Shame, Textuality, and The Reader


S. and I saw The Reader this afternoon at the Kentucky Theater–perhaps the most moving and powerful film I have ever seen.  I know that’s an unusually strong endorsement, and maybe the movie will not affect others the way it did us.  But I believe that by all objective measures this adds up to one hell of an afternoon at the theater. 

The Reader stars Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes.  Winslet plays Hannah, an illiterate streetcar worker with whom the Fiennes character has an affair the summer he turns 15.  Hannah helps the younger Michael when he becomes ill with scarlet fever.  Several months later when the teenager is well again and returns to Hannah’s apartment to express his appreciation, the affair begins, as does Michael’s reading to Hannah without recognizing her illiteracy.  When Hannah receives a positive job review and is promoted to office worker, her inability to read or write compels her to run away and join the SS.  Michael knows nothing of her whereabouts until, as a law student, he visits a war crimes trial that features his one time lover as defendant.  Hannah’s ultimate conviction depends on her confessed composition of  an incriminating  document.  She allows herself to be convicted of murder rather than admit  her own  inability to have written even her own name.

Probably I should share no more of the plot–should only share that the film explores the imprisoning nature of shame and degree to which we will go to keep shame secret even if it means our own literal incarceration.  It also suggests that sometimes what we perceive as indifference to the feelings and suffering of others may, in fact, be something else entirely, that what may seem meaningful to one person may remain nothing to another, that who we are and why we behave the way we do is a complicated affair, that, perhaps, we should withhold judgement of others, as we may know less than we think about their tangled inner lives.  Perhaps, we ourselves remain poor readers of motivation.  Could we be equally illiterate when it comes to deciphering the texts of our own shame-based behaviors?

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