Impressionism in Literature: Background information when reading The Sunken Cathedral

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reading Guide |  Reviews |  Beyond the Book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

The Sunken Cathedral

by Kate Walbert

The Sunken Cathedral by Kate Walbert X
The Sunken Cathedral by Kate Walbert
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Jun 2015, 224 pages
    Mar 2016, 224 pages


  • Rate this book

Book Reviewed by:
Davida Chazan
Buy This Book

About this Book

Impressionism in Literature

This article relates to The Sunken Cathedral

Print Review

Kate Walbert's The Sunken Cathedral is an impressionistic novel. But what does that mean?

Monet's HaystackWhen we hear the word impressionism, the first things that come to mind are the names Monet, Degas, Cezanne and other artists who were part of this movement of painting and sculpture during the late 19th century. Their unique use of color and style, combined with their ability to express their impression of how they saw the world through their art, was a break from the realistic, practically photographic pieces of the Realism period that preceeded and overlapped with Impressionism.

Claude Debussy title=At about the same time, this movement also spilled over into the world of music. Most people believe that composers Ravel and Debussy were at its forefront (although some align Debussy more with the symbolist movement of music.) According to the Norton A History of Western Music, what the impressionist and symbolist movements have in common is "a sense of detached observation: rather than expressing deeply felt emotion or telling a story … [it] typically evokes a mood, feeling, atmosphere, or scene." A prime example of this is Debussy's piano prelude "The Sunken Cathedral", which was the composer's impression of the story of the Breton legend of the City of Ys. While Debussy and Ravel's names are well known, their connection to the impressionist movement is less familiar.

Virginia WoolfeBut the link between impressionism and literature is even more obscure. Here, too, impressionist writers seem to have quite a bit in common with those writers categorized as symbolists, and names such as Baudelaire, Henry James, Virginia Woolf and James Joyce pop up for either or both movements. One aspect of this type of writing is the unconventional use of time and space; the reader absorbing the past, present and even future all mixed up together. Impressionist writers also include references to all of the senses. For example, one line might refer to a thought a character is having today, while in the middle of a conversation, and then the next line might refer to that character's memory of something he saw somewhere else 20 years prior – a memory triggered by a gesture or sound or smell or any other sensory detail. In this way, we get an overall impression of the characters, including what is in their minds and lives, without the need for exacting realities spelled out in long, chronological, descriptive passages.

This reminded me of the climax passage from Henry Roth's novel Call it Sleep, where the young boy David touches the electrified third rail. Roth's description of what goes on in David's head - what he feels and what he thinks he is seeing - is both surreal and realistic, with both tactile and visceral elements. Although most categorize this book as a modernist novel, this particular section of the book is highly impressionistic, and so powerful it has remained vivid to me, even after reading it only once, and several decades ago. That is the way it is with impressionistic art – just as many of us remember the feeling we had when we saw our first impressionistic painting, listening to impressionistic music and reading impressionistic literature are experiences that will also stay with you for many years to come.

Listen to Debussy's "The Sunken Cathedral":

Haystacks by Claude Monet, courtesy of Rlbberlin
Claude Debussy, courtesy of Bloom6132
Virginia Woolfe, courtesy of Adam Cuerden

Article by Davida Chazan

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Sunken Cathedral. It originally ran in June 2015 and has been updated for the March 2016 paperback edition.

This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: Inland
    by TĂ©a Obreht
    It's 1893 and the sparsely populated settlement of Amargo, deep in the Arizona Territory, is ...
  • Book Jacket
    La Belle Sauvage
    by Philip Pullman
    Voted 2017 Best Young Adult Novel by BookBrowse's Subscribers

    I wasn't quite sure what to expect ...
  • Book Jacket: Conviction
    by Denise Mina
    Scottish author Denise Mina's latest novel, Conviction, is a fast-paced thriller narrated by Anna, a...
  • Book Jacket
    Dread Nation
    by Justina Ireland
    The war between the states is over and, instead, a very different battle is being waged for the ...

Readers Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    Ellie and the Harpmaker
    by Hazel Prior

    A rich, heartwarming and charming debut novel about finding love in unexpected places.
    Reader Reviews

Book Club
Book Jacket
America for Beginners
by Leah Franqui

A poignant debut that explores unlikely friendships forged in unusual circumstances.

About the book
Join the discussion!
Book Club Giveaway!
Win Crudo

Crudo by Olivia Laing

A brilliant, funny, and emphatically raw novel of love on the brink of the apocalypse.


Word Play

Solve this clue:

S A A B In A R

and be entered to win..

Books that     

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.