The Reader, analyis

            The Reader is a popular film, receiving a lot of press because of  the star power of Kate Winslet (Hannah Schmitz) and controversy because of the background of the love story between Hannah and Michael (Ralph Fiennes as the older Michael Berg, David Kross the young Michael) is the Holocaust. And it’s the misunderstanding of this background that distorts all of the criticism of this film. The New York Times reviewer, Manohla Dargis who has set herself up as The Guardian of the Holocaust, calls the film “fatuous” and signals with this statement that she is less interested in the film’s issues than her own:

Although the commercial imperatives that drive a movie like this one are understandable — the novel was a best seller and an Oprah’s Book Club selection, for starters — you have to wonder who, exactly, wants or perhaps needs to see another movie about the Holocaust that embalms its horrors with artfully spilled tears and asks us to pity a death-camp guard.

The backdrop for this film is the Holocaust. And it’s essential to the story. But reviewers such as this miss the obvious[i]. And that is understandable because it’s obvious only with the help of our theory. This film is not, or not only, a conflict between Hannah and Michael. This story is not about guilt, about survival guilt, certainly not about using or abusing the Holocaust to get selected by Ophrah and garner a best seller. Dargis goes on about peripheral issue. Dargis trivializes the real issues by concentrating on what apparently appeals most to her, voyeuristic sex: the film is “mostly involves Kate Winslet, her taut belly and limbs gleaming under the caressing light, deflowering a very surprised-looking teenage boy who grows up to become a depressed-looking Ralph FIennes.” Perhaps Dargis herself, has a flabby belly and loose thighs; criticism is not about personal envy. This film is about seduction, but not erotic seduction. Nor is it essentially about any of the themes that Dargis and many of the online commentators to her review claim it to be. The main conflict in the story is between the oral culture of Hannah and the literate culture of Michael.

            Dargis sneers when she refers to others who might have sympathy for Hannah:

            It is also, more obliquely, about the Holocaust and the generation of Germans who came of age after that catastrophe. …Outrageously, Hanna is a victim too, because she took the guard job only to hide her illiteracy, as if illiteracy were an excuse for barbarism.

But there is no “as if” in the portrayal of Hannah’s illiteracy. And there is no hint of  the director excusing Hannah for barbarism. When after she learns to read, she understands what her participation in the Holocaust has meant; she climbs bodily up on the stack of books, the books that support her entrance into the world of literacy, and from her a rope in her study, her prison cell, she hangs herself. But Dargis? She sees it this way:

You could argue that the film isn’t really about the Holocaust, but about the generation that grew up in its shadow, which is what the book insists. But the film is neither about the Holocaust nor about those Germans who grappled with its legacy: it’s about making the audience feel good about a historical catastrophe that grows fainter with each new tasteful interpolation.

The filmmaker makes no comparison of the plight of the illiterate prison guard to the Holocaust victims, but it is undeniable that Hannah is also a victim. The other prison guards on trial brutalize her by twisting the truth, lying about her role in the camp. She too is a scapegoat.

The Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jews was a war, a real war but also a symbolic war, a war of the Dictator, the spellbinding voice of mystical un-reason capturing the oral residue of a frustrated and fearful public to eliminate the People of the Book, the most learned, the most rational, the most literate population of Europe.[ii]

            The suicide of Achebe’s hero, Okonkwo, the suicide of Hannah, the murder of the Pupil in The Lesson, the death of Lady Alroy, the many killings in Witness, should signify to skeptics that the clash of oral and literate cultures is violent, violence for individuals, and for cultures violence magnified.

Our final return to the Dover publications is a reading and then a viewing of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. We return to our Dover publications with Henrik Ibsen’ A Doll’s House. Ibsen’s play is “weighted” with all sorts of theories: feminism, Marxism, psychology, sociology, have all provided explanation for the characters’ individual behavior and relationships to each other and society. Does looking at the play after studying the difference between oral and literate cultures add anything new?

The play is well known, familiar to even many high school students since the basic story is simple, and a couple of very good movies have been made about A Doll’s House.  The main focus of the play is on Nora, yet it ends with a shift of emphasis onto Torvald: he gets the last speech. Nora leaves. Torvald says, “Nora! Nora! Empty! She is gone. The most wonderful thing of all—” Before the last and partial statement is the stage direction: “A hope flashes across his mind.” This ending is similar to the “I wonder” of Wilde’s story. Only the emphasis now shifts from the speaker to the audience. What is it that we wonder? What could be “the most wonderful thing of all”?

            Nora has been treated as a child, first by her father and then by her husband. Typical from Torvald is referring to Nora as a “bird,” “squirrel,” plaything. They have both kept her in the safe and secure, conservative oral culture governed by the patriarch, like the Amish world where shame rules, where social order is maintained by the threat of exclusion, shunning. Unlike Rachel in Witness, Nora chooses the freedom (and violence) of literacy, leaving behind the confining comfort and security of her oral culture. It is writing, the letter that Nils Krogstad sends to Torvald that liberates her. She is not secure enough in this new world to accept her husband’s offer to write to her. She says, “No—never. You must not do that.” And she will not accept gifts from the stranger that Torvald has become to her. What, then, can be “the  most wonderful thing”?

