Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 582

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The Black Swan is a slight work that followed the vast, complicated novels of Thomas Mann’s later period—such works as Joseph und seine Brüder (1933-1943; Joseph and His Brothers, 1948) and Doktor Faustus (1947; Doctor Faustus, 1948). Mann had previously worked successfully in the brief narrative form of the novella in Tonio Kröger (1903) and Death in Venice (1954). As he demonstrates in The Black Swan and the earlier stories, he does not need breadth to give his writing the effect of depth and insight.

In this work, there are reminiscences of Death in Venice, that wonderful short novel dealing with the dissolution of personality and with death in a plague-stricken pleasure resort on the Adriatic. The Black Swan presents on several planes of meaning the writer’s favorite themes of life and death, body and soul, nature and spirit, art and decay, love and death. At the same time, his sense of ironic detachment and the deliberate parody of eighteenth century style make this one of the most puzzling books of his career.

The plot of The Black Swan is simple almost to the point of banality. However, by manipulating symbols and repeating key words and phrases that linger in the memory like motifs in music, Mann infuses multiple levels of meaning. In one sense, The Black Swan is a fable of one of the ways in which the creative spirit sometimes dies, in a late-flowering resurgence that is often no more than a prelude to death. The symbolism of death and decay also points to an interpretation of Rosalie as twentieth century Europe, an aging continent weakened by disease from within but finding in the symptoms of its corrupted state an urge to self-destructive vitality. Images of death are everywhere apparent in the novel: in the picture of the black swan stretching its wings and hissing for the stale crust that Rosalie withholds, in the decaying ancient castle moldering with dampness where Rosalie declares her love for the young American, in the corpse of the small animal that Rosalie and Anna find during one of their walks.

In Tonio Kröger, the leading character remarks that once an idea takes hold of him, he finds it all about him, so that he can even smell it. The Black Swan creates its atmosphere of the charnel house in its sensuous effects. The novel begins as the story of a sentimental matron who loves nature, but the atmosphere surrounding the characters grows almost suffocating as the situation unfolds. What seems at first a light, playfully humorous parody of the eighteenth century sentimental story becomes a grotesque, almost diabolical fable when the reader realizes the contrast between the story being told and the manner of its telling. The book becomes a caricature and a brutal exposure of modern attitudes and failings. Perhaps Mann’s intention was better illustrated in the original German title of the book—Die Betrogene, “the deceived.” The novel is a study of deception and self-deception, of betrayal and death.

In spite of its disturbing and sometimes repellent details and somberness of vision, The Black Swan is a miniature work of art. Mann wrote it at an age when most writers are content with the place they have won by their performances in the past. Though the novel was written in a diminished tone, it probes deeply into areas of the strange and the perverse for its reflection of an age divided between the opposing forces of nature and the spirit.