The Thanatos Syndrome

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The Thanatos Syndrome
First edition cover
First edition cover
Author Walker Percy
Country United States
Language English
Genre Thriller novel
Publisher Farrar Straus & Giroux (HB) & Palandin (PB)
Publication date
1 April 1987
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 372 pp (hardback edition) & 384 pp (paperback edition)
ISBN ISBN 0-374-27354-5 (hardback edition) & ISBN 0-586-08726-5 (paperback edition)
OCLC 14718928
813/.54 19
LC Class PS3566.E6912 T46 1987
Preceded by Love in the Ruins

The Thanatos Syndrome (1987) was Walker Percy's last novel before his death. It is a sequel to Love in the Ruins. It tells the story of a former psychiatrist who suspects that something or someone is making everyone in the town crazy and they turn to (into) zombies.

In 1989, Percy stated that, in The Thanatos Syndrome:

"I tried to show how, while truth should prevail, it is a disaster when only one kind of truth prevails at the expense of another. If only one kind of truth prevails -- the abstract and technical truth of science -- then nothing stands in the way of a demeaning of and a destruction of human life for what appear to be reasonable short-term goals." [1]

Critic Allen Pridgen—in his Walker Percy's Sacramental Landscapes (2000)—describes the "disconnectedness" that the protagonist, Dr. Tom More, begins to notice in The Thanatos Syndrome:

"Perhaps the single most important idea in Percy's epistemology, expressed again and again in his essays and interviews (especially MB, 282), is his conviction that this kind of impoverishment in the power to name experience causes a subsequent impoverishment of consciousness and being since it is only through language transactions with others that the self locates who and where it is."

Pridgen points out that it is not just the victims of the chemical additive in the drinking water who are being "impoverished":

"....but also the scientists who victimize and study them. They, including Tom, are enclosed in a lifeless, self-constructed interior world of scientific abstractions that numb them to the realities of the phenomenal world and the flesh-and-blood people in it. All, Percy maintains, are casualties, of a 'century of death' (MCON,120-21), an 'age of thanatos' (TS, 86)."


Professor Ralph Wood of Baylor University suggests that what is missing from this novel is the redemptive humor of Percy's earlier work. The lasting impression of The Thanatos Syndrome is not humor but horror (e.g., sexual perversion occurring in the context of caring). As for the novel's message, the reader is offered a sort of Catholic humanism that shades into romantic existentialism.