Torvald though literate will understand the personal liberation of literacy, reject the confines of the oral culture that binds him, understand Nora’s conflict with him and with herself, and accept Nora as an individual, not as a wife and a mother, but as a self seeking completion in a world fragmented by the written word, but a world that is inevitable, unavoidable. Torvald’s question is almost a Shakespearean look into a “brave new world.” For Torvald, if he has any chance of meeting Nora as an equal, as a person rather than a child, he, like us, has no choice but to reject the old oral society and face the new.





[i] Early in Ong’s Orality and Literacy he issues a caution about studying the affect of literacy on oral culture, and by implication the affect literacy has had on anyone able to read his statement: “Fully literate persons can only with great difficulty imagine what a primary oral culture is like, that is, a culture with no knowledge whatsoever or even of the possibility of writing” (31). And this inability to see intelligence in other than terms derived from sight, from literacy, is the case with other than the difference of literate culture and a primary oral culture. It’s the case with a secondary oral culture as well, one that has had contact with literacy but has not been totally transformed by it. There is, quite understandably, a built in bias for literacy as the “natural” state of the human mind; intelligence is literate intelligence. Since the publication of Ong’s book in 1982, there have been many studies about the cultural (literacy) bias of measurements of I.Q. But it is not uncommon for highly intelligent, very literate, people to consider intelligence only in terms of literacy.

            One such person was Barbara Johnson, an accomplished intellectual noted among her many accomplishments for her critique of Herman Melville’s story Billy Budd, Sailor. Johnson’s critique of the story is often quoted by other critics. But Johnson makes a fundamental mistake in her reading of Melville’s story, and it’s a mistake about the nature of reading. She labels the three main characters as readers: Billy Budd is “a naïve reader,” one whose “reading method consists in taking everything at face value”; Claggart is the ironic reader, “for whom every sign can be read as its opposite”; and Captain Vere, for him “the functions and meanings of signs are neither transparent nor reversible but fixed by socially determined convention.” While these distinctions are useful in understanding Johnson’s application of her reader based theory, it totally misses the mark when applied to this story. Billy Budd is no reader. While we can assume that certainly Vere is literate, and we can assume that it is very likely that Claggart is as well. He is, after all, the Master of Arms of the ship. But Budd? The Handsome Sailor? There is no evidence in the story that Budd can read and write. John doesn’t need textual evidence since she translates intelligence into reading: for her, intelligence is determined by literacy. The characteristics that Johnson sees that distinguish Budd from Claggart and Vere are those of the non-literate (and as Ong mentions, so deep is the bias that we have no word for those who cannot read and write except to refer to them as lacking something that we consider essential to intelligence, essential because being literate it is essential to us).

            The conflict between Billy Budd and Claggart is only adequately explained as a conflict of cultures, the oral culture of the Handsome Sailor, compared by Melville to Adam, an original barbarian, and to an Africa princely figure, “this black pagod of a fellow” and the literate culture of Claggart, vindictive, ironic, insecure, and capable of doing what Budd can never do: tell lies.

            Claggart gives false testimony against Budd. Budd, strikes Claggart dead with a blow to head.  And he says, “I did not mean to kill him. Could I have used my tongue I would not have struck him.” In the literate world of Claggart and Vere, his oral defense is useless. And he knows that he will be tried. And he knows that he will be hanged. And after reading Chekhov, Ionesco, Achebe, after viewing The Reader, so do we. We do not have to analyze Vere or question his motives. He is little different from the judge in Chekhov’s “A Malefactor.” Vere will apply the letter of the law. He will seek not justice, for he knows that hanging The Handsome Sailor is not just, but he will demand that the offense against the written law, the law holding together his authority, his ship, his navy, this offense be noted, recorded, and the offender punished by death.

            Much has been written about Vere, but he only “veers” in his mind. He cannot veer from his application of the law, and he though he understands the injustice of his decision, he knows that for him there is no other choice. He follows the letter of the law because it leads him. It defines who he is. For him to do otherwise would destroy everything he stands upon, everything that supports him.


[ii] For those who might agree with Dargis that The Reader exploits the Holocaust, I suggest applying this theory to another recently published book set during this time, The Book Thief by Australian author Markus Zusak. His novel illustrates even better that The Reader, the attraction to Hitler, the Great Dictator, by the German barely literate under-class, in his war against the Jews, the People of the Book. The heroine, Liesel Meminger, learns to read from her step-father, who can barely read but who opposes the Nazis and rescues Liesel from the oral mob who support them. If nothing else, the many instances where the author shows  how the language of the barely literates understand words as weapons should demonstrate to the skeptical that the Holocaust was more than murder on a gigantic scale: it was a cultural war of words, the spoken words leading to action versus the written words of contemplation and reflection, the oral and writing cultures.