Style and Technique

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The principal characteristic of Mann’s style in this story is irony. The story about the professor’s dedication to the past and his conflicting emotions about the younger generation’s ways is told in the present tense; in addition to giving the narrative dramatic immediacy, the use of the present tense highlights...

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The principal characteristic of Mann’s style in this story is irony. The story about the professor’s dedication to the past and his conflicting emotions about the younger generation’s ways is told in the present tense; in addition to giving the narrative dramatic immediacy, the use of the present tense highlights the underlying theme. Mann’s distinctive use of telling details is particularly evident here; even minor characters such as the good-for-nothing young manservant and the blue-faced nurse spring to life in a few sentences. The professorial protagonist is characteristically thoughtful, serious, courteous, and restrained; his feelings are merely suggested or briefly mentioned, while his thoughts are expressed clearly and forcefully. Thus, Mann avoids bitterness, contempt, or sentimentality. In the end, the effect of this restrained and controlled style is deeply moving.

Historical Context

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Germany of the Post War Period
‘‘Disorder and Early Sorrow’’ was first published in 1925, midway between the end of World War I and the beginning of the Great Depression. This was a time of high hopes and expectations for better life to come in both Europe and the United States, especially for those who had suffered the incredible ravages of the war. But there were still many reminders of the war throughout Europe, and in Germany in particular. The physical devastation of many buildings, the social dislocation of refugees fleeing from war zones, and the economic upheaval that resulted from these disruptions all combined to create a very unstable condition in Germany. Monetary inflation was rampant; eventually money was worth only as much as the paper it was printed on. It was a combination of these circumstances, plus Mann’s lingering misgivings about the justification for the beginning of the war in the first place, that contributed to his state of mind. In this situation, he wrote ‘‘Disorder and Early Sorrow.’’

Mann had not expected the war. Writing to his brother Heinrich on July 30, 1914, he said, ‘‘one must be ashamed not to have considered this possible, and not to have seen that the catastrophe had to come.’’ Men on both sides of the conflict eagerly took up arms to fight in the war, assuming that it would be brief and victory would be easy and sweet. Mann was depressed over the fact that he did not qualify for wartime service. Within months, however, with both sides bogged down in the trenches and suffering massive casualties inflicted by new technologies, including poison gas and more effective guns, bayonets, and cannons, it became clear that the ramifications of the Great War would be severe.

The shock of the German surrender in 1918 had a negative effect on Mann and his fellow countrymen. Like others, his financial status suffered and he was baffled by the change in the leadership from an imperial government to a Western-style democracy. Henry Hatfield remarked that ‘‘to a large extent his development seems to have been determined by political factors. The salutary shock of the German defeat of 1918 . . . had (its) effect’’ on Mann.

‘‘Disorder and Early Sorrow’’ was written during the time he was also working on The Magic Mountain, even though the novel was published a year before the short story. As Leser says, it is a story ‘‘that contains postwar autobiographical references, such as the home, the atmosphere, the language and the characters themselves.’’ Bolkosky notes that, ‘‘The war had brought Germans impoverishment, austerity, debt, a collection of revolutions and Putsch, unbelievable inflation, malaise, cynicism, imbalance, loss of values, and a rejection of history. Both the nation and families were wracked by generational conflict and rebellion.’’ These kinds of situations find their way into ‘‘Disorder and Early Sorrow’’ in varying degrees. It has been noted that one of Mann’s constant themes, the degeneration of society, is found in this story. The price of eggs goes up daily as the value of money goes down. The Professor’s wife must ‘‘dash into town on her bicycle, to turn into provisions a sum of money she has in hand, which she dares not keep lest it lose all value.’’

The effects of the war had an impact on all aspects of German life. The Weimar Republic, despite its heroic efforts, was unable to control the staggering inflation rate, and as a result there was increasing discontent among the people. Political undercurrents, including the rise of Nazism, were threatening the stability of law and order in the country. This culminated in the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, staged by Adolf Hitler, in Munich, Mann’s home town and the setting of the story. Hitler seizes control of the city government as the German mark falls to one trillion to the dollar; he is eventually arrested and sentenced to jail, where he outlines his political manifesto in Mein Kampf.

