Feelings of Guilt

Michael feels guilt about Hanna nearly during the whole story. This feeling starts when she feels aggravated by a trivial conflict and Michael takes all the blame on himself: “She let me in, and I said the whole thing was my fault. I had behaved thoughtlessly, inconsiderately, unlovingly. I understood that she was upset. […] In the end, I was happy that she admitted I’d hurt her.”

Similarly, Michael believes he had betrayed Hanna. When Hanna goes away one day after he ignored her at the public pool, he asked himself, “Why hadn’t I jumped up immediately when she stood there and run to her! This one moment summed up all my halfheartedness of the past months, which had produced my denial of her, and my betrayal. Leaving was her punishment.”

The feelings of guilt disappear over time. When Hanna is convicted of her involvement in the SS, Michael even feels guilt:

“And if I was not guilty because one cannot be guilty of betraying a criminal, then I was guilty of having loved a criminal.”

Even as Hanna ends up dead because of suicide, Michael asks, “In the first few years after Hanna’s death, I was tormented by the old questions of whether I had denied and betrayed her, whether I owed her something, whether I was guilty for having loved her. Sometimes I asked myself if I was responsible for her death.”

So his feeling of guilt pull throughout the whole book and they are always the same motives: betrayal, denial, and at the end, Hanna’s death. Ten years after Hanna’s death, Michael frees himself from this guilt that accompanied him most of his life by writing the story down.

2 thoughts on “Feelings of Guilt”

  1. Michael’s whole secret, even “illicit” relationship with Hanna represented a transition from the innocent, honest, good son to a young man with secrets and a sex life. This secret life was interwoven into all his relationships. Hanna’s praise emboldened him to be more than someone “not good at anything”. Because the relationship was secret, it’s abrupt end (and the mourning thereof) was also to be kept secret. His guilt was in his duplicity.

    In the USA, from what I saw, there was a lot of assumption that Michael was “guilty” and revulsed by the realization of his intimate relationship with a war criminal. I think this is simplified American projection. He should (IMHO) have felt guilt for not intervening to reveal to the court the fact of Hanna’s illiteracy (which would have at least spared her the life sentence and revealed her co-defendents lies). But although he “wrestled” in the end he was as unwilling to reveal himself through his knowledge as Hanna was unable to consider her “prisoners” beyond herself as “guard” (even if they were half-starved, emaciating, unarmed forced laborers, an unlikely “danger” to anyone).

    Michael feels guilt, but he cannot seem to decide where and for what it lies. In contrast, I am not sure that Hanna feels guilt, even in her bequest to the survivors of the victims. The world view of iliterates tends to be narrow and immediate — even less than others, Hanna’s recognition of the vast machinery of which she was a part, a cog, was likely almost nonexistent beyond staying in the good graces of her peers and her superiors, she followed their lead.

    I rewatched the movie night before last and was struck that once Hanna was safely ensconced in prison for life — and unable to flee him — Michael resumed the platonic aspect of their relationship, with the dedication of a lover, spending hours recording himself reading aloud, the tapes her lifeline to the outside and a better world. (She wanted more romance novels!) Only her death freed him from the relationship. (I think she killed herself because the deprivations of her prior “free” life were too bleak to face after 20 years of the relative “warmth” and ease of prison. ymmv). If Michael had “saved” her from 20 years in prison and she had served only 4years, with time off for time served, etc., there would have been no satisfactory natural conclusion.)

    Whether Hanna


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