How is the theme of guilt portrayed by Bernhard Schlink in the characters of Michael and Hanna?
On several levels, it seems that Schlink is suggesting that the Holocaust's nature is a web of guilt that encompasses as many people as possible. There are few, if any, who can escape its binding and bifurcating threads. Hanna embodies much of the issue of guilt, as she represents the Germans and others who were not the active agents of the Holocaust, but rather the foot-soldiers. After the war's end, many claimed to be "innocent" because they were not on the same level of Hitler or Goebbels. Yet, the reality that is suggested is that any individual of the time who chose a path of convenience instead of resistance bears some level of guilt. The fact that Hanna must ask the judge, "What would you do?" indicates to the compliance where guilt is present. There is further guilt to this situation when Hanna must accept her position as a guard to conceal her illiteracy, a personal failure that results in the death of many. This would be another element where guilt is present. Naturally, when Hanna does learn how to read, she is overcome by guilt and remourse, causing her to take her own life. The image is quite striking: She has overcome her "deficiency," yet cannot escape the guilt to which she is linked. Michael does not escape the issue of guilt, either, as he must reconcile himself with the reality that he did not do anything, nor did he speak out when he saw Hanna brought to trial. The reality is that in trying to conceal her illiteracy, Hanna lies, and Michael watches, impotent in action. Not initiating contact with her while she is imprisoned is another layer of guilt for Michael. The reader is also pulled into this web of guilt. The way that the emotional development of the characters is presented forces the reader to concede that there is little room for moral clarity and absolute judgments. Dogmatic notions of the good escape the reader, as one concedes, to an extent, that the issues presented would put any human being in a situation where "the right thing" does not always present itself in distilled forms. Perhaps, our guilt, as the reader, is that while we feel comfortable throwing stones and casting aspersions on Hanna and Michael, we realize that we might be guilty of doing some of the same things they did. This completes the guilt cycle, as we, ourselves, realize that we are not that much different from either character.
The theme of guilt is portrayed in an unconventional way in the novel in that both the former SS guard (Hanna) and the young German boy born after the Holocaust (Michael) have reasons to feel guilty.
Hanna was involved during the war in leading Jewish women to their deaths in a burning church, and this is a source of guilt and something that she hides at first from Michael. She bathes herself continually, perhaps in an effort to wash away her guilt. He, while seemingly an innocent boy, feels guilty at first for having a sexual relationship with Hanna and then for shunting her aside in favor of his school friends. Years later, he feels guilty for hiding his former relationship with Hanna and for not revealing the secret he knows about her—that she is illiterate and therefore accepts full responsibility for supervising the other SS guards (so that she doesn't have to admit her weakness, that she can't write or read).
In prison, Hanna becomes literate and reads many accounts of Holocaust survivors. On the day she is released from prison, she kills herself. Hanna's reading has obviously made her feel guiltier, and Michael's refusal to write to her in prison and her subsequent suicide make him feel guilty. The writer makes the point that in the web of deceit in the aftermath of the Holocaust in Germany, no one is immune from guilt, though, as the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote, "some are guiltier than others."