How the past influences the present in the novel ‘The Reader’ and the play ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’?

The two works of literature discussed in this essay have several similarities in their underlying themes and narratives.  The Street Car Named Desire, written by Tennessee Williams in 1947, was not only well received by critics, but also adapted into several stage productions.  The post Second World War period in which the play is set was a period of rapid social transformation.  The United States had emerged as one of two superpowers and there is unprecedented growth in the manufacturing industry.  This alters the conventional equations of power between men and women, cities and country sides, northern states and southern states, etc.  It is in this shifting and evolving milieu that the lives of Stanley Kowalski and Blanche DuBois cross paths, which ultimately leads to much interpersonal turmoil.  Similarly, the novel ‘The Reader’ written by Bernhard Schlink is a work of high literary standard.  The movie version too got several nominations in the Academy Awards.  The Reader too is set in period of the Second World War, although its narrative finally takes us to the end of the century.  While the particular contextual settings in which lead protagonists Hanna and Michael Berg develop their relationship is different from that of Stanley and Blanche, one could see strong parallels between the two stories.  This essay will foray further into such relationships and ascertain how the present lives of both Blanche and Michael have been influenced by past due to them mainly keeping and finding out secrets.

In The Streetcar Named Desire, the lead character of Blanche DuBois’s interactions with Stanley, Stella and Mitch are all defined and shaped by her troublesome past.  Early in her youth, she falls in love with and marries a gentleman in Laurel, Mississippi.  But the romance and happiness was short-lived as she soon discovers that her husband is homosexual, who subsequently kills himself.  This tragic end to a whirlwind marriage had left a deep scar in Blanche’s psyche, making her prone to flights of fantasy and illusions of grandeur.  Throughout the play, Blanche is show as being obsessively concerned about her looks, clothes and jewellery.  This behaviour is partly due to feelings of insecurity as a result of aging.  But more importantly the luxurious lifestyle with which she was accustomed to in Laurel, as well as the fairytale marriage to Allan, ended in disaster.  While the reason for Allan’s suicide is revealed to Mitch, the details pertaining to the loss of their ancestral mansion is told to Stanley, when the latter coerces her to divulge the same.  In many ways, the behaviour of Blanche since her arrival at Stella’s home is an attempt to recompense for these losses.  This manifests itself as a form of neurosis as she becomes obsessed about her looks and appeals to the opposite sex.  Beneath the veneer of refinement and culture, she desperately craves for intimacy from every possible source.  Even a young salesman who comes to the door is taken advantage of by Blanche.  Hence, Blanche’s abnormal behaviour is very much rooted in her past.

In the case of The Reader too, the later narrative of Michael is full of remorse and guilt for his ignorance in the past.  When evaluating the novel, one has to study it in the context of the burgeoning body of holocaust literature that has been published in the last sixty years.  Rather than dealing in dichotomies of good and evil in the characters of Hanna and Michael, Bernhard Schlink does present a nuanced view of the questions confronting an entire generation of Germans post holocaust.  Michael’s individual turmoil is only representative of this greater malaise.  While the novel provides an entry point for further exploration of the moral aspects of the holocaust, it is simultaneously a statement on the limitations of the written word to convey and elicit comprehensive responses.  To the extent that this is an accepted fact, not just applicable to the lead characters of The Reader, but for the Novel in general, the author does a satisfactory job of perceiving and probing answers to these tough questions. For example, the novelist does a satisfactory job in spelling out the internal monologues of Michael, as the latter comes to terms with his past.  For instance, in one of the passages of the book, Michael’s conscious thoughts were given expression by Schlink through the following words: “She was too far away for me to read her expression. I didn’t jump to my feet and run to her. Questions raced through my head: why was she at the pool, did she want to be seen with me, did I want to be seen with her, why had we never met each other by accident, what should I do? (The Reader, p. 79)  Such internal monologues do indeed show us the mechanisms with which Michael confronts his past and gives it perspective.  In this way, in both The Reader and The Streetcar Named Desire, we see how the events and facts of the past play a crucial role in shaping the narratives of the present.

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