Themes

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 397

This novel focuses, to a great extent, on the difficulty of establishing one's identity when one has either been thrust from or felt the need to leave one's home. Are we who we were when we lived then and there, or are we someone new when we must find a new place in the world? Does our distance from our homes make us ultimately unknowable to those around us and even to ourselves? There seems always to be a gap that begs to be filled. For example, Paul Bereyter experienced a sort of double displacement when he became a teacher and was then told that he would not be allowed to teach due to being one-quarter Jewish. He then had to leave Germany altogether for a number of years. These experiences left him torn, according to his friend Lucy Landau, between loving and hating his homeland and its people. How can he identify with something he hates? But how can he fail to identify with a place he loves? Moreover, the fact that Paul takes his own life indicates the amount of suffering his conflicts caused him. Likewise, Henry Selwyn takes his life because he believes that his estrangement from his wife can be traced to his own experience as an emigrant from Lithuania. Thus, the difficult of developing one's identity as an emigrant is the most significant theme of the text.

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Sebald also blurs fact and fiction, using photographs (often without captions) that can leave us confused about who we are looking at. The memories of some characters fade and must be filled in with assumption and inference while other memories remain vivid and clean. The narrator hears a great deal of information secondhand from friends of the people in whom he is interested. Sebald also strings together the life experiences of several different people, perhaps conveying them less explicitly than more traditional novels and certainly refusing to conform to a more traditional plot structure. This seems to point to the idea that everything is a construction: history, memory, identity. There is some room for creativity in the creation of all of it, and this slipperiness can be both freeing as well as frightening. Many of the characters seem frightened of their inability to pin down and understand the world and themselves, but the narrator seems to be somewhat freed by the fluidity of it all.

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Characters