How do the novel and the film The Reader deal with the questions of guilt, responsibility, culpability and shame?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This is a fairly powerful question.  It strikes at the heart of the novel.  Indeed, the questioning of what constitutes guilt and responsibility are essential to Hanna's character.  Does her culpability and her guilt decrease in not fully knowing about the full implications of her association with the Nazis?  Can one honestly claim that she possesses as much moral responsibility as those who ordered the deaths of millions in the camps or the policy makers who were making decisions that brought upon the deaths in the Holocaust?  Where is the line between "following orders" and possessing culpability?  I think that these questions end up being the most essential ones in reading about Hanna's involvement as well as Michael's in his relationship with her.  In the end, the reader has little in way of clarity on such questions.  The only certainty left with is that Hanna takes her own life when she fully grasps the implications of what she did and the role she played.  Perhaps, this is the ultimate statement on the issue of guilt and moral responsibility.

Doug Stuva eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The novel, The Reader, centers on Hanna Schmitz, a former security guard at the satellite of a concentration camp during WWII.  The issues of guilt, responsibility, culpability, and shame are all raised by her position and her actions during the war.  I'll give a brief explanation:

  • Guilt:  who is guilty of causing the deaths of the female prisoners in the church fire:  those who gave the orders or those who carried them out?  Is Hanna any more guilty than any of the other guards?
  • Responsibility:  who is responsible, as with guilt, but also who should take responsibility now?  Hanna takes it, but isn't guilty.
  • Culpability:  same as guilt and responsibility.
  • Shame:  Hanna is more ashamed of being illiterate than she is of being thought to be the supervisor of an event that led to the senseless deaths of women killed in a fire inside of a locked church. 
teachertaylor eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In addition to viewing these themes from Hanna's perspective, one could also view them from Michael's perspective.  Michael is not sure how he should feel about Hanna's involvement in the fire and in the camp, and he seems to experience a sense of guilt at wanting to be sympathetic towards her.  Later, when the prison calls to ask him to help her after her release, Michael feels that he has no responsibility for Hanna now because so much time has gone past.  He was happy to have a distant relationship with her through the tapes, but he is reluctant to see her in person.  Michael's issues of culpability do not have to do with any legal matters such as Hanna's do, but he does question whether or not he is morally tied to any responsibility for Hanna's well being.  Throughout the novel, Michael experiences feelings of shame and disconnection, mostly having to do with being abandoned by Hanna.

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The Reader

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