*Lübeck (LEW-behk). German city in which the novel is set. Although the novel does not identify the city by name, its four-story house at 4 Meng Street is clearly the house that belonged to Thomas Mann’s grandparents. All but the elegant facade and cellar were destroyed when Lübeck was bombed in 1942. These have been preserved in the new building, the Buddenbrook House, the Heinrich and Thomas Mann Center purchased by the City of Lübeck in 1991. As in the novel, Meng Street intersects Breite Street and stands in the shadow of the medieval twin towers of St. Mary’s Church.
Most of the action is set within the walls of the Buddenbrooks’ two homes, not only because of the damp, cold climate on the Baltic Sea but also because the family is perhaps unconsciously insulating itself from the social upheaval that has been sweeping Europe since the French Revolution. Two rooms in particular define their protected living space in the Meng Street residence. The salon is called the “landscape room” because it is hung with large tapestries of idyllic scenes; and the formal dining room is called the “room of the gods” because statues of Greek gods are set into the walls.
The Meng Street house, which is purchased by the Buddenbrooks at the height of their prosperity, is still closely connected with the family business and has grain storage facilities on the premises. However, the fact that the family has let the back wing of the house fall into ruin is a sign that the Buddenbrooks’ fortunes are in decline. Stray cats inhabit the space over rotten floorboards.
Their opulent new home on Fischergrube has attractive features, which reflect the family’s aesthetic and philosophical preoccupations. There is a large music room with a grand piano, and the garden has a fountain. Thomas Buddenbrook goes there to reflect upon the meaning of life and death. The house is no sooner built than he has second thoughts about it, and the business wanes. Thomas becomes irreversibly depressed and dies prematurely following a botched tooth extraction.
When the business must be liquidated at a loss, Thomas’s widow and son move to more modest accommodations, where the son dies of typhus. One by one, the Buddenbrooks are laid to rest under their large memorial slab in a graveyard that borders on a copse of trees.
The Buddenbrooks bought their Meng Street house from a family whose business had failed. The Latin inscription over the door, “Dominus providebit” (God will provide), becomes more an ironic epithet than an assertion of faith as the Buddenbrooks meet their demise. It is a bitter irony that the house is quickly bought by the Buddenbrooks’ business rival, the unscrupulous upstart Hermann Hagenström, whose family is thriving.
Thomas Mann mentions the outer world only when it relates directly to events in the Buddenbrook family. Flags fly from every house when the Buddenbrooks celebrate one hundred years of business. Johann Buddenbrook disperses an angry crowd before parliament by addressing them in Low German. On a cold winter night, Antonia Buddenbrook waits in the town square to hear whether her brother Thomas or the hated Hagenström is elected to the senate. At the market, dying fish gasp for air, echoing Elizabeth Buddenbrook’s painful death from pneumonia and foreshadowing Thomas’s fatal collapse on Breite Street.
*Travemünde (tra-vuh-MEWN-duh). German seaside resort just north of Lübeck where Mann spent the happiest times of his life. For Antonia Buddenbrook, Travemünde comes to represent a lost opportunity, a promise of love and prosperity in a new social order that she was not quite ready...
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to embrace. While she was resisting an arranged marriage that would supposedly enhance the family, she stayed here with the Schwarzkopfs, simple people with a healthy lifestyle. In the course of long walks on the beach, Antonia fell in love with their intelligent son Morten, a medical student and politically active bourgeois.
Real appreciation for the place is expressed later in the novel by her frail nephew Hanno, who can watch the waves endlessly and is glad he will not be quizzed on the names of the boats. His joyous summer holidays in Travemünde are contrasted sharply with his feelings of hopelessness in school.
Significantly, when his ailing father Thomas is told to take a holiday in Travemünde, it rains for days. Thomas has lost the will to live.
Furst, Lilian. “Re-Reading Buddenbrooks.” German Life and Letters 44, no. 4 (July, 1991): 317-329. Emphasizes the place of aesthetic, rather than traditional sociohistorical, readings of the novel. Points out how important it is that readers are able to imagine the novel’s internal world now that that actual historical world is gone.
Hatfield, Henry. “Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks: The World of the Father.” In Thomas Mann: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Henry Hatfield. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1964. A useful introduction, showing how the novel is still indebted to the style of naturalism but also already pointing toward modernism. Contains a clear, brief analysis of Mann’s use of the leitmotif in the novel.
Heller, Erich. “Pessimism and Sensibility.” In Thomas Mann: The Ironic German. 1958. Reprint. South Bend, Ind.: Regnery/Gateway, 1979. This classic study explains the philosophical influences on the novel. Heller finds nearly all the elements of Mann’s later masterpieces already present in this first novel.
Ridley, Hugh. Thomas Mann: “Buddenbrooks.” Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1987. A basic, well-balanced, and useful introduction to all aspects of the novel. Especially good on psychological interpretation. Brief bibliography.
Swales, Martin. “Buddenbrooks”: Family Life as the Mirror of Social Change. Boston: Twayne, 1991. Perhaps the best available treatment for nonspecialists, this is a thorough overview of sources, criticism, and reception, followed by a balanced essayistic reading that emphasizes philosophical aspects. Includes a brief annotated bibliography of primary and secondary literature.