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One of the underlying themes presented in The Reader is the importance of literacy being an essential ingredient to the success of society as well as the well-being of individuals in being able to comprehend the world around them. In The Reader, Hanna is illiterate and is almost dependent on Michael throughout the book to read to him, thus displaying the title of the book. During her trial, it seems as though Hanna does not comprehend the seriousness of her situation. She is unaware of why she is even on trial which is evident when the judge states “So because you wanted to make room, you said you and you and you have to be sent back to be killed?” and then Michael who is witnessing the trial states “Hanna didn’t understand what the presiding judge was getting at”.
Due to Michael’s background and coming from a family with an education, he is the “the reader” that the title of the book alludes to. While watching the trial, he was able to immediately discover Hanna’s secret- illiteracy. When the judge asks Hanna if she had written the report, and asks her for a writing sample to compare writing styles, Hanna disguises her secret and admits to writing the report. At this moment, Michael is aware of her illiteracy.
Moreover, not only is education a recurring motif and a theme of The Reader but also conveys a generation that was constituted of simply sheer ignorance. Hanna during the trials lies about being the leader of the prison guards, which caused a disastrous effect for her. Her lying depicts the extremity of her feelings of shame for being illiterate. Michael is conflicted as he believes that the energy that Hanna spent hiding her secret were wasted and led her to become a part of the SS and her being un-informed of the pain that she had inflicted on others. Hanna could have used her time effectively to learn to read and write. Comparatively, this ignorance can be seen in Nazi Germany, particularly in 1943 during the period of the Holocaust.
When Germans would place non-Aryans in concentration camps or send them to their death via gas chambers, did they not come to question why they particularly hate these groups of people?” “Did they not think that they are wiping a generation full of creativity, passion, and love? The answer would be no because they continued the genocide of a whole generation of people without taking into consideration the consequences of their actions and did not even intervene to terminate the mass murder of the innocents. Schmidt also displays the significance of education to her through her violent, yet also ironically prudent behaviour. She pressures and gets angry if Michael doesn’t take school seriously. This anger seems initially commence from her inner shame of her illiteracy thus jump down the throat on Michael leading her to “beat her fists against me”. (pg 53.) and “holding the narrow leather belt that she wore… she took a step backwards and hit me across the face with it”, hence displaying the role of literacy in Hanna’s life to a large extent but also the asymmetrical relationship between Michael and Hanna with Hanna possessing the dominant role.
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