In "The Reader" by Bernhard Schlink, should Hanna's illiteracy be considered a viable mitigating circumstance?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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This becomes the fundamental question.  Consider this from the opening of the enotes analysis of themes in Schilnk's work: 

The Reader addresses the legacy of guilt that the Holocaust has left behind, and Hanna's question to the judge at her trial, 'What would you have done?' is the question that every reader must ask him or herself. 

The larger implications of this question is how each individual would have responded to the horror of the Holocaust.  One one hand, when Hanna admits to a larger crime in concealing the far smaller one of illiteracy, it seems as if there is an acceptance of guilt for such wide and encompassing crimes.  At the same time, one can see Hanna's embrace of guilt and responsibility as a way to cover Michael's cowardice and lack of courage in speaking out.  Michael knows the truth and could liberate his former lover, but chooses to remain silent because of a brutal combination of shame, guilt, dishonor, and the pursuit of justice.  Certainly, Hanna's illiteracy should be considered a mitigating factor. However, when searching for justice in the Holocaust, and determining who is responsible, everyone seems to have a mitigating factor, which dilutes the pursuit and attainment of justice.  Perhaps, Hanna's courage of accepting the sentence of the court, recognizing that she must accept responsibility when others shirk from it, is the first moment of recognition of responsibility in a post- Holocaust setting where healing can actually happen.  Seeing that everyone else is searching for mitigating factors and that no one is willing to accept responsibility, the illiterate Hanna proves to be quite courageous in a setting where few in the position of power, like the Holocaust itself, possess such a quality.

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