One of the reasons I originally began this blog was because I wanted to create a forum where I and students could communicate about books we enjoy. It has taken a long time to get around to that, but I thought I would take the leap and begin with my thoughts about this absolutely incredible novel by Bernhard Schlink. The film – out this year – has won at least one Golden Globe and been nominated for Oscars. I haven’t seen it. Maybe some of you who have can comment. I will try not to spoil it for those who want to see or read it but haven’t.
The story has themes that are strongly developmental, so I think it will really appeal to you all; it takes place in post-WWII Germany, so it has cross-cultural application, and for those of you who are taking the War and Peace class it is a “can’t miss.” But actually, I was compelled to write this post for my students in Middle Childhood and Adolescence.
The story opens when Michael Berg, the protagonist, is fifteen. With prose that is spare to the point of being spartan at times, Schlink is nevertheless able to capture the complex emotions that are created by the secret sexual relationship that develops between Michael and an older woman. He carries us through Michael’s early awkwardness and his growing familiarity with his own and another’s sexuality to the social consequences of his growing confidence among his peer group and in his family.
While I think that Schlink handles adolescent development well, his real gift to us is the presentation of a truly unusual moral quandary. Without giving too much away, Michael has to decide, later in his life, which kind of betrayal to make. There really is no way to avoid some sort of deep betrayal of his lover.
He is in a situation where he knows that his lover is doing something – and has probably done many things – all because she has a secret she is trying to hide. But he knows that if others knew the secret, she would receive more social support. Does he betray her by telling her secret and thus make her life easier for her but steal her dignity? Or does he allow her to keep her secret and her dignity, and make her life more terrible for herself?
Michael’s father is a professor of philosophy, which has always seemed pretty useless and unhelpful to him in the past, but at this moment he realizes his father is the one person who may be able to help him. His father said something that made me think of the assignment I gave my Adolescence students last week.
My Hum Dev 332 students are reading a book in which a reporter is hanging out with and trying to understand the life of a 15-year old African American sometime-drug dealer in New Haven, CT. Everyone around this youth is always telling the reporter their theory about what is wrong with him (the teenager), and why he has the problems he does. It is his mother’s fault, or his father’s fault, or his paternal grandparents, or the school system. And the reporter, Finnegan, says, “But a life is not an illness in need of a diagnosis.” So last week I asked my students to discuss what that meant to them. What does that have to do with Schlink and The Reader?
Here is what the father says to Michael when he goes to ask him whether he should do:
“When he answered, he went all the way back to first principles. He instructed me about the individual, about freedom and dignity, about the human being as subject and the fact that one may not trun him into an object. ‘Don’t you remember how furious you would get as a little boy when Mama knew best what was good for you? Even how far one can act like this with children is a real problem. It is a philosophical problem, but philosophy does not concern itself with children. It leaves them to pedagogy, where they’re not in very good hands. Philsophy has forgotten about children . . . But with adults I unfortunately see no justification for setting other peope’s views of what is good for them above their own ideas of what is good for themselves.’
‘Not even if they themselves would be happy about it later?’
He shook his head. ‘We’re not talking about happiness, we’re talking about dignity and freedom. Even as a little boy, you knew the difference. It was no comfort to you that your mother was always right.’ “Pg. 140-41
I won’t tell you what Michael eventually decides – but the connection to question to my class and the reporter’s point is that we cannot treat human beings as objects. Human beings, even when they are making terrible mistakes, even when they are teenage drug dealers, even when they are five year olds, even when we believe they are wrong, wrong, wrong – are subjects. They are humans just like us, with all the rights to their own dignity and self-determination that we accord ourselves. Why does it seem that this is often forgetten in the social sciences? Because people become our research subjects – they are often treated, at least written about, as research OBJECTS; as illnesses in need of diagosis, for example.
What do you think? About the book, or the film, or about treating subjects as objects?