Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 733

One of the primary concerns of W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants is memory, which not only is valued for its ability to suggest meaning to the present but also is potentially destructive. Throughout the novel, characters are lost to their memories of injustices that often have been repressed for many...

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One of the primary concerns of W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants is memory, which not only is valued for its ability to suggest meaning to the present but also is potentially destructive. Throughout the novel, characters are lost to their memories of injustices that often have been repressed for many years. The narrator finds himself compelled to uncover the stories of these lives, which he values both for their ordinary human qualities and for their pathos. When Max Ferber bequeaths the narrator a packet of letters he had received from his mother, he says that the letters had seemed to him like one of those evil German fairy tales in which, once you are under the spell, you have to carry on to the finish, till your heart breaks, with whatever work you have begun—in this case, the remembering, writing and reading.

The novel also points to the ways in which memory can be elliptical and unreliable. The writing itself raises the question of authenticity by calling attention to moments in which the characters’ accounts seem suspect or self-contradictory. The novel does not attempt to smooth the seams between its parts, which appear to include fiction, memoir, travel writing, and essay. Though critics have struggled to define their genre, Sebald has called his books prose narratives. He notes, however, that every novelist produces a combination of reality and fiction, and he sees himself as part of the tradition of the modern novel.

The precariousness of memory is also alluded to in the novel’s inclusion of photographs. Rather than illustrating the text, these images of less-than-artistic quality, linked in no immediate way to the accounts they accompany, are often simply found objects that prompt the narrator in his search for the past. (In this sense, the images from photo albums that appear in the book are similar to other archival elements, such as newspaper clippings and diaries, which drive the narrator’s quest and which are also sometimes reproduced.) Unlike the typical use of photography, which serves as documentary evidence for accounts that require substantiation, these uncaptioned photographs—or snapshots—suggest further uncertainties, as their subject and purpose are not always clear. Some of the photos might even be fabricated.

Despite the instability of memory, that “lagoon of oblivion” that obliterates the characters’ recollections of their pasts, the four sections of the novel become unified through the narrator’s careful stitching. Though the four accounts initially seem connected only through the narrator’s voice and perhaps the belated return of the past in the characters’ lives, the recurrence of seemingly coincidental details, images, and language builds to suggest a more systematic linkage. Perhaps the most visible connection between the four parts is that at various points of time in each section, the figure of Vladimir Nabokov appears, not as the celebrated author of Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited (1966) but as a lepidopterist carrying his butterfly net.

The fate of European Jews in the twentieth century could be considered one connecting line of the novel. Though the narrator approaches the history of the Holocaust only obliquely or allusively, the historical reality of the war waged by his compatriots is a driving force behind the actions of the characters. Sebald has spoken about his frustration with what he calls a conspiracy of silence in his parents’ generation’s unwillingness to speak openly about the past. His approach to writing about the events of the war is, he argues, the only legitimate way that he could draw near the atrocities of the Holocaust—not by recapitulating the familiar images of the camps, but peripherally, through the lives of those who were touched by the events. His unwillingness to compromise his stance or to resort to sensationalism or sentimentality is, in itself, a moral stance.

“And so they are ever returning to us, the dead,” writes the narrator after discovering the newspaper account of the body of the alpine guide who had been befriended by Dr. Henry Selwyn. The perception recurs in the meandering turns taken by the captivating voice of the narrator. This voice speaks in a rich tone that is, by turns, ironic, wry, melancholic, and perceptive to occasional detail and cultural ephemera. This voice achieves its authenticity through its steady gaze and succeeds in summoning the lives of figures touched by modern history through its honesty to the uncertainties surrounding lived experience.

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