The family chronicle Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann is a narrative about the zenith and the subsequent degradation of a once-powerful elite family of the German bourgeoisie. The family history begins in the nineteenth century and is traced through the three generations, ending with the fourth. Mann explores the economical, social, and biological processes of the family’s extinction.
Burghery is a social category. Originally, burghers (from the German Bürger, a citizen) were the middle class of the urban medieval population. These were chiefly independent craftsmen and small traders. With the rise of limited monarchy, burghers became economically powerful and received their share in the government. Burghers played a significant part in the development of the feudalistic society. Mann himself sprang from burghers, and the novel is very much a reflection of his critical rethinking of his background.
The former economical and spiritual greatness of the Buddenbrook family is embodied in the character of the old Johann Buddenbrook. He is absolutely confident about his own might and the power of his class. His son Consul Johann, however, has none of his father’s optimism. He lives in a different era, when burghery gives way to a new generation of capitalists.
A prominent place in the novel is given to the history of the third generation, represented by Thomas, Tony, Christian, and Klara. Thomas wears a mask of fake efficiency and self-confidence, but he finds no ability in himself to compete with the new predator entrepreneurs. His ostentatious reserve disguises a fatigue and a loss of purpose. The family business is sidelined and is closed down after he dies. Thomas’s death is symbolic:
He fell upon his face, beneath which, presently, a little pool of blood began to form. His hat rolled a little way off down the road; his fur coat was wet with mud and slush; his hands, in their white kid gloves, lay outstretched in a puddle. Thus he lay, and thus he remained, until some people came down the street and turned him over. (part 10, chapter 7)
The main reason for the family’s extinction is the advent of the new economic forms in Germany, especially in the later nineteenth century. The old patriarchal business patterns disappear, and the family itself irretrievably changes. The formerly great patriarchal burgher house degenerates into an incomplete and disorganized form of family. The novel ends in a grotesque scene depicting the senile, childless dames who have survived all of their relations.