Discuss Sophie and Hanna's shame and guilt in Sophie's Choice by William Styron and The Reader by Berhnard Schlink.

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Both female protagonists have powerful experiences in the idea of public shame and private guilt.  Sophie's experience of guilt is a private hell where she sees herself as perpetrator of the death of her children in both the choice she makes and her inability to take direct and active actions in helping her other child.  She suffers even greater amounts of guilt in her survival where millions of others, including those dear to her, did not.  These private experiences compel her to feel a lack of value in her conception of self.  At the same time, there is a particular shame she feels as being perceived as a Jewish victim of the Holocaust.  Her shame lies in being perceived as Jewish simply by virtue of her victimized status.  At first, Hanna does not experience the same notions.  She sees what she did as something of complying with orders and protecting the concealment of her public shame of being illiterate.  She feels shame not at her role during the Holocaust, but rather as one who was incapable of reading and enduring the social disrespect such a reality possesses.  At the same time, her guilt is not one that develops until her shame is overcome through literacy.  When she becomes literate, she reads works of those who endured through the Holocaust, and she begins to fully grasp the implications of her actions as a perpetrator of evil and suffering on the innocent lives of others.  Through this awareness, she endures a relentless torrent of guilt.  It seems interesting to note that Hanna overcomes shame and enters into a vortex of guilt, while Sophie's endurance of life within the paradigm of guilt leads to a sense of shame in the aftermath of the Holocaust.