Bernhard Schlink’s Novel

In Bernhard Schlink’s 1955 novel, the reader, the conflict between condemnation and understanding is one of the overarching themes. In this story, Michael falls in love with Hannah Schmitz but further in the story realizes that she has played an important role in a terrible nazi event. He has trouble understanding what he is feeling. The book explores this conflict in court, this conflict between the two lovers, and finally a takeaway that each individual reader has to understand for himself. Although the conflict is present during the whole body of literature, it takes place in different situations which different conclusions.
While Hannah is put on trial, she is confused. As she is illiterate, she decides to take the fall for all of the events even though she didn’t do the whole thing. She doesn’t realize that it was as bad as it actually was. It is made clear in the text that doing nothing to stop the events is the same thing as participating in them. QUOTE In this case, the reader feels sympathy for her, she doesn’t have mens rea, only the actus rea, as she was simply following orders. The courtroom is confused at first but then condemns her for a life in jail as they cant be undecided and have en liquet. The case has been resolved in criminal court.
Furthermore, there are some strong feelings of shame throughout the text. Indeed, the second generation is finally learning what actually happened and has to deal with the first generation. It is seen with “Whatever validity the concept of collective guilt may or may not have, morally and legally— for my generation of students it was a lived reality. It did not just apply to what had happened in the Third Reich. (…) Pointing at the guilty parties did not free us from shame, but at least it overcame the suffering we went through on account of it.”

This quote shows the clear difficulties that the second generation has to put up with in order to bear the first generation. This almost sounds like an alliteration with the multiple “p”, “g”, and “t” sounds. This makes the reading more difficult and highlights the difficulty for the generations to overcome this incident. Michael has difficulty feeling true anger because of his love for Hannah. The love story is a metaphor for the clear uncomfortable cohabitation between the 2 generations.
The conflict spreads from the court room to the two protagonists. Michael feels guilty of loving her. This is seen with “I had to point at Hanna. But the finger I pointed at her turned back to me. I had loved her. Not only had I loved her, I had chosen her. (…) But love of our parents is the only love for which we are not responsible.”
This shows the difficulty Michael has to continue on with his life. His brain is haunted by Hannah and his felling of being guilty. It is not resolved as ever since she was on trial, they didn’t have a conversation, there was no closure. He has to understand that that he has to accept what has happened and move forward. “I wanted simultaneously to understand Hanna’s crime and to condemn it. But it was too terrible for that.
When I tried to understand it, I had the feeling I was failing to condemn it as it must be condemned. When I condemned it as it must be condemned, there was no room for understanding.” Pg 57. This shows that Michael has difficulty choosing between condemning and understanding, which concludes in an unresolved affair.
He clearly feels guilty about the affair with Hanna, it is something which he can’t yet reveal to anyone. Michael is condemned because his whole life is now based around this incident. He is unable to sustain a real relationship and is confused. In order to move forward, Germany and its people have to deal with the nazi events. After she leaves Michael, he very clearly still loves her due to his constant thoughts and longing for her.
During the trial, he observes her, just like when he first saw her which shows that his love for her never died, it must have camouflaged itself while he tried to distract himself from it. There is a large amount of sadness that Michael had from the fact that Hanna kept things from Michael such as her illiteracy and involvement in the holocaust, especially when it appeared he trusted her with a lot. His guilt comes from her whereas her guilt comes from herself. Moreover, he, along with the surviving daughter donates the inherited money to a jewish charity for illiteracy.
The daughter doesn’t accept the money because if she does, it means that she forgives her and would release her of the responsibility. However it is not resolved, Germany lives with this past forever. “There’s no need to talk about it, because the truth of what one says lies in what one does.” The reader is left with his own understanding with his own experiences. His way of moving forward is with the charity, and researching to come to peace with the coexistence of the two generations. As he is feeling all of this guilt, it shows that he condemns himself and doesn’t understand his position.
Hannah feels guilty of being illiterate, it is seen as she wants people to read to her so that she can learn. There are probably past events that she doesn’t own up to, because she never answers clearly when Michael asks about her past. Throughout the novel, there is reference to Hanna bathing a lot, this could simply be a metaphor for her trying to wash away the guilt from her past actions.
Hannah or everybody else was put in the trolley situation. They could have either gotten killed or killed all of the people in the church. She condemns herself as she commits suicide. however, “only the dead understand”, she is trying to further understand and conclude this conflict by achieving this act.
To conclude, the conflict between condemnation and understanding is like a dilemma. Characters struggle trying to do both but in the end they are only able to adopt one. Michael decides to understand whereas Hannah condemns herself. Overall, it is not resolved and Germany has to live with this heritage forever. However, it is not as intense today as it was for the second generation in the novel.
The book explores this conflict in court, this conflict between the two lovers, and finally a takeaway that each individual reader has to understand for himself. Although the conflict is present during the whole body of literature, it takes place in different situations which different conclusions. For me, as a reader, having family going through the surviving daughter’s situation, I believe that it is time to forgive but not to forget

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