Thomas Mann is one of the most important German novelists of the twentieth century. But not to be overlooked are his contributions to the genre of the short story, among which ‘‘Disorder and Early Sorrow’’ is one of his best. It first appeared in 1925 in a publication celebrating his fiftieth birthday. Regarding the story, he said, ‘‘For the first time in my life I wrote something literary, one might say to order: the editorship of the Fischer Neue Rundschau published a Festschrift for my 50th birthday and they wanted it to contain a narrative contribution by the birthday child. So emerged ‘Disorder and Early Sorrow,’ a story which I like so much that I am tempted to count it among my very best.’’
The story examines the life of the Cornelius family as they prepare for a party at their home. Through their simple preparations, the reader is given a glimpse into daily life of 1920s Germany during the last years of the Weimar Republic. Frustrations over the country’s economic instability and social upheaval constitute the undercurrent of his tale. Professor Cornelius, the patriarch of the family and a professor of history, finds safety and stability in his profession. He says that ‘‘the past is immortalized; that is to say, it is dead; and death is the root of all godliness and all abiding significance.’’ It is that dead significance that he finds comforting in contrast to the revolution going on about him. Professor Cornelius also comes into quiet conflict with the modern art forms that so attract his children and their friends. He sees these new styles as fraudulent and phony. These two thematic issues, social upheaval and the role of art and the artist in society, are basic to most of Mann’s writings, and such is the case in this story. Additionally, the theme of the search for self-identity plays an important part in the unfolding of the story.