Austerlitz | Study Guide

W. G. Sebald

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Austerlitz | Symbols

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Railway Stations

Railway or train stations symbolize transitions—either transitions in life or from life to death. In the most basic sense, passengers are always going somewhere, possibly somewhere unknown. But for Austerlitz the ideas of arrival, departure, and travel are more complicated. Lacking a secure sense of home and belonging, he spends considerable time in train stations as a result. When he sees familiar, ghostly faces, they're almost always in transit, making the railway stations resemble a border between life and death. London's Liverpool Street Station takes on an ethereal, otherworldly quality in his descriptions.

Specific stations represent turning points for the characters. When Austerlitz passes through Liverpool Street Station as a child, he takes on a different nationality, family, and name. Returning there as an adult, he feels the station contains his entire life, all wrapped up in that single moment of transition. This revelation seems to him like a rebirth, as he discovers who he once was. Years earlier Agáta Austerlitzová, commanded to evacuate her home, goes to Prague's Wilsonova Station and wonders where she's going next. She's transitioning from freedom to imprisonment at Terezin and eventual death. But the most mysterious train station to Austerlitz is the one with his own name, Austerlitz Station in Paris, signifying how he's always been a mystery to himself.

Fortresses

Fortresses represent assertions of human power in the face of mortality and human beings' futile efforts to save themselves from death. Fortresses are built for military defense, an architecture based on fear and intimidation. Austerlitz relates how the designers of the Breendonk fortress became obsessed with increased security to show off their military might. The larger they made the structure, however, the more visible it became to enemies. The final 1914 addition proved useless in World War I. The fortress of Terezin was similarly built to ward off enemies. But it later became a place marked by internal destruction: the town of Terezin was known for its "Small Fortress," which Nazi forces used for torture and imprisonment.

Austerlitz's Rucksack

Austerlitz's rucksack stands for his identity as a wanderer with no stable sense of home. From the beginning of the novel, the rucksack is one of Austerlitz's distinguishing features. He takes it wherever he goes and keeps his notebooks in it. Indeed, he considers it the most reliable thing in his life. The act of reading and writing is vital to his engagement with the world and his understanding of who he is.

As a small piece of luggage designed for travel, the rucksack marks Austerlitz as someone constantly on the road. In fact, he knows nothing about his original country until late adulthood.

As a grown man, he learns his mother, Agáta Austerlitzová, packed food for him in a rucksack before sending him from Prague to London on the Kindertransport. Although the two hoped it was a temporary separation, they were never reunited. Austerlitz feels he's still on the journey and has never arrived at his true home. The food in the rucksack, a small memento of a past he'll never retrieve, seems to define his adult life.

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