Why do we end up feeling sorry for Hanna?She is rude and abrupt towards Micheal and lets thousands of prisoners burn in a church yet we still have empathy for her. What does Schlink want us to...

Why do we end up feeling sorry for Hanna?

She is rude and abrupt towards Micheal and lets thousands of prisoners burn in a church yet we still have empathy for her.

What does Schlink want us to understand from our sympathy towards her?

Expert Answers
Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

We end up empathizing with Hanna because of her pathetic nature.  She played a role in the murder of innocents and values social judgments about literacy over a moral sense of right and wrong.  Yet, what makes her powerfully compelling is that her depiction raises the notion that the evaluation of the Holocaust's responsibility is difficult to grasp and comprehend.  It is fairly direct to assess the moral stature of individuals like Hitler and Goebbels.  It is a very quick proposition to argue their guilt and moral responsibility in the Holocaust.  Yet, the real and pervasive terror of the Holocaust lies not in the assessment of such figures.  It lies in the actions of the day to day existence of small individuals, people one would encounter in regular life.  These were not charismatic and powerful leaders.  Rather, they were the postman, the milkman, or the store owner.  These individuals were people who lacked institutional power, political prestige, and believed in the authenticity of government.  They willingly followed and were led in acting on behalf of the murder of six million Jewish individuals and millions of others.  The terror in the Holocaust was that it was present in daily life, in the actions of people that are no different than you or me.  We stand in complete and authentic judgment of people like Hitler for we, as rational and reasonable individuals would never suggest the mass extermination and persecution of an entire race of people.  Yet, it becomes terrifying to see that while we would never do that, regular people like you and me were able to embrace these ideas without the sense of moral outrage and uproar.  The true terror of the Holocaust resided in its ability to "normalize the unthinkable," a condition where horrific acts become commonplace and an almost accepted condition of existence.  In this setting, evil is not lurking as the forces of the dark lord or as residing in a pit of Hell.  Evil is banal, living with us daily, side by side, and almost as common as a visit to the gas station.

Hanna is a result of this banality of evil.  She is unlikeable in her actions, but this is what makes her so compelling.  She is very real.  She is like us, in the way that she has no real sustainable notion of political power.  She acts in a manner that is very real, convinced of her need to follow orders and do what must be done for an ulterior motive with which she is not comfortable but still accepts.  Hanna is not a Nazi, nor is she a member of the Third Reich.  She simply accepts a promotion to a post to conceal her illiteracy, which is even more ironic because she is poorly versed in something she loves.  Such a contradiction makes her understandable because of her predicament.  Adding to this is the idea that she endures both legal and moral punishment for her actions.  While in prison, she learns to read, embracing her love of loves.  However, in this process, she understands the moral horror of the Holocaust and of her role within it.  In this process of evolving and understanding her complicity, she takes her own life.  Hanna is not a very likable character, but there is a great deal of empathy for her because of her evolution in her understanding of how empty her life has both been and become.  At the point where she takes her life, it is difficult to render any judgment; the reader is left in a moral quagmire where Hanna's pain and suffering is meted onto the reader.

Read the study guide:
The Reader

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