Explore the consequences of Hanna and Brionys pivitol actions on a range of other characters in The Reader and Atonement

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Explore the consequences of Hanna and Briony’s pivitol actions on a range of other characters in ‘The Reader’ and ‘Atonement’

‘The Reader’ and ‘Atonement’ are novels written retrospectively with World War Two being a motif in both, despite both authors existing during the 21st Century. This allows us to consider the actions and consequences of the protagonists, and the ways in which they would have been perceived in the 1940’s in comparison to the contemporary. ‘The Reader’ is a German novel written by Bernhard Schlink translated into English. It follows a generally linear, sequential narrative, enabling us to follow the omniscient narrator on a journey through his life, however, flashbacks and after thoughts is often used as a form of rising action allowing us to consider the changing perceptions towards an action.  

Dissimilarly, McEwan initiates modernism in ‘Atonement’ by challenging the typical linear context by using more than one narrative voice, skewing the viewpoint. The structure is deceptive as it includes a meta-narrative in the form of the epilogue and our discovery of Briony as the ultimate narrator causes us to re-evaluate what we have read.

There are two pivotal actions at the centre of ‘Atonement’; the attack on Lola, and Briony’s act of bearing false witness; accusing Robbie of the crime. Only the second is of interest as the rape is a shadowy event, deliberately never clearly investigated, as to not expose the true assailant. This provides the ambiguity needed to read the novel with a profound sense of doubt. In ‘The Reader’, the pivotal action is Hanna’s decision to become an SS guard in order to conceal her illiteracy. This is discovered by Michael many years later during her trial.

The imprisonment of Hanna and Robbie is one of the most significant consequences of the pivotal actions outlined above. However the major difference in both novels occurs in accountability. In ‘The Reader’, Hanna is imprisoned for having seized command and allowing 300  under ostensible ‘protection’ to die in a fire locked in a church. Despite her involvement which Hanna admits to, she is unfairly accused of writing the report of the fire, and in her refusal to admit her illiteracy, she does not only let the bulk of the crime be pinned on her, but lets those with a greater share of responsibility escape full accountability; raising the question of if she has become a convenient scapegoat. Because of her association, she is still somewhat culpable and therefore, the extent of injustice cannot be compared to that of Robbie’s. Undeniably, imprisonment is still a significant loss of her freedom. The setting of the prison is symbolic as the level of detail omitted is significantly less evocative than previous descriptions, as in part one. In doing so, Schlink is able to demonstrate the desolate living conditions Hanna endured, and the fact she ‘didn’t pack’ any of her items away before her death is intentional as the very few items occupying her cell can be highlighted. Another interpretation of this however may be that Michael has tried to block out the painful memory of visiting her cell which is why the depiction remains fragmentary.  Schlink may also be trying to create a sense of pathos as we recognise the cell is where Hanna unjustly spent the majority of her life, and the poems and pictures of nature she created; indicative of happiness and freedom are harshly distinguished with the heart-rending, blunt reality of the setting where ‘glass bricks replaced window glass.’

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In ‘Atonement’, Robbie is imprisoned for a crime he did not commit, and in Part two, we follow his stream of consciousness narrative, now a soldier in war-torn France 5 years after the accusation. McEwan limits Robbie’s account of jail, as war is a key motif in Atonement, and is therefore focused on more heavily. Ironically, Robbie has managed to escape an extended time in prison by joining the war effort. However even while Robbie is a soldier, there are flashbacks of his time spent inside, which is a clear demonstration of the long lasting, damaging effects it has had ...

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