The White Hotel is a chronicle of the life of Lisa Erdman, known as Anna G., a fictional patient of Sigmund Freud whose story is based loosely on actual Freudian case histories. The novel traces Lisa’s life from when she enters psychoanalysis, through her return to the world after treatment, to her subsequent execution by the Nazis. D. M. Thomas uses the discrepancies of interpretation inherent in psychoanalysis to explore the relationships of fiction to life, of reader to text, and of the cultural layering of experience to the contextual meaning of psychohistorical life.
When Lisa, age twenty-nine, enters treatment with Freud, she is married but estranged from her husband. She is upset at being isolated from the rest of her immediate family, except for an aunt with whom she lives. A musician whose career has been interrupted by illness, she complains of two troubling dreams: being caught in a storm in a boat at sea and in a fire at a hotel. As Freud reviews her psychic life, he uncovers a mosaic past of repressed memories and hidden desires that turn examination of Lisa’s seemingly mundane life into a bizarre investigation of incest, rape, and homosexuality—the erotic dreamscape of taboo sexual desire.
By the time she turns thirty-nine, she has resumed her musical career, singing opera and recitals, and is convinced that her therapy with Freud has proved beneficial. Her hysterical symptoms seem under control. In 1934, however, she marries the former husband of a friend who died in childbirth, a Russian, and goes to live with him in Kiev with his four-year-old son. During this new phase in her life, Lisa begins to experience somatic pains, which she believes are caused by a relapse into psychic hysteria.
Finally, Lisa is caught up in the violent, apocalyptic terror of the Babi Yar massacre—the mass execution of Russian Jews by the Nazis in 1941—yet the novel manages to end on a hopeful note. In contrast to the indecent humiliation and mass executions of the Jews at Babi Yar, Lisa’s vision in the last chapter is of a “New Jerusalem,” a place of peace and love, of that selfless nirvana of Freudian plenitude, by which Lisa salvages the vestiges of human dignity and transcends the brutality of her existence.