This is a bit of lengthy post. But please read. It is worth your while.
I just read The Reader by Bernhard Schlink for a class I’ve been taking about the Holocaust. The plot as a whole is an interesting read, but I had to skip through some parts that are “morally devastating,” as critics call it. In the novel, an ex-concentration camp woman officer builds a relationship with a young boy, a few years after WWII. During the course of the relationship, the woman, Hannah, kept her past a secret. Their relationship established the young boy as a teacher because he frequently read to Hannah out loud. At the time, he thought his reading exercises were purely for her enjoyment.
After a few months, Hanna moves to another city, abandoning their relationship (and a job promotion that would have upgraded her from being a trolley conductor to trained driver). They reunite a few years later when the young man, now attending law school, must record every detail of a court case concerning the Auschwitz concentration camp. To his surprise, it is his old flame on trial for the acts she committed as a Nazi officer. Upon hearing witnesses claim that children in Auschwitz read out loud to Hanna before their deaths, the boy realizes that Hanna had been illiterate all her life. Not only did this explain the nature of the relationship they had, but also her decision to flee from her job promotion – it would have required her to be able to read the street signs.
As Hanna ages in prison, the man, now in his forties learns that she can finally read and write. Though he is filled with joy and jubilation for her, the news sparks a sobering moment. He writes:
I looked at Hanna’s handwriting and saw how much energy and struggle the writing had cost her…I was sorry for her delayed and failed life, sorry for the delays and failures of life in general. I thought if the right time gets missed, if one has refused something for too long, it’s too late, even if it is finally tacked with energy and received with joy.
While I do not write about this book to condone the relationship between the woman and boy I think there is something significant to be learned from it: The importance of doing what we are supposed to do with our lives at the right time. This has been on mind a lot lately, since I will be graduating from school very soon, and need to make choices as I design my life. My hope is that I do everything I am supposed to at its appointed moment, with no delay – because a tragic life is one that never realizes the purpose for which it was created.
However, I find hope in Paul’s prayer:
I pray also that they eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know and understand the hope to which he has called you, and how rich is His glorious inheritance in the saints (His set-apart ones) Ephesians 1:18