The choices we make mold us into the people we are today. Sometimes, we underestimate the weight of those beliefs that doggedly lead us to make choices that cumulatively stray us down paths we least anticipate. What does one do when one walks down a road they didn’t mean to take but can see no exit, little alternative, thanks to their beliefs, their insecurities, their mental-model of themselves and their place in the world? So many of us are caught in such traps. We rush headlong into something in order to desperately escape confronting our deepest fears, only to realize that we have landed onto something even more miserable; from the frying pot to the fire. When caught in extenuating situations with no easy answers, no easy alternatives, nothing is more meaningless than the discussion of choice. One can only invent their own meaning, their own purpose, their own reasoning to maintain enough sanity to ensure self-preservation to live through their unintentional mishaps.
The protagonist in the story, Hanna, goes through this struggle. She befriends the narrator when he is a young teenager and begins a unique relationship born out of a desperate need for companionship. Loneliness is a cruel punishment, especially when one is broken in spirit. One of the ways in which she tries to restore her spirit is by listening to the words of great poets and novelists read out to her by the young boy. This ritual deepens their relationship profoundly. But one day, she disappears out of the narrator’s life until he finds her in court, accused of a grievous crime. Hanna’s struggles to find the words and the rationale to defend or explain her choices frames the story with equal measures of shock and poignancy.
The Reader is a haunting exploration of the weighty issues surrounding choice, free will, duty, and morality. It’s actually much more than just these themes. It pinpoints at the most basic insecurities and beliefs that are harbored in the guise of seemingly ordinary foibles, but that slowly erode us, our confidence and the core of our self, and drive us into rash and impulsive decisions in our life. I think this is an aspect that most of us can relate to. Most of us have been in unpleasant situations because we felt it was more bearable to face a harrowing situation that is external to us than face the inner-demons haunting within us. After all, what choice did we have?
But while reading Hanna’s story, it is difficult to empathize with her at times because of the horror and weight of her involvement in a crime that still terrifies the world. However, what the author accomplishes to beautifully address is this - we, as readers and third persons have the benefit and luxury of not having lived Hanna’s particular life, of not knowing what it means to be traumatized by her demons and fears, of not being in those exact situations that she found herself in, and therefore can readily sit on our moral high horse and apathetically view her life as a case-study to be judged and analyzed. But, when one can’t even imagine being in the same situation as Hanna, forcing to speculate on such a hypothetical scenario and engaging in our moral reasoning in the comfort of our secure lives is meaningless. It also brings up the difficult facet within moral dilemmas - what do you do if you are forced to carry out a duty that you know is amoral and terrible? If you fail to carry out the duty, you will be killed, and if you do carry out the duty, your spirit withers. Choosing death seems like the “right” choice to most of us, the privileged third persons, secure in the tacit knowledge that we would never have to make such a choice and therefore discerning the right choice from the “wrong” one. But again, we are not living that exact situation, are we? Maybe there is a third choice, or even a fourth choice in that situation that we can’t even begin to comprehend?
This is a powerful and heavy book that tells a devastating story with sensitivity, clarity, and insight. It is intelligent, poignant and beautiful. The writing moved me and helped me read into Hanna’s difficult life with understanding, if not complete empathy. It explores a confluence of issues surrounding morality through a story that I never imagined would move me.