The starkly beautiful prose of Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader served as the focus of the Brown Baggers’ May meeting. Although a short novel, the layered moral issues and character relationships gave the group plenty to discuss.
One reader immediately mentioned how this book reminded her of Lolita, stories by Salinger, and the movie Summer of ‘42. This served as a springboard for discussion of the relationship between Michael and Hanna. While some felt that their age difference made the affair seem unrealistic — teenage Michael’s fantasy come to life — Hanna’s neediness proved to others why the characters were drawn to each other. Other readers pointed out that the upheaval and confusion in Germany at the time left both characters more vulnerable.
Hanna’s role as the “older woman” also led into our analysis of her character. We saw her past as an SS guard, her affair with Michael, and her behavior at the trial as indicative of her need for control. Despite this, Schlink’s skill still led to widely felt sympathy for her character within our reading group. This isn’t to say we found her actions forgivable; rather that the complexity of the character made the issues of the book stick with us.
Any criticism of the book focused on the author’s ambiguous judgments of the characters. Perhaps too much blame was alleviated by Hanna’s illiteracy, while the accountability of the educated middle and upper classes was all but removed.
We wrapped up the discussion by musing on the title: was the reader meant to indicate Hanna, the narrator Michael, or ourselves? Most group members felt the overlap was intentional and could refer to any of these options.
Check out more books by Schlink in the JMRL catalog.
The Guardian discusses the reaction to The Reader in Germany and elsewhere in their article “Reader’s Guide to a Moral Maze.”
See interviews, reviews, discussion questions and more through Oprah’s website.
Looking for a readalike? Try one of these titles: