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The Reader. Close Study Chapters 1-7. PLOT. Schlink tells Michael’s story from when he was fifteen but interjects with the adult Michael’s reflections on life changing events. The narrative voice is first person, privileging Michael’s point of view.

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the reader

The Reader

Close Study

Chapters 1-7

  • Schlink tells Michael’s story from when he was fifteen but interjects with the adult Michael’s reflections on life changing events. The narrative voice is first person, privileging Michael’s point of view.
  • The story centres on Michael’s illness, his loss of innocence, his first experience with sex and love. All these plot markers have symbolic significance.
  • Michael is presented to us as 15 recovering from an illness. He is weak (‘…as the old year darkened and turned colder, I got weaker and weaker.’ p.1)
  • He begins to get better in Spring – a time of new awakening. For Michael this will be a sexual awakening
  • He is a typical, self-conscious physically aware teenager (‘I smelled the sourness of my own breath and felt a sudden sweat as she held me, and didn’t know where to look.’ p.3)

Michael’s experiences are presented to us as memories reinforced particularly through smell, a powerful link to memory (‘it smelled of cleaning fluid…smell of cabbage…smelled the smell of wood” p. 9). Also, sight is mobilised (‘I couldn’t take my eyes off her.’ p.12).

  • Michael challenges himself to be adult (‘I was angry with myself. I had run away like a child, instead of staying in control of the situation, as I thought I should.” p. 13). His perception of control will be a central irony that disrupts his ability to form authentic relationships after Hanna.

Past and present, dreams and reality are merged in Michael’s story. He recounts that later in his life after the events of the novel, he has a recurring dream of the house in which his love affair with Hanna takes place. His dreams lead him to a door knob he cannot turn. We see him as stuck on the edge of an emotional precipice. His relationship with Hanna stultifies him emotionally.

  • Schlink is interested in exploring the emotional condition of first generation Germans following the Holocaust. His choice of a cross-generational love affair involving Michael positions us to understand the pain between the children of Holocaust perpetrators and their elders. The potential for emotional damage when trust is eroded is foregrounded. Schlink’s choice of the love affair is more powerful than other cross generational relationships.

Michael’s innocence and moral code are presented to us. Later in life he reflects on his liaison with Hanna as intrinsically immoral (‘I couldn’t stop thinking sinful thoughts… Love and guilt become inextricable to him. He reflects on the disconnection between thought and action (‘…today I can recognise that events back then were part of a lifelong pattern in which thinking and doing have either come together or failed to come together…’ p.18). This foreshadows moral dilemmas to come later in the novel.

  • Michael’s upending of the coal pile and being seduced by Hanna are simple, playful and uncluttered by emotions. Their relationship is transactional from the start. He doesn’t know ‘the woman’s name until seven days later.’

‘Thinking’ Michael is juxtaposed against ‘doing’ Hanna. From the outset he is reflective. He has a sense that the relationship with Hanna is momentous in that it signals the end of youthful innocence when he deceives his parents into allowing him to return to school as he sees this is the only way to keep the relationship going with Hanna (‘I was happy. And at the same time I felt I’d just said my final goodbyes.’ p. 29)


Hanna is presented to us initially as a saviour, this will prove to be another central irony. Foreshadowing is present, however, in Michael’s description of Hanna coming to his aid in the street (‘When rescue came, it was almost an assault.’ p. 2)

  • Hanna is established and maintained through actions. Her robustness is juxtaposed against Michael’s weakness (‘The woman seized my arm and pulled me through the dark entrance…she swung her arm…took me home…’ p. 3). Later, she will exercise her will over Michael so that the regaining of his physical strength will coincide with Hanna’s theft of his emotional resilience.

As readers, we are positioned to see Hanna as humane. We will be implicated in judging her past actions later. Schlink’s purposeful description of Hanna’s unconditional kindness from the first page becomes critical to our understanding of the moral dilemmas presented later in the novel.

  • Physically Hanna is presented to us through the lens of Michael’s memory. It is significant that he remembers her physicality as a source of fascination and irresistible attraction. He attempts to regain this attraction with other women in his life (‘I asked my girlfriends to put on their stockings…’ p. 13). However he cannot remember her face (‘she doesn’t have a face at all’ p.10). This signifies the facelessness of perpetrators in the Holocaust.
  • The story is set in Berlin, widely recognised as representative of the conflicting forces present during World War 2. Berlin is still described as ‘old’ and ‘new’ so the central idea of the older and younger generation is reinforced.
  • Schlink devotes all of chapter 2 to the building on Bahnhofstrasse where Hanna lives. This building has always been prominent to Michael. He associates it with an imposing grandeur (old Germany). When he enters the building he is struck by how dilapidated it is – it is a corruption of his expectations. This matches the moral decline of Germany.

Michael has a recurring dream about this building, seeing it in his dreams in many locations. It can signify the collective dream of Germany’s former glory – one of the driving forces behind Germany’s involvement in World War 2.

  • Corruption is conveyed through motifs associated with the old building. There is no window, there is not much light, the air is full of the scream of saws as Berlin is rebuilt after the war, the smells of cleaning fluid, cabbage, wood and the toilet are offensive. We are invited to understand that Michael enters a trap that both fascinates and repels him from the start. Schlink appears to be metaphorising the fascination of German youth with Nazism.
  • The use of motif is established in these first seven chapters including:
  • Illness
  • The singing blackbird (symbol of remembrance, sorrow)
  • Doors / entrances / door knobs
  • Dreams
  • Light and darkness
  • Washing / bathing