In The Reader, in what way are the characters of the novel symbols?

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Symbolically the two central characters in this text function as very powerful reminders of how a nation like Germany deals with its troubled past. Hanna clearly stands for the past of Germany that is secret, hidden and often willfully forgotten, and Michael stands for the character who carries out the intentional forgetting in order to erase the past. It is important to recognise that the author in this impressive text is asking much bigger questions than merely focusing on the adolescent relationship of one boy with an older woman. He is also examining Germany's history and its uneasy relationship with its own past in the present. This is symbolically shown when Michael confesses that he is an unreliable narrator:

I had no difficulty with friendships, with relationships or the end of relationships--I had no difficulty with anything. Everything was easy; nothing weighed heavily. Perhaps that is why my bundle of memories is so small. Or do I keep it small? I wonder if my memory of happiness is even true. If I think about it more, plenty of embarrassing and painful situations come to mind, and I know that even if I had said goodbye to the memory of Hanna, I had not overcome it.

Clearly this quote identifies how Michael's experience of being with Hanna and his subsequent realisation of who she was and what she had done has caused him great pain and sadness in his life, and it has been so painful he has repressed so many of his memories, thoughts and feelings. Note how Michael comes to doubt his own "bundle of memories" and questions his own capacity to remember. Michael is not intentionally unreliable; rather, his self-doubt about his narration reveals the pain of his past and the strategy of obviation he has adopted in order to cope with what happened before and allow him to live in the present. Michael therefore stands for the post-Holocaust generation of Germany who have to come to terms with what happened before they were born, with Hanna standing for the generation that was complicit in the terrible acts that cannot be ignored.

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The Reader

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