Study Guide

Doctor Faustus

by Thomas Mann

Doctor Faustus Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Doctor Faustus is arguably one of the most significant novels of the twentieth century in any language. Acclaimed as a masterpiece at the time of its original publication, Doctor Faustus has been the subject of hundreds of scholarly articles and books.

The story centers on the life and career of Adrian Leverkühn, a preternaturally gifted man who is born into the Germany of the Second Reich in the generation following the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). The novel follows Leverkühn’s life and career until his death in 1943. Leverkühn is born into a provincial middle-class farming family. His parents are conventional, but his father does harbor some eccentric scientific interests. During his childhood, Leverkühn becomes lifelong best friends with Serenus Zeitblom, who serves as the novel’s putative narrator. Originally attracted to both mathematics and music, Leverkühn goes to college to study theology, a course of study that he eventually abandons in favor of music. Leverkühn’s prowess as a composer advances rapidly, but it is not until after he contracts syphilis from a prostitute (his only sexual experience) that his music becomes totally original and groundbreaking. As the syphilis proceeds to destroy Leverkühn’s physical and mental states, his creativity as a composer increases. After having achieved the first fruits of international success, Leverkühn suffers a complete nervous and mental breakdown and spends the last ten years of his life as an invalid.

The most significant aspect of the novel is the author’s use of the Faust legend, the age-old story of a man who sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for wealth, power, and sexual prowess. Although the only situation in the novel overtly similar to the traditional Faust story is the imaginary dialogue between Leverkühn and the Devil, which occurs in chapter 25, the Faust legend is a very powerful presence in Mann’s novel. Central to the Faust legend is the contract, the quid pro quo, between the Devil and Faust. The Faustian contract for Leverkühn involves his contracting syphilis from a prostitute. At the price of the loss of his physical and mental health, the syphilis unleashes untold powers of creativity within Leverkühn. The syphilis from which he suffers is, in turn, a symbol of the “disease” of extreme nationalism and ethnic chauvinism that eventually led the Germans to embrace Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. In both cases—Leverkühn’s contraction of syphilis and the coming to power of Hitler—Mann makes it clear that the parties involved have entered into their “agreements” by their own volition, just as the original Dr. Faust entered into his demoniac pact of his own free will. Significantly, Leverkühn’s final composition of his creative career is a cantata titled “The Lamentations of Dr. Faustus.”

As in The Magic Mountain, Mann uses physical disease as a symbol for spiritual and cultural decline. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, syphilis was an incurable disease with a mortality rate approaching one hundred percent. Its symptoms could be mitigated and temporarily halted, but the disease was inevitable in its effects until the discovery of penicillin. Therefore, the selection of syphilis as a symptom of spiritual and cultural decline was significant because the disease was irreversible. Mann uses syphilis symbolically to suggest the inevitability of the decline of German civilization.

Mann uses Leverkühn’s life to parallel events occurring simultaneously in German politics and society....

(The entire section is 1465 words.)

Doctor Faustus Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

At the outset, Serenus Zeitblom doubts his ability to narrate understandably the life story of his friend Adrian Leverkühn. His friend is a musical genius whose strange, doomed career shows many parallels with the course of German history in the twentieth century. A former professor of philology, living in retirement and out of sympathy with the Adolf Hitler regime and greatly concerned for the future of his country, Zeitblom hesitantly begins his task in May, 1943.

Adrian Leverkühn was born in 1885 on a farm near Kaiseraschern, in Thuringia. His family was of superior yeoman stock, and his father, a man interested in curious natural phenomena, did everything in his power to stimulate his son’s intellectual curiosity. Adrian’s boyhood friend, Zeitblom, was a frequent visitor in the Leverkühn household. Years later Zeitblom can remember his friend’s absorbed interest in a book filled with pictures of exotic lepidoptera. One in particular, Heroera Esmeralda, fascinated the boy because of its unusual beauty and protective coloring. Adrian was introduced to music by a hired girl who taught him old folk songs.

Because the farm was to go to an older brother, the family intended that Adrian, a boy of brilliant mind and arrogant disposition, would become a scholar. When he was ten years old, he entered the school in Kaiseraschern. Living in the house of his uncle, a dealer in musical instruments, he had the run of the shop and began to play chords on an old harmonium. When his uncle overheard his efforts, he decided that the boy ought to have piano lessons. Adrian began to study under Wendell Kretschmar, the organist at the cathedral. Adrian’s chief interest at that time, however, was theology, and he entered the University of Halle with the intention of preparing himself for the clergy. Zeitblom, certain that his friend’s choice was dictated by the arrogance of purity, went with Adrian to his theological lectures. One of the teachers was Ehrenfried Kumpf, a forthright theologian who enlivened his classes by insulting the devil with epithets that Martin Luther might have used. Another instructor was Eberhard Schleppfuss, whose lectures were filled with anecdotes and sly undertones of demonism and witchcraft.

Given the range of his talents, Adrian could have chosen a career in scholarship, theology, or music. At last, unable to reconcile his interest in philosophy and science with theological precepts, he turned to music and began, still under Kretschmar’s training, experiments in theory and technique that were to determine the highly original nature of his art. Before long, the pupil surpassed the instructor. When Zeitblom was drafted for a year of compulsory military duty, Adrian was exempted because of his frail constitution and went to Leipzig for further study. With Kretschmar’s encouragement, he began to compose. A new friend of his, Rüdiger Schildknapp, was an...

(The entire section is 1194 words.)