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 extent to which Hanna is guilty is a complex question and one that Michael attempts to unravel when he demands:
But could Hanna's shame at being illiterate be sufficient reason for her behavior at the trial or in the camp? To accept exposure as a criminal for fear of being exposed as an illiterate? To commit crimes to avoid the same thing?
Readers may ask themselves these same questions. If Hanna's motive was fear of exposure—why opt for the horrible exposure as a criminal over the harmless exposure as an illiterate? Or did she believe she could escape exposure altogether? Was she simply stupid? And was she vain enough, and evil enough, to become a criminal simply to avoid exposure?
On the one hand it appears that Hanna had no alternatives in a society that stigmatizes illiteracy and values learning. On the other, the not altogether reliable evidence presented at the trial suggests that she took pleasure in carrying out her orders with efficiency and even cruelty. Since he is attempting to reconcile matters for himself, Michael Berg cannot be relied upon for a definitive answer. His recollection that Hanna was startled when he suggested "horse" as a suitable nickname for her...
(The entire section is 531 words.)