Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
The Magic Mountain is essentially a bildungsroman, the story of the education and spiritual development of a single character. The individual in this case is Hans Castorp, a young engineer who, before assuming his position in a shipbuilding firm, decides to go to a sanatorium to visit his cousin Joachim, a soldier who is recovering from tuberculosis. At the sanatorium, a spot is detected on one of Castorp’s lungs, and he decides to stay for a few weeks to take some treatments. Weeks stretch into months, and Castorp remains at the sanatorium long after Joachim has gone. In fact, Castorp stays for a total of seven years. The disease that is really afflicting Castorp, however, is a spiritual malaise. Castorp encounters a wide range of characters at the sanatorium, each of whom has an effect on him. Shortly before the end of his stay, Castorp finds himself hallucinating while hiking after a severe snowstorm. This hallucination serves as a catalyst for Castorp’s decision to reenter the world, which he does by volunteering for military service in World War I. The impression is left with the reader that Castorp’s reintegration into the world is ambivalent at best.
The Magic Mountain shows to great effect Mann’s use of physical disease as a metaphor for spiritual malaise. At its very worst, Castorp’s tuberculosis is a mild case. His decision to stay at the sanatorium is, in reality, a flight from the duties and mundanities of the world. The existence that Castorp leads at the sanatorium is one of contemplation, not unlike the existence of a monk at a monastery. Castorp’s struggle is entirely of an internal nature. He is well-to-do and lives in a world of comfortable, if remote, luxury.
The internal struggle in Castorp’s mind is exemplified in the dialectical relationship between Herr Settembrini and Herr Naphta, the two most intellectual patients at the sanatorium. Herr Settembrini represents reason, while Naphta symbolizes the will-to-power of the suprarational philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. Naphta’s eventual suicide, like the hallucination in the snowstorm, is a vivid jolt to the comfortable existence to which Castorp has become accustomed....
(The entire section is 899 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Hans Castorp is advised by his doctor to go to the mountains for a rest. Accordingly, he decides to visit his cousin, Joachim Ziemssen, a soldier by profession, who is a patient in the International Sanatorium Berghof at Davos-Platz in the mountains of Switzerland. He plans to stay there for three weeks and then return to his home in Hamburg. Hans has just passed his examinations and is now a qualified engineer; he is eager to get started in his career. His cousin’s cure at the sanatorium is almost complete. Hans thinks Joachim looks robust and well.
At the sanatorium, Hans soon discovers that the ordinary notions of time do not exist. Day follows day almost unchangingly. He meets the head of the institution, Dr. Behrens, as well as the other patients, who sit in particular groups at dinner. There are two Russian tables, for example, one of which is known to the patients as the bad Russian table. A couple who sits at that table has the room next to Hans. Through the thin partitions, he can hear them—even in the daytime—chase each other around the room. Hans is rather revolted, inasmuch as he can hear every detail of their lovemaking.
One patient interests Hans greatly, a merry Russian woman, supposedly married, named Clavdia Cauchat. Every time she comes into the dining room she bangs the door, which annoys Hans a great deal. Hans also meets the Italian Settembrini, a humanist writer and philosopher. Settembrini introduces him to a Jew, Naphta, who turns out to be a converted Jesuit and a cynical absolutist. Because the two men spend their time in endless discussions, Settembrini finally leaves the sanatorium to take rooms where Naphta lodges in the village.
From the very first day of his arrival, Hans feels feverish and a bit weak. His three weeks are almost up when he decides to take a physical examination, which reveals that he has tuberculosis. So he stays on as a patient. One day, defying orders, he goes out skiing and is caught in a snowstorm. The exposure aggravates his condition.
Hans’s interest in Clavdia is heightened when he learns that Dr. Behrens, who likes to dabble in art, has painted her picture. The doctor gives Hans an X-ray plate of Clavdia’s skeletal structure. Hans keeps the plate on the bureau in his room. Hans spends most of his free time with Joachim or with Settembrini and Naphta. The Italian and the Jesuit are given to all sorts of ideas, and Hans becomes involved in a multitude of philosophical discussions on the...
(The entire section is 1021 words.)