Study Guide

The Rings of Saturn

by W. G. Sebald

The Rings of Saturn Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Much like Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire (1782; The Reveries of the Solitary Walker, 1783), James Boswell’s The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1785), and the letters between William Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy, about his walking tour of the British Highlands, Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn is a journal of a walking tour of eastern England in which the narrator—who at times appears to be Sebald himself—records his impressions and his dreams. Like much of Sebald’s other work, the borders between illusion and reality, fact and fiction, and dreams and life are porous and permeable. The novel does not contain a specific plot that can be followed from beginning to end. Much like Joyce’s Ulysses or Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925), The Rings of Saturn records the narrator’s thoughts in stream-of-consciousness-like fashion as he moves from one topic to another, with various images or events sending him into associative reveries.

As the novel opens, the narrator sets out to walk the county of Suffolk in order to overcome the emptiness he feels after he has completed a long period of work. He feels a joyous sense of freedom while he is traversing the countryside, even as he feels a disabling sense of horror when he encounters past events of destruction there. One year after he begins his walk, he finds himself in a state of complete immobility and must be taken to the hospital. There he looks out on the world from a small window and finds it difficult to judge reality from illusion; he thinks of himself as Gregor Samsa, the young man in Kafka’s story Die Verwandlung (1915; The Metamorphosis, 1936), who wakes up to find himself transformed into a giant insect and who is no longer accepted by his family. More than a year after his discharge from the hospital, the narrator begins to assemble the recollections of his journey and of his hospitalization.

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(The entire section is 832 words.)