It's not easy to define strength and weakness in The Reader. One reason is because this work is based on what it means to be human. I say that with the understanding that there is a universality in The Reader, a condition that speaks to the frailty of living in the modern setting. In finding the strengths and weaknesses of Michael and Hanna, one realizes that the search for such qualities in them is actually a search in ourselves. That is one reason why it is difficult to address such a topic.
Yet, it is Schilnk's genius to force us, as the readers, to make such tough assessments of the characters in The Reader. I think that one aspect of human weakness lies in human beings remaining silent when they know they should speak. The Reader puts forth the claim that speaking out is a difficult avenue to pursue. There is a particular comfort that human beings hold in speaking out. The belief is that we would all speak out against injustice when the moment arises. However, The Reader suggests that one of the fundamental weaknesses inherent to being a human being is that individuals shirk away into silence at the critical moment of action because speaking out is difficult work.
Hanna represents this in her relationship to her illiteracy. She realizes that it is a problem in her life and in her construction of self. She goes to detailed lengths to avoid speaking out about her condition. In a manner of speaking, she chooses to go on with her illiteracy because the shame of publicly admitting the truth is something she perceives as too painful to bear. It is for this reason that she insists on Michael, and later the prisoners in the camp to be the reader. Hanna displays anger towards Michael's letter because she cannot admit to being able to read it. She also remains silent in court, when simply admitting to her condition is both the truth and would save her from unfair prosecution. Emotionally, this trait is evident in how she is unable to really speak to Michael on an emotional level as their affair continued. Hanna's weakness is in her inability to articulate what she knows is the truth because of the perceived cost. If taken to its most logical extreme, Hanna's suicide can be seen as the last act of refusing to speak out. It can be argued that Hanna lost the will to speak out and live her life as an active testament to "the victims." In embracing suicide, she demonstrates the ultimate human weakness in seeking escape from the difficulty of actively constructing that which should be from what is.
Michael's sense of weakness is rooted in the same element. He fails to be able to speak out for that which is right. When Hanna comes by to see him at the pool, he retreats to silence. He continues to retreat to silence in his relationships, as well. At the trial, Michael makes the connection that Hanna is illiterate. He understands the nature of their relationship for the first time. Rather than speak out and undertake the pain and discomfort that comes with doing the right thing, he remains silent. He cannot even consider the option of thinking about talking to Hanna:
Talk to Hanna? What would I say to her? That I had seen through her lifelong lie? That she was in the process of sacrificing her whole life to this silly lie? That the lie wasn‘t worth the sacrifice? That that was why she should fight not to remain in prison any longer than she had to, because there was so much she could still do with her life afterwards? Could I deprive her of her lifelong lie, without opening some vision of a future to her? I had no idea what that might be, nor did I know how to face her and say that after what she had done it was right that her short- and medium-term future would be prison. I didn‘t know how to face her and say anything at all. I didn‘t know how to face her.
Human weakness is evident in Michael's statement that he "didn't know how to face her." As with Hanna, Michael remains silent at a critical moment when so much could be said. For Michael, it becomes easier to silence the pain of the past by retreating into a world of emotional detachment. Schlink does not limit this weakness to Michael, as evidenced in the driver who picks Michael up during his walk to the concentration camp:
―Was it you? Were you sitting on the ledge and . .
He stopped the car. He was absolutely white, and the mark on his temple glistened. ―Out!
I got out. He swung the wheel so fast I had to jump aside. I still heard him as he took the next few curves. Then everything was silent.
Human weakness is shown to be an evasion of doing that which is right. Instead engaging in dialogue which could have been painful, but allowed for emotional catharsis, the driver "stopped the car" and simply stopped communicating. In the end, human weakness is this capacity which prevents full emotional connection. Hanna and Michael both share it, and in seeing such weakness in themselves, the reader of The Reader is forced to analyze it amongst themselves and the world in which they live.
