The Thanatos Syndrome

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The Thanatos Syndrome
WalkerPercy TheThanatosSyndrome.jpg
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 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. It is a sequel to Love in the Ruins. Set in the near future, it tells the story of a failed psychiatrist who suspects that something or someone is making everyone in his town crazy and turning them into near-zombies.


After two years in prison for selling drugs, Tom More, a Louisiana psychiatrist and lapsed Catholic, comes home to his virtually defunct practice and marriage. People, he notices, seem different. Many faculties are dulled but some are enhanced, particularly memory and sexual appetite.

Teaming up with his cousin Lucy, an epidemiologist who also has an independent mind, they discover that the authorities have been running secret trials. Through the addition of sodium ions to the water supply, the active population is gradually being made more chimpanzee-like, while the inactive, the old and the sick, are being euthanased. To Tom's particular disgust, the leaders of the trials are found to engage in sexual abuse of children, for which he takes his revenge by forcing them to drink high concentrations of sodium and so regress to apes.

A parallel plot involves a Catholic priest, Father Smith, who like Tom has hit rock bottom and almost totally failed in his calling. Together, with difficulty, the two men rediscover the hope hidden in their shaky faith.


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)."

The flawed hero. Unlike his namesake Thomas More, the physician Dr Tom More “is a far cry from the saint, drinks too much, and watches reruns of M*A*S*H on TV.”[2] Father Smith, the priest he helps, is equally fallible.

Existential anxiety. Western medicine cannot cure the ills of its citizens: “The first character you encounter … the woman who lives at the country club and thinks she has everything and yet is in the middle of a panic attack. She is also the last person you encounter ... at the end confronting her anxiety. She is about to listen to herself tell herself something.”[2]

Ecological degradation linked to human regression. Natural beauty is ruined by human activity: “ … the Louisiana of the novel is an ecological mess …. it shows the peculiar indifference of the strange new breed of Louisianians in the novel. After all, chimp-like creatures do not generally form environmental protection societies.”[2]

A world gone mad. Humans in Western countries have lost their grip on reality: “But the world is also deranged … The looniness …. of the 'normal' denizen of the Western world who …. doesn’t know who he is, what he believes, or what he is doing.”[2]

Breakdown of communication. People consistently fail to understand each other: “... some literary critics, philosophers, and semioticians … seem hell-bent on denying the very qualities of language and literature that have been held in such high esteem in the past: namely, that it is possible to know something about the world, that the world actually exists, that one person can actually say or write about the world and that other people can understand him. That, in a word, communication is possible.”[2]

Decline of the West. Mentally, Western society is moribund. Percy sees the USA “gradually subside into decay through default and be defeated ... from within by weariness, boredom, cynicism, greed, and in the end helplessness before its great problems” while the West is “losing by spiritual acedia”.[2]

Devaluation of humanity by science. In the book, Percy is angered by “the widespread and ongoing devaluation of human life in the Western world” which he ascribes to two mindsets: “ Thou shalt not find anything unique about the human animal even if the evidence points to such uniqueness” and “Thou shalt not suggest that there is a unique and fatal flaw in 'Homo sapiens sapiens' or indeed any perverse trait that cannot be laid to the influence of Western civilization”.[2] He contends that humans are unique in being both God-like and tainted by original sin.

Bad faith leads to bad outcomes. Percy portrays fatal errors in both religious fundamentalists and secular humanists, commenting: “It is easy to criticize the absurdities of fundamentalist beliefs like 'scientific creationism' — that the world and its creatures were created six thousand years ago. But it is also necessary to criticize other dogmas parading as science and the bad faith of some scientists who have their own dogmatic agendas to promote under the guise of 'free scientific inquiry'. Scientific inquiry should in fact be free. The warning: If it is not, if it is subject to this or that ideology, then do not be surprised if .. history … is repeated. Weimar leads to Auschwitz. The nihilism of some scientists in the name of ideology or sentimentality and the consequent devaluation of individual human life leads straight to the gas chamber.” [2]


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.