The Reader

The Reader: Is Shame Invincible?

Professional reviewers had a hard time with this one. A majority were favorable, but like the minority, seemed unable to clearly formulate the crux of the film and their own reactions to it. This film depicts complex feelings in its protagonists, and seems to seek to evoke them in the audience. It might help understand the struggle if you assume, as I do, that the emotion at the core of the film was shame. Modern societies have a difficult time with this emotion, to the point that it might be called taboo. We have it as much or more than prior societies, but recognizing it in ourselves and others, let alone discussing it, has become problematic.

The psychoanalyst Helen B. Lewis was also a research psychologist. Her study of emotions in psychotherapy sessions (Lewis 1971) reported the results of her systematic search for emotion markers in the transcripts of hundreds of psychotherapy sessions. To her surprise, by far the most frequent emotion was shame/embarrassment, occurring far more often than all the other emotions combined. A further surprise was that its presence was virtually never mentioned, either by therapist or client. She named the unmentioned emotion unacknowledged shame. Relevant to the film reviewed here, she named the form most common in men, bypassed shame, evidenced by expressionless talk.

The film seems to hinge on the power of unacknowledged shame, both for the characters and for the audience. During the trial, Hanna is so ashamed of being illiterate that she accepts a life sentence. Michael is so ashamed of his relationship with her that he doesn’t inform the court that she is illiterate, that she couldn’t have written the document she is charged with. Because of his inaction, he then is overcome with shame for not having helped Hanna.

In modern societies, most people find it difficult to credit shame as a powerful motive. In traditional societies, shame is understood to be the most insistent of all motives. The Japanese dread of shaming the family comes to mind. In this passage several hundred years ago in pre-modern France, Rousseau described the feeling that led him falsely to accuse a maid-servant of a theft which he had himself committed.

When she appeared my heart was agonized, but the presence of so many people was more powerful than my compunction. I did not fear punishment, but I dreaded shame: I dreaded it more than death, more than the crime, more than all the world. I would have buried, hid myself in the center of the earth: invincible shame bore down every other sentiment; shame alone caused all my impudence, and in proportion as I became criminal the fear of discovery rendered me intrepid. I felt no dread but that of being detected, of being publicly and to my face declared a thief, liar, and calumniator (Confessions).

It is hard for us moderns to credit this kind of statement, because shame has gone underground. Yet it still is controlling, even when hidden. Hanna’s motives in facing the court, and less directly, Michael’s, could be seen as similar to Rousseau’s, since they both seem controlled by “invincible” shame. In modern times, it seems to be doubly invincible because it is usually almost invisible.

Like many of the reviewers, I was put off by Michael’s woodenness after seeing Hanna in court. But the second viewing reminded me of Lewis’s report that expressionlessness, that is, bypassed shame, is the most frequent defense against shame in men.

When Michael visits Hannah in prison, he is virtually paralyzed by his emotions. He is still ashamed of associating with a criminal, and intensely ashamed of his shame. He could be frozen by the looping of shame: shame about shame about shame. These loops have no natural limit, and can end in withdrawal, silence, or paralyzing depression (Scheff 2009).

For much of the film, the filmmaker seems to want the audience to identify first of all with Michael, an innocent who is also guilty and therefore bound in endless cycles of shame. The novel puts more emphasis than the film on Hannah’s growth as a person while in prison. Both book and film show that she learns to read by obtaining the books that match the cassettes that Michael sends her.

In the book, however, she goes on to read about the Holocaust, the crime that she participated in. Both book and film suggest that in court and in prison she is both a perpetrator and a victim. Mainly because Michael didn’t provide evidence that would have shortened her prison term, and didn’t give her the support that might have avoided her suicide. She was also victimized by the other defendants in the trial.

After her death, Michael tries to overcome his shame by flying to New York to visit the surviving daughter of one of Hannah’s victims. He asks her to take Hannah’s money, or at least give advice about how to use it, but the daughter refuses. She harshly rejects the least involvement in Hannah’s affairs, much less allowing even a shred of forgiveness.

A somewhat puzzling aspect of this last scene is the obvious splendor of the daughter’s current life. She has a huge apartment, awash with art and style. There is no hint of this in the book. Why did the filmmaker want her to be so rich? Another puzzle is the difference between the dialogue in the book and in the film. The film version makes the daughter more haughty and rejecting than in the book. What is going on?

One guess is that the filmmaker is trying to stir guilt in the audiences. Relative to the poverty of Hannah’s entire life, the members of the audience are rich. Perhaps the filmmaker was trying to turn the sympathy of audience from the daughter, to encourage them to be more forgiving of Hanna than the daughter was.

The ideas in this story may be relevant to our own lives. People are always asking how we put up with the Bush administration for 8 years. Perhaps the people slept because they were both innocent and guilty. We were innocent in the sense that we ourselves weren’t corrupt, commit fraud and cause the death of innocents. Yet we were guilty in the sense that we didn’t do anything about bringing down the perpetrators, or at least anything effective.

As with Michael, perhaps we were paralyzed by shame. Again, like Michael, one way toward ending our paralysis would be to learn to forgive others, so that we can begin to forgive ourselves.


Lewis, Helen B. 1971. Shame and Guilt in Neurosis. New York: International Universities Press.

Scheff, Thomas J. 2009. A Social Theory of Depression and Its Treatment. Journal of Ethical and

Human Psychiatry 11, 1, 37-49.