The Thanatos Syndrome Essay - Critical Context

Walker Percy

Critical Context

Comparisons of The Thanatos Syndrome to George Orwell’s classic Nineteen Eighty-four (1948) and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) are unavoidable. All three novels discuss the morality of social control through medical means, each pointing out the dangers of going too far in trying to improve society. Percy’s book adds religious content to the discussion and updates the social problems supposedly being solved.

The Thanatos Syndrome is Percy’s last novel. It illustrates many of the themes common in both his fiction and his essays, themes of religious belief, racial relations, social control, and personal identity. Percy earned his M.D., but his practice was interrupted by an episode of tuberculosis, during which he began an intense study of philosophy that manifests itself in each of his novels. He turned his attention to writing and earned the National Book Award for his first novel, The Moviegoer (1961). That novel introduced the idea of people identifying more with films than with real life, a theme touched on in The Thanatos Syndrome.

The Thanatos Syndrome brings back the character of Tom More from Love in the Ruins. In the earlier book, More was declared crazy, and his first wife left him to join a religious cult, much as Ellen is attracted by the Pentecostals at the end of The Thanatos Syndrome. More waited for the end of the world and became an alcoholic in the earlier book; here, he appears to have conquered alcoholism, though he is still prone to knocking back a shot of Jack Daniels, and he takes positive action to save the world from itself.