I really really liked this book. I felt that it brought up very good questions, not only through the text via Michael's thoughts but through your own ponderings as you read. What is personal responsibility? Does someones actions NOT speak for them? Things to ponder.
Michael Berg, 15, falls ill one day on his way home from school. An older woman (he later learns her name is Hanna) helps him clean himself up and gets him home. Three months later he comes to thank her and sees her naked leg as she is putting on stockings. Needless to say this begins an affair between Michael and the 30 something Hanna. It lasts for about 6 months and during it, you can see Hanna acting very oddly throughout it. Michael refers to a class at school as idiotic and she reams him so much about it that he buckles down and does the best work of his life. He also begins reading to her every time they get together. Their relationship continues until the day Hanna leaves town without word.
Fast forward a few years and Michael is studying to be a lawyer and has to spend time in a courtroom listening to a trial involving SS officers during the Holocaust. Hanna is one of them. Michael goes to court EVERY day. While watching the trial and Hanna's bad defense of herself he realizes that she is illiterate. He struggles with what to do with this information. Does he tell the judge what he knows or shall he let Hanna determine her own fate. He even consults his father who is a philosophy professor on the matter. Eventually, the trial ends and Hanna is sentenced to prison.
"Her sense of self was worth more than the years in prison to her.
But has it was it really worth all that?" pg. 138
Michael marries and has a child but his whole life is colored by Hanna. His wife doesn't smell like Hanna and every thing she does he compares to her. They get divorced and Michael begins recording himself reading and sends it to Hanna in prison. In prison, Hanna learns to read sends him letters in return.
"My own diagnosis is that the numbness had to overwhelm my body before it
would let go of me, before I could let go of it." pg. 168
Michael's entire life is shaped by his relationship with Hanna. He struggles with his guilt over what he should with the knowledge he has of her illiteracy, he struggles with the guilt over what he should do for her and he compares every single woman in his life to her. For a first love, he most definitely did not get over her. I'm sure some could argue it was because the power she had over him because of her older age, but I think it was more of it being his first relationship with a woman and how many secrets and unknowns there was in that relationship. There really hadn't been closure and without that closure he couldn't lose off that part of his life.
I am a strong believer in personal responsibility. What you do has consequences. However, are we guilty of the sins of our fathers? If we stand silently while horrors occur are we guilty? How do we make amends if we are? I think that Hanna should have taken responsibility for her actions during the Holocaust and she did. In court, she admitted the things that she did and denied others. However, I don't think she deserved the sentence she got compared to the others. But that had a lot to do with her hiding the fact that she couldn't read or write. Also, I think Hanna was most definitely partly responsible for not saving the women in the church, BUT I also think that was a horrible position for her to be in. Yes, she willingly joined. But most would argue she did that to hide her secret. When she was there she had to do what she had to do to survive. Yes, she was kind and helped the weaker ones, but she still sent them off to death. But if she didn't, what would have happened to her? I think that if you are NOT in that exact same position at that exact same time you cannot judge her actions. At that church in the middle of the night when you know you are going to be left alone with more people than you, with little back up, what do you do? If you are told one thing by your superiors, whose orders do you follow? When you are in that thick, you are in a total different mentality.
I also believe that Hanna's obsession with cleanliness had a lot to do with her time in the SS. I think she may have been taken advantage of by men guards. Or that may be part of her early history since NOTHING is said of her family. I think Hanna had issues but I also don't think she was a monster. I think circumstances forced her. However, at any time you do have free will, and she decided keeping her secret was the most important thing.
"There's no need to talk, because the truth of what one says lies in what
one does." pg. 174