The Emigrants Summary
by W. G. Sebald

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The Emigrants Summary

In The Emigrants, the unnamed narrator(s) tells the stories of four men who left their homes in Germany around the time of, or prior to, the second World War. He explores the ways in which their exile affects them, most often tragically. In the first section, we meet Dr. Henry Selwyn, who lives on the same property as his estranged wife. She lets an apartment to the narrator and his wife, Clara. He tells the narrator of an alpine guide named Johannes Naegeli of whom Dr. Selwyn was quite fond. He says that "never in his life, neither before nor later, did he feel as good as he did then, in the company of that man." One day, Naegali went missing.

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Eventually, the narrator and his wife move into their own home, and Dr. Selwyn visits them often. Once, he "confessed . . . that in recent years he had been beset with homesickness more and more," and he talked about his childhood home in Lithuania. He also admits that he changed his name from Hersch Seweryn to Henry Selwyn. Not long after, he takes his own life. The narrator reads a newspaper article discussing the discovery of Naegeli's remains, which had been trapped in a glacier for seventy-two years.

In the second section, an unnamed narrator discusses a man named Paul Bereyter, who was his teacher in third grade; Paul was brought to the narrator's attention again when he read the news that Paul had taken his own life. The obituary included the information that "during the Third Reich Paul Bereyter had been prevented from practising his chosen profession." Paul seems to have been a rather unorthodox teacher as well as someone with a substantial "aversion to hypocrisy." He didn't teach from the textbooks and frequently took the kids out into nature. The narrator meets Lucy Landau, Paul's friend in his later life, and she tells him a great deal about Paul. He learns about how, before the war, Paul was "served official notice that it would not be possible for him to remain as a teacher, because of the new laws, with which he was no doubt familiar. The wonderful future he had dreamt of . . . collapsed without a sound." Paul was one-quarter Jewish. Nevertheless, Paul was moved to return to Germany because he was

profoundly attached to his native land . . . and even to that miserable place S as well, which in fact he loathed, and, deep within himself . . . would have been pleased to see destroyed and obliterated, together with the townspeople, whom he found so utterly repugnant.

In the third section, an unnamed narrator explores the life of his great-uncle Ambros Adelwarth. He was the "valet and travelling companion" to Cosmo Solomon, the son of a very wealthy Jewish banker in New York. It is implied that there may have been a sexual relationship between Ambros and Cosmo; one uncle says that "he was of the other persuasion," among other such hints. They trotted the globe, gambling together for many years, and eventually, Ambros had to commit Cosmo to the Samaria Sanatorium in Ithaca, NY. That is where Cosmo died. The more Ambros told his stories to family members, the more depressed he became, and he seemed to have a very good memory. He became unable to "utter a single world, or any sound at all." Soon, he commits himself to the same sanatorium. He readily submits to shock-therapy treatment (which was incredibly painful and tortuous). This seems to have been his way of taking a "leave of absence," to use one doctor's words. In other words, it seems that Ambros was ready to die and took steps to make that happen.

In the fourth section, an unnamed narrator describes the life of Max Ferber. He lived in Manchester, England, for some years. Ferber was an artist, and he seems to have had some extreme anxiety regarding leaving home and being among strangers. He'd left Munich at the age of fifteen in 1939. His parents were supposed to follow but perished in a concentration camp in 1941. He recalls his own childhood there and also shares the memoirs his mother wrote before she was taken away.


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)


(The entire section is 2,440 words.)