says:

“And already we had started to live

with a new set of values

and adjust to this world

which for anyone

who wanted to survive in it

became a normal world

I stuck close to those

who were too week

to eat their rations

so I could take their food

at the first opportunity

it was normal

that all around us people were dying

Our feelings grew numb

and we looked at corpses

with complete indifference

and that was normal

only the cunning survived

only those who everyday

with unrelenting alertness

took and held their bit of ground ” (5th Witness)

I don t believe anyone could actually say that they would be able to act like

this. Just imagining something like this can make you sick. Imagine being there.

But people s senses and minds got numb, and things didn t register correctly. Not

only was this the case with the prisoners but also the guards. They were able to kill

the prisoners as if they were ants or flies, with no regard for the person at all. Only

the most disturbed person would be able to do things like this with total

consciousness. This numbness affected everybody, the will to survive, our survival

instinct took over. You could say that everyone s minds were zombiefied. After the

war everyone s reactions were the same:

“But I only did

what I had to do

why should I have to pay now

for what I did then

everybody else did it too” (Accused #7)

When Hanna was a prison guard she had “special prisoners in the camp,

young girls, first one for a period, then another one (her) favorites” . The other

prison guards on trial for war crimes accused her viciously, assuming that she used

these young girls for sexual purposes and then sent them to the gas chambers when

she was tired of them. However the survivor who was testifying at the trial

remembered that one of the girls finally talked and told them that she read out loud

to Hanna evening after evening after evening “That was better if than if they and

better than working themselves to death on the building site.” This is the moment in

The Reader when Michael realizes that Hanna was illiterate and was so

embarrassed by the fact that she was willing to take responsibility for or all those

women in the church who burned to death because the guards wouldn t open the

doors and let them out, just to keep her secret a secret.

During the trial:

“Hanna wanted to do the right thing. When she thought she was being done an injustice she contradicted it, and when something was rightly claimed or alleged she acknowledged it. She contradicted vigorously and admitted willingly as though her admissions gave her the right to her contradictions, or as though along with her contradictions she took on a responsibility to admit what she could not deny.”

Hanna was the only prisoner who seemed to be honest and not make a

scapegoat of the others, and who seemed to be prepared to tell the truth no matter

what the cost. In all seriousness she asked the judge “What would you have done?”

at which point the judge dodged the question by saying that there are things in

which one must not get involved in. There is a kind of simplicity and innocence

about her and her character. Did she really choose the weaker girls to save them

from being overworked? Or was it just chance? This kind of simplicity is also seen

in Primo Levi s “Surviving Auschwitz” when he describes the luck that saved his


“An Italian civilian worker brought me a piece of bread and the remainder of his ration every day for six months; he gave me a vest of his, full of patches; he wrote a postcard on my behalf to Italy and brought me the reply. For all this he neither asked not accepted any reward, because he was good and simple and did not think that one did good for a reward.”

Was Hanna a good person or bad person? When she was serving her life


“She was greatly respected by the other women to whom she was friendly yet reserved. More than that, she had authority, she was asked for her advice when there were problems, and when she intervened in an argument, her decision was accepted”

The first thing she does in the book is to help Michael when he falls ill in the street.

That was an act of kindness portraying her character through out the book. Actually

their relationship is very sweet and tender until he get s involved with his friends

and “betrays” her, and she dissapears.

Hanna s final shame is after learning to read from the tapes that Michael

sends her, when she realizes that he s not going to write to her and she gives up.

She stops bathing and keeping herself in shape, and get s fat and smelly. When she

finally sees him she realizes that he is no longer attracted to her and that she cannot

live with him, making them even more distant. So she decides that life isn t worth

living anymore and takes her life because of her shame. Michael s guilt was due

to the fact that he believed he betrayed her. He blamed himself for many of the

events that occurred. After he realizes that it wasn t his fault when Hanna ran away,

he claims he is guilty again:

“And if I was not guilty because one cannot be guilty of betraying a criminal, then I was guilty of loving a criminal”

Was shame Hanna s Crime? Michael was guilty of nothing, because Hanna

was no criminal, but just a Woman with a secret.