Reimagining melancholia
: melancholy and psychiatry in the work of W. G. Sebald and David Foster Wallace

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis argues that there are psycho-existential facts about the nature of mental illness that are almost impossible to convey in literal and non-figurative terms. One of the reasons that the literary and artistic tradition of melancholy in the West endures is because it offers the best available means of exploring these facts. In support of this claim, this thesis will compare representations of melancholy and psychiatry in the work of German writer W. G. Sebald (1944-2001) and US writer David Foster Wallace (1962–2008). Critics have yet to pay significant attention to Sebald’s and Wallace’s engagement with psychiatry, particularly as it relates to the concept of melancholia, despite the fact that both writers’ fictional worlds are populated by people who suffer from severe mental health problems. Their fictional representations of psychiatric illness repeatedly fixate upon the impact that psychological distress can have on a person’s conception of self, and their agency. Sebald and Wallace locate melancholia at the periphery of both human experience and society; moreover, their characters seek the periphery as often as they might be relegated to it. The thesis is formed of three parts, each of which is divided into two chapters. Part one documents the arguably paradoxical development of psychiatry in the twentieth century, and also outlines the history of melancholia in the West. Both conceptions of mental illness support the arguments the thesis makes regarding Sebald’s and Wallace’s representations of melancholia and psychiatry in part three. Both writers are frequently associated with their work. Their ghostly presences continue to shape the critical responses to it, and so are considered in detail in part two. The critical response to Wallace’s Infinite Jest has obscured deeper concerns regarding the novel’s intertextual connection to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which is the melancholy foundation of the novel’s representation of mental illness; the Sebaldian narrator’s carefully managed presence helps to create a ‘melancholy naive’ perspective, which is understood by way of Frederic Jameson’s conception of pastiche. This thesis will argue that Sebald and Wallace are united by the artistic and literary tradition of melancholy and a sense of the existential content of mental illness.
Date of Award1 Aug 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorMatthew Bell (Supervisor) & Jon Day (Supervisor)

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