Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1198
In the year 1875, the Buddenbrook family is flourishing. Johann maintains intact the business and wealth he has inherited from his father, and the Buddenbrook name is held in high esteem. Johann’s oldest son, Jean, inherits the business when old Johann dies. Antonie (Tony), Jean’s daughter who is born in the family home on Mengstrasse, has aristocratic tendencies by nature and by temperament. The next child is Tom, followed by Christian, who from birth seems somewhat peculiar. Tom displays an early interest in the Buddenbrook business, but Christian seems indifferent to all family responsibilities.
Tony grows into a beautiful woman. When Herr Grünlich, obviously interested in Tony, comes to call on the family, Jean investigates his financial status. The headstrong Tony despises Grünlich and his obsequious manner. Going to a nearby seaside resort on the Baltic Sea to avoid meeting him when he calls again, she falls in love with a young medical student named Morten. When they learn of this, Tony’s parents hurriedly bring her home. Tony, raised to feel a sense of her family duty, is unable to ignore their arguments in favor of Grünlich when he asks for her hand. Once the wedding date is set, Grünlich receives a promise of a dowry of eighty thousand marks. Grünlich takes his twenty-year-old bride to the country and refuses to allow her to call on any of her city friends. Although she complains about this in her letters to her parents, Tony resigns herself to obeying her husband’s wishes.
Tom holds an important position in the business, which continues to amass money for the Buddenbrook family. Christian’s early distaste for business and his ill health give him the privilege of going to South America. When Grünlich finds his establishment floundering, his creditors urge him to apply to his father-in-law for help. Only then does Jean discover Grünlich’s motive for marrying Tony: The Buddenbrook reputation placed Grünlich’s already failing credit on a sounder basis, but only temporarily so. Actually, Grünlich is hoping that Jean’s concern for Tony will help him avoid financial failure. Tony assures her father that she hates Grünlich but that she does not wish to endure the hardships that bankruptcy will entail. Jean brings Tony and his granddaughter, Erica Grünlich, back to the Buddenbrook home. The divorce, based on Grünlich’s fraudulent handling of Tony’s dowry, goes through easily.
Jean loves his family dearly and firmly believes in the greatness of the Buddenbrook heritage. Tony is once again happy in her father’s home, although she bears her sorrows so that everyone will notice. She grows quite close to her brother Tom and takes pride in his development and in the progress of the Buddenbrook firm.
Christian fails in his enterprises in South America and when he returns home his father gives him a job in the firm and an office, which Christian avoids as much as possible. His manners are still peculiar and his health poor. Serious Tom is able to handle the business as well as Jean, and he remains attached to family customs. When Jean dies and leaves the business to Tom, Tony believes that the family lost its strongest tie. Tom, too, is greatly affected by his father’s death, but the responsibility of following in his father’s footsteps becomes his principal goal.
Because Christian cannot adjust to Buddenbrook interests, the ever-patient Tom sends him to Munich for his health. Reports from Munich that he is seen often in the company of a notoriously loose actress distress the family. Then Tom makes a satisfactory marriage with the daughter of a wealthy businessman. Gerda, whose dowry is added to the Buddenbrook fortune, is an attractive woman who loves music. Once again, parties are held at the Buddenbrook mansion on Mengstrasse.
Tony returns from a trip hoping that a new acquaintance, Herr Permaneder, will call, and soon he does. He is a successful beer merchant in Munich. Tom and Frau Buddenbrook think that Permaneder, in spite of his crude manners and strange dialect, will make a satisfactory husband for Tony. Fortified with her second, smaller dowry, Tony goes to Munich as Frau Permaneder. She sends Erica off to boarding school.
Soon, however, Tony is once again writing passionate appeals to her family and complaining of her married life. When Permaneder betrays her by making love to a servant, she comes home. Tom protests against a second divorce, but Tony insists. She is surprised to learn that her husband will not fight the proceedings, that he believes the marriage was a mistake, and that he will return the dowry, which he does not need.
Tom and Gerda produce a son to carry on the family name. Little Johann, or Hanno, as he is called, inherits his mother’s love for music, but he is pale and sickly from birth. Tom tries to instill in his son a love for the family business, but Hanno is too shy to respond to his father.
After the death of Frau Buddenbrook, Christian, Tony, and Tom haggle over the inheritance. Christian demands his share outright, but Tom, as administrator of the estate, refuses to take it out of the business. Christian thereupon quarrels bitterly with Tom, all the pent-up feeling of the past years vent in a torrent of abuse against what he considers to be Tom’s cold, mercenary actions.
Tom is not mercenary; he merely works hard and faithfully. Despite his efforts, however, the business begins to decline because of larger economic changes. Now suffering from poor health, Tom believes that sickly Christian, who refuses to take on any responsibility, will outlive him.
Tony finds a fine husband for her daughter, but, like hers, the marriage of Erica and Herr Weinschenk ends in disaster when Weinschenk is caught indulging in foul business practices and sent to prison for three years. Accustomed to public scandal, Tony bears the new hardship with forbearance. Erica also adopts her mother’s attitude.
Tom dies suddenly. He falls in the snow and is brought to his bed, where he dies a few hours later, babbling incoherently. His loss means more to Tony than to any of the others. Christian, arriving from Munich for the funeral, is too concerned over his own suffering to show grief over the death of his brother. Gerda, too, feels deep sorrow, for her marriage with Tom was a true love match.
After the will is read, Christian returns to Munich to marry the woman he was unable to marry when he was under Tom’s financial control. Soon afterward, Christian’s wife writes to Tony that his illness poisoned his mind and that she placed Christian in an institution. Life at the Buddenbrook home continues. Little Hanno never gains much strength. Thin and sickly at fifteen years old, he dies during a typhoid epidemic.
He was the last of the Buddenbrooks. From the days of the first Johann, whose elegance and power produced a fine business and a healthy, vigorous lineage, to the last pitiably small generation, which died with Hanno, the Buddenbrook family decayed.