Study Guide

The Thanatos Syndrome

by Walker Percy

The Thanatos Syndrome Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Thanatos Syndrome is in some ways an extension of Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins: The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World (1971), also narrated by Tom More. In The Thanatos Syndrome, More confronts a plot to adulterate the drinking water for his area with heavy sodium. Although the chemical has the desirable effects of reducing crime rates and teenage pregnancy, it causes people to revert to childlike thinking and speaking patterns and also changes women’s bodies from a menstrual to an estrous cycle. The novel’s characters debate the issues involved in programs of social control in this primary plot as well as in a secondary plot involving a hospice.

As the novel opens, More has just returned to his home in Feliciana, Louisiana, after spending two years in federal prison for selling prescription drugs illegally. More, a psychiatrist, is asked by Bob Comeaux, his parole officer on the medical ethics committee, to examine a patient. More notices that Mickey LaFaye, formerly one of his patients, no longer demonstrates her former symptoms of agoraphobia and anxiety but now speaks in simple sentences and jumps from topic to topic. She also shows somewhat aggressive sexuality and an ability to recall obscure facts.

When More meets other former patients and acquaintances, he notices the same types of behavior and absence of former psychiatric symptoms. Even his wife, Ellen, is affected. She manifests her increased memory in her newfound skill at bridge, a game at which she has become an expert and won tournaments with her partner, John Van Dorn. More suspects that something unusual is going on but receives no support in his investigation from Comeaux, who appears to want More to stop investigating. He offers More a lucrative government consulting job while simultaneously threatening to alter the conditions of his parole if he does not take the job.

Lucy Lipscomb, an epidemiologist and More’s cousin, tells him that she thinks...

(The entire section is 829 words.)