Herring Fisheries, Fish-Eating and Natural History in W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn

  • Dominic O’Key
Part of the Palgrave Studies in Animals and Literature book series (PSAAL)


This essay argues that W. G. Sebald develops literary strategies which call into question the politics of fish-eating. To do this, I closely read a passage from The Rings of Saturn in which Sebald’s narrator melancholically reflects on over two hundred years of herring fishing in the North Sea, and on the long-term consequences of the economic commodification and scientific instrumentalization of herring. I argue that this passage challenges anthropocentric and extractive logics which normalize overfishing, oceanic acidification and ecosystem collapse. By drawing on Theodor W. Adorno’s dialectical formulation of “Natural-History”, which thinks of nature and history as mutually constitutive, as well as the recent ocean turn in popular and critical discourses, I analyze how Sebald’s narrative strategies—humour, historical analysis and the placing of in-text images—develop a critique of flesh-eating and aquaculture. Sebald’s natural history of the herring both mourns and ultimately resists the practices of industrialized aquaculture.



Helen Finch’s comments, questions and criticisms have sharpened my research on Sebald. I am also grateful to Uwe Schütte who confirmed my hunch that Sebald was vegetarian.

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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Dominic O’Key
    • 1
  1. 1.Leeds Arts and Humanities Research Institute, University of LeedsLeedsUK

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