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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 332

Part memoir and part fiction, The Rings of Saturn is a journal of a walking tour that takes the narrator (Sebald) through the English countryside of Suffolk and, at times, through the dark places of his mind.

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At the beginning, the narrator states that he is taking the walk to help counter

The emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work.

However, he soon collapses and is taken to a hospital in Norwich where he compares his state to the main character in Kafka's Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa, and begins his notes for his book.

Now that I begin to assemble my notes, more than a year after my discharge from hospital, . . .

Central to the story is Sebald's search for the skull of the 17th century physician Sir Thomas Browne, a writer whose ideas on life and death he seems to identify with.

And yet, says Browne, all knowledge is enveloped in darkness. What we perceive are no more than isolated lights in the abyss of ignorance, the shadow filled edifice of the world. We study the order of things, says Browne, but we cannot grasp their innermost essence. And because it is so, it befits our philosophy to be writ small, using the short hand and contracted forms of transient Nature, which alone are reflections of eternity.

In addition, the narrator reflects on what it means for him to be German. He also reflects on the work of writers such as Joseph Conrad, particularly Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and Jorge Luis Borges.

By the end, the reader understands the book is about Sebald's identity as a writer and a person.

But the fact is that writing is the only way in which I am able to cope with the memories which overwhelm me so frequently and so unexpectedly. If they remained locked away, they would become heavier and heavier as time went on, so that in the end I would succumb under their mounting weight.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 832

Much like Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire (1782; The Reveries of the Solitary Walker, 1783), James Boswell’s The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1785), and the letters between William Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy, about his walking tour of the British Highlands, Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn is a journal of a walking tour of eastern England in which the narrator—who at times appears to be Sebald himself—records his impressions and his dreams. Like much of Sebald’s other work, the borders between illusion and reality, fact and fiction, and dreams and life are porous and permeable. The novel does not contain a specific plot that can be followed from beginning to end. Much like Joyce’s Ulysses or Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925), The Rings of Saturn records the narrator’s thoughts in stream-of-consciousness-like fashion as he moves from one topic to another, with various images or events sending him into associative reveries.

As the novel opens, the narrator sets out to walk the county of Suffolk in order to overcome the emptiness he feels after he has completed a long period of work. He feels a joyous sense of freedom while he is traversing the countryside, even as he feels a disabling sense of horror when he encounters past events of destruction there. One year after he begins his walk, he finds himself in a state of complete immobility and must be taken to the hospital. There he looks out on the world from a small window and finds it difficult to judge reality from illusion; he thinks of himself as Gregor Samsa, the young man in Kafka’s story Die Verwandlung (1915; The Metamorphosis, 1936), who wakes up to find himself transformed into a giant insect and who is no longer accepted by his family. More than a year after his discharge from the hospital, the narrator begins to assemble the recollections of his journey and of his hospitalization.

Chief among his recollections is his search for the skull of Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682), a physician whose best known work is Religio Medici (wr. 1635; pb. 1642; authorized version, 1643), a collection of his opinions on religion. Browne also wrote several treatises on medicine, and his Hydriotaphia, Urne-Buriall (1658) is a meditation on various means of disposing of the dead that had been practiced in Britain. Browne’s skull itself is an image of the interiority of one’s self and the tendency of all individuals to look inward in order to discover personal identity. Many of the themes and images in Sebald’s novel arise from the narrator’s fascination with Browne and his work. Browne, like the narrator, was born under the sign of Saturn. Moreover, both the narrator and Browne are fascinated with death, especially the idea that nothing of the human being endures after death. Life, for the narrator, is a continuing process of transformation (metamorphosis) from one form into another. Death is simply a transformation into the iniquity of oblivion, and ceremonies of burial are attempts by the living to mark this transformation from life into death.

Images of dust, sand, ashes, fog, and mist pervade The Rings of Saturn. The ashes contained in the burial urn are much like the particles of sand on a beach or the dust particles that ring Saturn; they are particles of matter that remain after some form of destruction or transformation of organic matter. One of the epigraphs to the novel recalls that the rings of Saturn consist of ice crystals and meteorite particles that are fragments of a former moon that was destroyed. The narrator concludes that human civilization, from its earliest times, is little more than a strange luminescence whose waning and fading no one can predict.

The most pervasive theme of The Rings of Saturn is journey or quest. Like a modern pilgrim, the narrator sets off on his walk to discover himself and to attempt to assuage the feeling of despair that has overcome him. As he walks into the countryside, the organic unity of all life—with its disorder as well as its order—is revealed to him. Images of ferries, ferrymen (the classical image of the journey from the living to the realm of the dead), and airplanes also pervade the book. As he observes schools of herring and the fisherman who catch them at work, he begins to understand the destructive as well as the transformative power of nature. Along his journey, the narrator lives with his thoughts and his memories, but he also reflects on others who have made similar journeys. He devotes one set of reflections to writer Joseph Conrad, for example, who took his own footsteps into a heart of darkness in order to understand the human psyche and the interior life. Through his journey, the narrator learns that hundreds of fellow travelers—like Browne and Conrad—have preceded him and he cannot quiet the ghosts of repetition that haunt him.

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