What are the similarities/differences of deception/self-deception in Sophie's Choice and The Reader?

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

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Indeed, the levels of comparison between Sophie and Hanna are rather compelling.  Both characters engage in a level of deception about themselves and their roles in their Holocaust experiences.  Sophie deceives herself in her continual belief that she is not a "targeted group" like the Jewish individuals.  She believes that she is uniquely different from those who are being persecuted by the Nazis because she looks "Aryan," is Polish, and has a father who believes in Nazi ideology.  Sophie believes that she can use these particular advantages to avoid the responsibility of activism or defiance towards the politics and policies of the Nazis.  At the same time, her survival of the Holocaust has created such a deformed psyche in her own mind that she still voices anti- Semitic ideas afterwards and has a difficult time in understanding the evil that she refused to acknowledge and defy during her time at Auschwitz.  Where her self deception gets the best of her is that she cannot reconcile that while she might be different from the Jewish individuals, she suffers the same fate.  Sophie deceives herself in understanding and acknowledging that evil is not limited to a particular group of people and its victims are no different from one another.  Sophie's plight being Polish is meaningless for at Auschwitz, all victims are the same.

Hanna's self deception is similar in that she refuses to acknowledge her role.  She blinds herself to her complicity during the Holocaust in her rationalizing that she was illiterate and her lack of literacy compelled her to simply follow orders.  She hides behind acknowledging her lack of literacy, refusing to take responsibility for it during her time at Auschwitz.  She deceives herself with the argument that hiding her illiteracy is more important that speaking out against the political order that tells her to engage in evil.  In a way, this illiteracy creates a barrier between her role and its horrific nature.  We see this embodied for she takes her own life as she gains literacy and reads the works of Holocaust survivors.   Both characters use a sense of acting in plausibly deniable way to remove themselves from their responsibility for their actions.  Hanna denies her function in the name of following orders, and Sophie clings to her belief that she is uniquely different from Jewish individuals.

This is a critical reading of both.  They both suffer tremendously after they both realize that they cannot escape their culpability.  For both of them at certain points, they understand the limits of their self deception.  Sophie's hauting guilt at the sacrifice of her children, and her understanding that evil is morally wrong presumably causes her to enter into a suicide pact with Nathan, running away from his own deception of self.  Hanna realizes through literacy that her actions were responsible for the death of women and children, a truth that was able to be shielded under the guise of following orders.  This "banality of evil" has its limits and ran out on Hanna after hearing the narratives of silenced voices.  In both Sophie and Hanna, we see that self- deception is finite, leaving only haunting truth in its wake.

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