Buddenbrooks, Thomas Mann’s first novel, was a great and immediate success, and it is still one of his most popular works. Though not as complex or problematic as his later novels, it develops most of the major themes that occupied him throughout his career. The work originally had been planned as a novella about the boy Hanno Buddenbrook, but in assembling the material, Mann found himself tracing the story back four generations. Thus the novel became a family chronicle with a broad social milieu. This type of novel was rare in German literature, which tended to concentrate on the bildungsroman, which traces the growth of a single character. Buddenbrooks further departs from that tradition in reversing the emphasis on growth and development to concentrate on decay and decadence. This fascination with the conflict between the life force and the death wish, especially as it appears in the artist type, represents a typical aspect of Mann’s work. Mann’s artist figures are the product of robust bourgeois stock, families whose drive for work and achievement has led to prosperity and comfort. As the family attains greater refinement and sensitivity, however, the life force slackens. At this stage, the artist figure appears, estranged from the bourgeois world and its values and curiously drawn toward disease and death. It is no accident that several of Mann’s works take place in sanatoriums, or that typhus, syphilis, and tuberculosis figure prominently in his work.
This theme is important not only to Mann the writer but also to Mann the human being. Indeed, Buddenbrooks is the most thoroughly autobiographical of his novels. Every character in it can be traced to an actual prototype. Certainly the people of Mann’s hometown, Lübeck, were shocked when the novel appeared and protested what amounted to an invasion of privacy. The streets and houses of the town, the nearby seashore and countryside were all easily identifiable, and the Buddenbrooks could easily be identified as the Mann family. Mann was an artist, working in words rather than in music, and he rejected the values of his family, a middle-class career, and the expectations of his community. He had left Lübeck for Italy, where, in fact, he began to write the chronicle of the Buddenbrook family, and the stuff of the novel was intensely personal to him. Indeed, he drew largely on family documents and stories. Despite these autobiographical aspects, however, Mann carefully structures the work so that the process of family decay proceeds in a clear and almost inevitable movement, by stages through the four generations, gathering momentum and expressing itself simultaneously in the business fortunes and the physical characteristics, mannerisms, and psychological makeup of the four eldest sons of their respective generations: Johann, Jean, Tom, and Hanno.
At each stage there is both a descent and an ascent. Vitality and physical vigor decline and the business skills atrophy, as evidenced by the steadily declining capital. This external decline, reflected even in such details as increasing susceptibility to tooth decay, is, however, counterbalanced by an increase in sensitivity, an inclination toward art and metaphysics, and an increasingly active interior life. Johann may indeed play the flute—a necessary social grace for the eighteenth century gentleman—but he is not given to introspection. He lives to a ripe old age, and although he is an honest man, he has no scruples about the validity of running a business and making a profit; he also has a sure sense of the economic situation of his time and shows sound judgment in his investments. His son Jean is already far more concerned with moral principles, and business...
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is no longer for him a natural drive but a responsibility. His health suffers and his life is shorter, but his capacity for artistic enjoyment and religious emotion is greater. A tension between inner and outer begins to manifest itself, which becomes even more evident in Tom. In him, refinement becomes elegance, and an inclination for the exotic manifests itself in his choice of a wife. However, the strain of preserving the exterior forms—a new house, social position, and the fortunes of the business—shows in his weakened physical constitution and in his attraction, late in his short, forty-eight-year life, to the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, in which he sees the possibility of his embattled individuality dissolving into an eternal impersonal spiritual existence. Hanno, the last of the Buddenbrooks, dies while he is still a boy, his life filled with pain but rich in inner creativity that is expressed in his Wagnerian flights of musical composition. For Mann, composer Richard Wagner was always linked with decadence and the death wish.
Many of the elements of this sequence recur in Mann’s other works, especially his early works. It is also clear that Mann is absorbed by the psychological development of his figures. The novel dwells more and more intensely on the inner states of the later characters. Hanno, the starting point of Mann’s conception, retains a disproportionately large share of the novel’s pages and remains one of Mann’s most engaging and memorable creations. It is clear, however, that Mann, for all of his understanding and sympathy toward the artistically inclined temperaments of the declining Buddenbrook family, draws a clear line between that sympathy and his own allegiance. Not only does he dwell on the increasingly difficult lives and demeaning deaths of the later characters—as when the eloquent and self-possessed Tom collapses and dies in a pool of filth on the street, or when Hanno dies suddenly of typhus—but, in the case of Hanno, he also unequivocally attributes the death to a failure of the will to live. In one of the most remarkable chapters of the book, the narrator, who generally retains his omniscience in chronicling the fortunes of the family, describes the course of a typical case of typhus and raises it to a mythical encounter between life and death: At the crisis, victims may either exert their will to live and return or they can proceed on the path to self-dissolution in death. Hanno, whose music expresses this longing for release from the demands of life to which he is not equal, takes the latter course and dies. Here, any similarity between Mann and his characters ends. Although Mann as an artist felt himself estranged from the social world of the bourgeois, for him, unlike Hanno, art itself is the means by which he can retain his focus on life. Buddenbrooks may describe a family’s loss of will to live, but in so doing, it affirms the writer’s most profound love of life.