Analysis of the characters Hannah and Michael in The Reader, with quote references.

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rogal eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Michael meets Hannah one day, on his way home from school, after he falls sick from what is later diagnosed as hepatitis. It is Hannah who helps him as he is struck by a bout of vomiting along the streets of Bahnhofstrasse. Later on, the two become involved in a heated sexual relationship that totally consumes them. At the time of their meeting, Michael is only fifteen years old, while Hannah is an older woman of thirty-six years already working as a streetcar conductor. Michael is a teenager struggling with identity issues and finds himself inexplicably drawn to Hannah.

In the early stages of their affair, Hannah is quite manipulative of Michael. For instance, she withholds her affections until Michael is willing to read his school texts out loud for her. She also insists that Michael has to work extra hard at school so as to make up for work done during the time when he was unwell; she ignores Michael in the streetcar when he takes a ride on it with the sole purpose of seeing her. On the other hand, Michael finds himself unable to openly talk about Hannah to his friends. The couple is separated when Hannah mysteriously leaves town.

Michael next sees Hannah when he is a student at the University. She is a defendant in a court case against former Nazi soldiers who were involved in the burning of a church. During the court proceedings, Michael realizes Hannah’s secret. She can neither read nor write and is willing to do the most absurd things just so that she can hide this fact from people. He does not understand why Hannah is thus embarrassed by her illiteracy. In fact, he questions himself “what did she gain from this false self-image which ensnared her and crippled her and paralyzed her?” Partly because of her unwillingness to reveal her illiteracy, the court sentences her to life imprisonment. Hannah then comes across as a strong woman who is willing to stand up for what she believes in at whatever cost.

Afterwards, Michael marries Gertrud and is determined to move on with his life. However, this marriage does not work out and the couple divorce, when their daughter Julia is five years of age. Michael finds that Hannah still largely occupies his mind, so he starts to make tape recordings of various texts, which he sends to Hannah in prison. The two get on with this kind of communication for about four years, at the end of which Hannah finally sends a note to Michael saying “Kid, the last story was especially nice. Thank you. Hannah”. This note then symbolizes Hannah’s triumph over her illiteracy. She has used her time in prison to overcome her greatest fear. As Michael put it, she had “moved from dependence to independence, a step towards liberation”. Years later, Hannah is pardoned from prison but commits suicide the day before she is set to leave.

Noelle Thompson eNotes educator| Certified Educator

You are right to indicate only two characters (Michael and Hannah) because our narrator is so engrossed in the one relationship, he has no time to include any other characters (even his own daughter)!

Let's begin with Michael.  He is our completely unreliable narrator.  He admits that he doesn't have a good memory.  Take a look at this quotation:

My bundle of memories is so small. Or do I keep it small? I wonder if my memory of happiness is even true. If I think about it more, plenty of embarrassing and painful situations come to mind, and I know that even if I had said goodbye to the memory of Hanna, I had not overcome it.

As you can see, Michael nicely symbolizes the Germany that chooses to forget Nazi secrets of the past.  Michael is greatly affected by his relationship with Hanna, and especially by their many trysts as he recuperates from hepatitis.  Where Michael used to be quite studious, now he is happy to skip class to see Hanna.  Michael feels guilt in making new friends at the pool while he is seeing Hanna.  Ironically, Michael doesn't acknowledge Hanna when she does show up at the pool.  It is here that Hanna vanishes from Michael's life until her trial later.  Michael is a bit aimless after Hanna, marrying and having a child without giving them much thought. It is only when he begins sending her tapes in prison that the story really begins again.  Michael now likes the distance between the two and is a bit unnerved when Hanna is scheduled for release and asks to meet with him.  She is a shadow of the woman he once knew and hangs herself before her exit from prison.  The two characters think differently about many things.  Take, for example, Hanna's response to Michael complaining about his work in order to go to bed with her:

"Out." She threw back the blanket. "Get out of my bed. And if you don't want to do your work, don't come back. Your work is idiotic? Idiotic? What do you think selling and punching tickets is"

Such is a perfect transition into the character of Hanna.  Hanna is absolutely insistent that Michael keep up with his school work if he wants to keep seeing her. Little does he know, at this point, that Hanna is unable to read. This is the reason why she feels studies are so important. She is also a fastidious cleaner and very exacting, almost rude. In this way she is often seen as a symbol of the "hidden" past of Nazi Germany.  Hanna does finally learn to read and write in prison; however, she is obviously so affected by Michael's disappointment in how she currently looks that she hangs herself.  Interesting that her dying wish is to make reparations (with all her savings) to the only survivor of the church Hanna supposedly burned.

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The Reader

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