Themes

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 395

The themes of Austerlitz principally involve the ways in which people rediscover their own past, in this case, a past of trauma and dislocation. The title character is a man who was fortunate enough to be transported out of Central Europe as a small child during the Holocaust. He is taken into a foster home in the U.K. and raised by a Welsh couple, and only some years later is told his real name, still knowing nothing, during his youth, of the details of his early childhood.

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We do not know if Austerlitz was too young at the time of his transport to the U.K. to be able to remember these details, or if they were buried in him as a result of their being so traumatic. The theme of self-discovery relates to two other subjects. What Austerlitz learns about his own past is a microcosm of knowledge about humanity. As he revisits the city of his birth, Prague, and the ghetto of Theresienstadt where his mother was sent, he becomes directly aware of the brutality of which man is capable. Another fact, though it is not clear if Austerlitz himself becomes fully aware of it, is that his own intellectual life as an academic, in which he concerns himself with minute details about architecture and other disciplines, has been a process of focusing on external things as a mechanism of avoiding the discovery of his inner self, his origin and his past.

A last theme is that although Austerlitz personally is fortunate enough to escape the direct results of the Holocaust, his life as a survivor, as studies of trauma have shown, is marked by psychological pain and dysfunction. Part of this is due to its being a pain that could not be articulated because his foster parents either do not know about it and cannot tell him the facts, or choose to withhold them from him. We now live in a time when common wisdom asserts that things don't get resolved if they aren't talked about. Austerlitz's foster parents in Wales are themselves troubled people, insular and unhappy, and lacking the psychological equipment to help him apart from providing the basic necessities of childhood. The ultimate theme of Austerlitz may be that all of humanity is traumatized in one way or another, and that all people have to rediscover their past.

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Characters