Literature is often said to be timeless. To what extent is this true in The Reader?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The condition of literature being timeless means that it can be applied to different contexts and situations.  When placed in these different realities, literature can illuminate and enlighten.  In this regard, literature is transformative because it transcends temporality and context.  The Reader represents this because it speaks to human conditions that fit in the time of the Holocaust and afterwards, but also to any context.  It is in this regard where Schilnk's work is timeless.

The most basic reading of the narrative speaks to this timeless quality.  There was a love affair between two people.  It ended prematurely.  One of them sought to move on from it and had trouble emotionally accepting its reality. The other felt abandoned.  There was not any sort of clear resolution between them. These ideas are not limited to the Holocaust, or the period of time afterwards in Post- World War II Europe.  These realities happen every day, in every part of the world, and have defined much of human consciousness in every age.  The mere language used to describe them reflects a condition of reality that is timeless. Even the syntax that Schlink uses to articulate these realities represents a  timeless quality:

Why does what was beautiful suddenly shatter in hindsight because it concealed dark truths? Why does the memory of years of happy marriage turn to gall when our partner is revealed to have had a lover all those years? Because such a situation makes it impossible to be happy? But we were happy! Sometimes the memory of happiness cannot stay true because it ended unhappily. Because happiness is only real if it lasts forever? Because things always end painfully if they contained pain, conscious or unconscious, all along? But what is unconscious, unrecognized pain?

There is a universality in the language that defines The Reader.  It applies to Michael and Hanna, but it really applies to everyone.  Even individuals who might not have experienced the emotional nuances of Michael and Hanna become aware that those realities can exist, triggering a new mode of thought in their mind that resonates.  This enhances the timeless qualities in The Reader.

Another reason why The Reader can be seen as an example of timeless literature is because it seeks to address thematic realities that transcend temporality.  At her trial, Hanna asks the critical question to the judge, the members of the public, including her former lover, and us:  "What would you have done?"  Naturally, this particular question is in reference to Hanna's role as guard.  However, the nature of the question speaks to the timeless quality featured in the work.  Schilnk is able to reduce the geopolitical decisions of nations and states into a universal question of human identity. Tolstoy once suggested that the most basic questions that must be addressed in human consciousness are who am I and what shall I do.  These questions, themselves, are timeless because they have been asked throughout recorded time.  Hanna's question is cut of the same cloth because it forces us to ask the critical questions that define who we are and in what we believe:  Who am I and what shall I do?  The struggle in which human beings seek to figure out what they would have done is a timeless one and it is one that takes center in The Reader.

Hanna recognizes that what she should have done and what she did are two different realities.  The reality of regret about the path one's life went is also seen in Michael.  This is a timeless condition.  It speaks to how individuals surveyed their lives and recognized the presence of wrong decisions.  The most uplifting narrative of human consciousness is one where every decision made is an affirming one and that no decision made is a bad one.  Yet, this is not the lives that most human beings lead.  We make decisions, and some of those, we come to regret.  Sometimes, the passage of time reveals the true pain of such realities.  Hanna understood this, as did Michael.  In reading about their struggles, we come to understand it both in their lives and in our own.  In developing narratives that connect to our own reality and echo the condition that others have experienced, there is a timeless quality to The Reader.  It enables us, just like its characters, to experience a reality that others before us have experienced and one that, sadly enough, others after us will, as well.

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