The narrative is raw and, often times, quite painful. However, there is strength demonstrated. Schlink makes the argument that the strength in what it means to be a human being lies in those moments where we overcome our own emotional inertia. When characters step outside of their boundaries and embrace doing that which is right, Schlink reminds us why there is hope in the human condition. Emotional isolation and alienation are not binding conditions of identity. Even in the midst of his emotional failures, Michael embraces this reality: "There‘s no need to talk, because the truth of what one says lies in what one does." The "truth" in "what one does" is Michael's way of communicating how there can be hope in humanity. Human beings can be right by doing right. Hanna shows this when she overcomes her illiteracy:
You could see the resistance Hanna had had to overcome to
make the lines into letters and the letters into words. A child‘s hand will wander off this way and that, and has to be kept on track. Hanna‘s hand didn‘t want to go anywhere and had to be forced. The lines that formed the letters started again each time on the upstroke, the downstroke, and before the curves and loops. And each letter was a victory over a fresh struggle, and had a new slant or slope, and often the wrong height or width.
Michael's pride in what Hanna has done is reflective of how human beings can overcome resistance to doing the right thing. For so long, Hanna has denied the truth. In prison, she learned to accept it and overcome it. The scrawled letter after four years of receiving tapes is one example of this strength in human identity. Michael's reaction is also reflective of how human beings can overcome a condition of detachment. This strength is rooted in how human beings can support others in a show of solidarity:
I read the note and was filled with joy and jubilation. ―She can write, she can write! In these years I had read everything I could lay my hands on to do with illiteracy. I knew about the helplessness in everyday activities, finding one‘s way or finding an address or choosing a meal in a restaurant, about how illiterates anxiously stick to prescribed patterns and familiar routines, about how much energy it takes to conceal one‘s inability to read and write, energy lost to actual living. Illiteracy is dependence. By finding the courage to learn to read and write, Hanna had advanced from dependence to independence, a step towards liberation.
The strength that both Hanna and Michael display represents the instants when human beings reject passivity and isolation. Resulting in seeking to make the world what can be from what is, Schlink displays the reservoir of capacity in human beings as opposed to their limitations.
The relationship between both elements in the novel reflects an endless dynamic of what it means to be human. Schlink gives us no easy answers. He depicts human beings in an endless cycle of strength and weakness. When we take solace in seeing strength, weakness presents itself. When we are conditioned to seeing only weakness, strength emerges. This relationship helps to form the dynamic that Schlink sees as an integral part of human identity. Consider the following juxtaposition that appears in the text in order:
I had met Hanna again on the benches as an old woman. She had looked like an old woman and smelled like an old woman. I hadn‘t noticed her voice at all. Her voice had stayed young.
NEXT MORNING, Hanna was dead. She had hanged herself at daybreak.
Schlink is deliberate in how he arranges images of strength and weakness. He undercuts one with the presence of another to show that human consciousness is predicated upon an endless struggle between the two. The lives we lead are a sum total of how one asserts itself in the face of another. Hanna is silent at the trial, and her weakness lands her in jail. Yet, out of this, she learned to be her own "reader," staged a strike when budget cuts threatened the library, lent out her cassettes to those who were blind, and confronted her own demons in reading the works of Holocaust literature:
I went over to the bookshelf. Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, Tadeusz Borowski, Jean Améry—the literature of the victims, next to the autobiography of Rudolf Hess, Hannah Arendt‘s report on Eichmann in Jerusalem, and scholarly literature on the camps.
Hanna's collection of literature represents the collision between human strength and weakness. The authors and works she possesses represent when human weakness enabled the worst crimes in humanity to be committed without limitation. Yet, in the literature, one has a record of those who suffered atrocity, "the literature of the victims." In this acknowledgement of voice, there is redemptive strength. However, she ultimately kills herself, and in doing so, one is left with the figments and fragments of what might be. Michael represents this dynamic, as well. He does not speak out for Hanna at the trial. Yet, he sends her cassettes and sincerely enjoys doing so. He marvels at her overcoming helplessness in learning to read and write. Yet, he never visits her while in prison. He helps her with life on the outside, but is afraid to emotionally invest anything in her, even as a friend. He is shattered by her death and lives out her last testament and even writes a narrative of their relationship, but can only visit her grave once. The relationship between strength and weakness defines human identity and helps to explain why we are what we are.