Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Two related, primary themes of the novel are alienation and the power of the natural world to distance humans from death and oblivion. Another closely related theme is the emptiness and dissolution of modern society. Aiming to overcome the alienation and fill the social vacuum, the narrator embarks on a pilgrimage; the idea of a spiritual journey in tandem with a physical one is the underlying conceit—or central metaphor—of the novel. Because this is a novel rather than a travelogue or memoir, and the author has given the protagonist-narrator his own name, another constant theme is the blurring of fact and fiction.
W. G. Sebald, the narrator, provides an account of a journey that began as a walk through southeastern England. He walks both through the natural setting and numerous villages, many of which have become severely depopulated in the century since their Victorian heyday. As the social decline weighs heavily on him and the solace he anticipated does not materialize, he suffers a breakdown—the physical counterpart of social anomie: the inability to feel or act. The period of his hospitalization begins to bring personal memories and meditations, but these emerge more fully in the recovery period following his release.
Among his preoccupations is the relationship between religion and science in medicine, largely symbolized by the 17th century physician Thomas Browne and Sebald’s search for Browne’s skull. The concept of Saturn as a planet and an astrological sign figures prominently here. The pilgrimage theme, more than discussing the actual walking tour, is developed as a spiritual quest. The narrator combs through mythology, cultural rites, modern technology, and political-economic enterprises in his multi-faceted efforts to find connections between human ambitions and the limits they must always confront, including the finality of death.