FYS: German Cultural Studies from 1871 - Present

Faculty Member

Roland Dollinger



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In the wake of W.G. Sebald’s death in 2001, scholarship on his unique, genre-bending literary texts has flourished. Though much of this scholarship has paid due attention to the theme of the inadequacy of representation, little has been written that focuses on Sebald’s persistent expressions of melancholy in relation to this theme. In this paper, I argue that Sebald’s response to the inadequacy of representation is “confessional melancholy”: he expresses anguish at that which has been lost by admitting that his own literary representation is inadequate in portraying its subjects. Using a theoretical framework borrowed from Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt School philosophers, I show that Sebald ties the inevitable inadequacy of representation to the history of material destruction; in this sense, his expressions of confessional melancholy are ethically motivated. I then explore the effect of this theme on the nature of identity in Sebald’s texts. Finally, I analyze the incorporation of photography in Sebald’s texts and the author’s use of narrative collages to argue that Sebald primarily expresses confessional melancholy through his aesthetic form, as opposed to the content of his literature.

Publication Date

Spring 2020

Document Type



W.G. Sebald, Theodor Adorno, Frankfurt School, melancholy, photography, literature


German Language and Literature | Modern Literature | Other Philosophy | Theory and Criticism

Open Access


Confessional Melancholy: W.G. Sebald’s Aesthetic Solution to the Inadequacy of Representation