A Hope for Home - Thoughts on The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald


The stories of the emigrants are stories of old and new. An aging W.G. Sebald recounts four stories of people living seemingly disparate lives but all having one shared past. This past that was first full of love and then so quickly full of evil leaves the characters in the story uncertain as to where to turn next and of what oasis will next fall to dust. Sebald employs copious detail to illustrate the transient lives of the emigrants.

The first German W.G. Sebald writes an account of visiting is the doctor Henry Selwyn. Selwyn, who changed his name to disassociate with his past, is living on a farm with a companion who supposedly owns the property alone, and he is just stopping by. On the run from everything behind him, Selwyn refuses to commit to this land and make it his own. He is only a squatter, on the move to his next destination.

Sebald writes of an image of Selwyn’s garden that has a profound impact on him; however, Sebald is unable to decipher why. The image depicts the totally disheveled garden with the incredible mountains in the back. This is a juxtaposition of the new ransacked world post-WWII with the unmovable, eternal mountains that fully embody natural beauty and unwavering grace.

The garden’s change in time and the almost visceral time warp that WWII seems to have brought about is a central theme in The Emigrants. The transition from prosperity and light to decay and darkness is summarized in Sebald’s writing in the final story: “It was dreadful to see the shadow of the moon slowly blotting out the sun, the leaves of the rambling rose on the balcony (where we stood with our soot-darkened pieces of glass) seeming to wither, and the birds flapping about in a frightened panic.” The moon covers the sun. A new day has begun in darkness. The emigrants can only hope that light will come again, and they will be able to return home.

- Charlie, July 2021