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Authority and obedience in Bernhard Schlink’s Der Vorleser and Die Heimkehr


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Assmann, M 2010 , 'Authority and obedience in Bernhard Schlink’s Der Vorleser and Die Heimkehr', Research Master thesis, University of Tasmania.

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In presenting the crimes of SS-guards through the medium of an illiterate
woman, Schlink’s novel Der Vorleser (1995) attracted a mainly stern critical
response. The much-criticised one-sided portrayal of destructive obedience seems
to be addressed by his next novel Die Heimkehr (2006), where submission to
malevolent authority is transferred to an intellectual platform set in America in
the years following World War II. Although Schlink maintains he did not intend
Die Heimkehr as a sequel to Der Vorleser, there are several thematic aspects
linking the two novels. Both have a male German narrator, who was born around
the end of World War II and has close links with a former Nazi collaborator. At
the centre of both novels is Schlink’s portrayal of the nature of obedience to
authority, uncovering the reality of man’s divided nature that consists in both
good and evil.
Destructive obedience is portrayed in both novels rather one-sidedly, either
as a problem of a lack of education, or as a discussion on an intellectual level. It
therefore seems justified to read Der Vorleser and Die Heimkehr in chronological
order to arrive at a more realistic picture of obedience to authority. In Die
Heimkehr, Schlink’s authority figure is an American University professor who
uses Stanley Milgram’s (1960’s) study series of obedience to authority for his
own questionable purposes. Schlink therefore provides within the plot itself a
theoretical approach to analyse this novel. The examination of Schlink’s portrayal
of authority and obedience reveals that Der Vorleser and Die Heimkehr when
read as independent works, do not address the universal dilemma of submission to malevolent authority. However, an analysis of Schlink’s earlier novel Der
Vorleser, based on Milgram’s theories, uncovers surprising parallels with Die
Heimkehr even though, as Schlink has stated, the novels are not connected.
This dissertation draws upon Milgram’s study to uncover and examine the
relationship between authority and obedience in Schlink’s novels to show how
atrocities come about. The study provides a paradigm for analysing the
protagonists of Der Vorleser and Die Heimkehr based on Milgram’s obedience
study, which, as yet, has not been consulted for an analysis of Schlink’s novels.
Read in sequence however, using Milgram’s theories, Der Vorleser and Die
Heimkehr can be shown to complement each other and confirm that Schlink
views obedience to destructive authority as a permanent and universal problem.

Item Type: Thesis - Research Master
Authors/Creators:Assmann, M
Keywords: Schlink, World war II, Milgram, authority, obedience
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Copyright 2010 the Author

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