57 pages 1 hour read

Bernhard Schlink

The Reader

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1995

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Introduction

Law professor Bernhard Schlink published The Reader (Der Vorleser) in Germany in 1995. Two years later, an English version arrived in the United States, and it became a bestseller and a selection for Oprah's Book Club. The German newspaper Abendzeitung named the book Stern des Jahres (Star of the Year), and it was also awarded the 1998 Hans Fallada Prize, given to works that address social or political issues. Translated editions of The Reader won several international prizes, including the Grinzane Cavour Prize in Italy and the Prix Laure Bataillon in France. In 2008, the book was adapted into a film with the English actress Kate Winslet playing the role of Hanna Schmitz.

As Hanna is a former Nazi on trial in West Germany, the book qualifies as historical fiction—it fictionalizes real-life events. The novel is also, however problematically, a romance. It chronicles the intense affair that begins when Hanna is 36 and Michael is 15. The book touches on themes like secrets, memory, and feelings, as well as motifs like guilt.

The study guide refers to an eBook version of the 2008 Vintage International edition, translated by Carol Brown Janeway.

Content Warning: This guide summarizes and discusses suicide, statutory rape, the Holocaust, and Nazi brutality, which feature in the source text.

Plot Summary

In Part 1, Michael Berg, a 15-year-old boy in West Germany, is sick with hepatitis. He throws up near an apartment building, and an older, unnamed woman cleans him up and takes him home. Michael doesn’t plan to see the woman again, but his mother thinks he should bring her flowers and thank her.

The woman is Hanna Schmitz. In her apartment, Michael watches her iron her underwear and spies on her as she changes. Hanna catches him looking at her, and Michael runs away. He can’t stop thinking about her, so he returns to her apartment. He helps her bring up coal and gets dirty. Hanna insists that he take a bath. After, they have sex, and Michael falls in love.

Michael and Hanna have many sexual encounters, and she likes it when he reads out loud to her. He reads her a range of books, from Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey to Stendhal’s novel The Red and the Black (1830). Hanna listens intently and comments on the texts. Michael wants to know more about her, but she only tells him basic information: Her first name is Hanna, she worked at a big factory and then joined the army, and now she’s a 36-year-old tram conductor with a 17-year-old son.

Michael likes that people might mistake Hanna for his mother, and when they go on a four-day bike trip, they register as a mother and son. Their relationship is far from perfect. They have fights that leave Michael feeling hurt and confused, but they generally make up.

As school starts, Michael makes friends his age and becomes attracted to a girl in his class, Sophie. He continues to see Hanna and doesn’t feel like he’s missing out by choosing Hanna over his friends—though he feels bad for leaving his swimming-pool birthday party to be with Hanna. One time, Michael sees Hanna at the swimming pool. The next day, she’s gone, and Michael misses her dramatically.

In Part 2, Michael, now a university student studying law, sees Hanna in court. Michael is at the trial as part of a seminar on Nazi crimes. Michael discovers Hanna was a Nazi SS (Schutzstaffel, the Nazis’ sweeping security force) guard at the notorious concentration camp Auschwitz and then at a small labor camp in Kraków, Poland. The court charges Hanna and four other female defendants with selecting prisoners to go to the gas chambers and locking hundreds of prisoners in a burning church.

The trial transfixes Michael—he’s the only student who goes every day. He closely monitors Hanna’s body language and her case. She’s not doing well. Her blunt, artless testimony makes it easy for the other defendants to turn her into the leader and make them less guilty. Hanna’s lawyer is incompetent, and the judges are obtuse.

A mother and a daughter survived the church fire, and the daughter testifies that Hanna picked young, weak prisoners to read to her each night before sending them to Auschwitz. Shortly after, Michael wanders the woods and realizes Hanna’s secret: She can’t read or write. Hanna’s illiteracy pushes Michael to exhaustively examine notions of understanding, guilt, and complicity. He thinks he should tell the judge that Hanna can’t read or write, but he doesn’t, and Hanna gets a life sentence while the other defendants receive shorter sentences.

In Part 3, Michael continues to theorize about guilt and complicity and how to confront the Nazi atrocities. The idealistic West German student movement alienates him, and so does the thought of becoming a lawyer or judge. He becomes a legal historian and marries Gertrud, another law professional. They have a child, but the marriage doesn’t last.

After their separation, Michael tapes himself reading The Odyssey out loud and sends it to Hanna. He then tapes himself reading works by Franz Kafka, Anton Chekhov, and a bevy of additional authors. He also tapes himself reading his creative writing. Hanna learns to read and write in jail and sends him comments. Michael never sends Hanna any personal notes.

After 18 years, Hanna gets an early release. The warden wants Michael to help her adjust, and he does. He finds her an apartment and job and visits her in jail. The interaction is awkward but still quite intense. They touch on the trial, and Hanna, frustrating Michael, says only the dead can understand her. The morning of her release, Hanna is dead by suicide.

Michael remains dedicated to her. In New York City, he visits the daughter who survived the church fire to give her Hanna’s money. She doesn’t want it, and Michael donates to a Jewish organization for illiteracy. The daughter allows Michael the chance to admit that his relationship with Hanna traumatized him, but Michael doesn’t blame Hanna for anything. He’s unsure if his story about Hanna is sad or happy, but he’s positive that it’s true.

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