Despite the dramatic nature of these socioeconomic issues, Mann presented them in this story with understated style and tone and lightness of language. According to Henry Hatfield, ‘‘the ideological element is kept tactfully in the background.’’ His people are ‘‘good and evil, perceptive and blind; extraordinarily real’’ according to Hatfield. In his way, Mann’s contemporary audience saw themselves in his writings and his later audiences saw the society in which Mann lived and wrote.

Literary Style

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Point of View and Setting
In ‘‘Disorder and Early Sorrow,’’ the story is narrated in a limited third-person point of view, in which the events are seen from the vantage point of Professor Cornelius. Because it is a limited point of view, the narration does not relate the unobservable thoughts of the other characters. The Professor is not telling the story, but the narrator does recount what the Professor thinks about the events going on around him. The use of limited third-person narration allows the author to reveal insights into activities only from the Professor’s perspective.

‘‘Disorder and Early Sorrow’’ is set in Munich, Germany, in the middle 1920s, after Germany lost World War I and the country was suffering from the chaos and economic insecurity that would soon give rise to the Nazi party. The action takes place specifi- cally in the home of the Cornelius family, which was once securely upper-middle class. Though the Cornelius’s still have servants and modern conveniences like a telephone, their existence is more of a struggle than it used to be. The Professor’s wife worries about the price of eggs rising during the day, and it is clear that both parents are weary of the instability of the future. Ingrid and Bert, in contrast, have come of age during this hardship and are much more comfortable with the uncertainty of things. They are willing to accept the class divisions between themselves and their working-class friends; they think of obtaining more eggs than their ration allows as a game, and they are less likely than their parents to judge their friends by what they wear or how they look. The war has broken down the former rules of conduct, particularly as they relate to art and the theater (both once considered the realm of the morally corrupt or the unrespectable), and Professor Cornelius finds the resultant relaxing of mores and decorum (in public especially) disconcerting, hence his tendency to want to stay in his study or take a walk by himself.

Symbolism is the literary technique by which an author uses an item, issue, or situation in a story to represent something quite different. In this story, the Professor’s bifocals are symbolic of his dualistic view of the world about him. He sees the past as ‘‘true’’ and the present as ‘‘repugnant.’’ They also represent his twofold life, as a member of the family and as one who withdraws from the family into his study. Additionally these symbolize his twofold manner of regarding his children. He idolizes Ellie but has little regard for Bert. In the final scene, Ellie’s eyes are swollen from weeping. She wants Max to be her brother but cannot see clearly. Symbolically, her tear-filled, swollen eyes represent her inability to see the impossibility of her wishes. Situations can also be symbolic. The unsettled nature of the afternoon’s preparations for the party is symbolic of the unsettled nature of the society in the country now that the war is over. Contained within both are economic concerns, worry about food, and social problems. The interaction between the party guests and the household is symbolic of the interaction of various facets of society.

Mann’s style is understated and detached. These characteristics are readily seen in ‘‘Disorder and Early Sorrow.’’ Throughout the tale, Mann never raises his voice to get the reader’s attention. While some may find this detachment too inactive, it is this very quality that has attracted many to his writings. An example of Mann’s detached style is the calm and collected tone of the final scene. While another writer might spend more time on the overt emotional aspects of the scene, Mann focuses on the Professor’s quiet demeanor, the sleeping Snapper, the withdrawn Hinterhofer sisters, and Max’s calming interaction with the crying Ellie, all of which contribute to this reserved atmosphere.

Throughout the story, events and situations that might warrant more intense scrutiny are quietly reviewed and discussed. The rampant inflation, the deteriorating house, the rationing of food are all critical events, but Mann presents them in understated matter-of-fact ways. The reader learns about them by accident, not through the direct comment of any of the characters. In this way, Mann avoids being didactic–too moralizing—in his fiction. He leaves that to the Professor in his history lectures.

Irony is a technique that lets a writer or character say or do one thing, while believing something quite different. The Professor, who likes the predictability of history, is a deep thinker and an intellectual, but is unable to see that the daily problems and situations facing his family are similar to those in the lectures he is preparing. The irony is in this is his failure to make the connections between the events of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and those of his own time.

Compare and Contrast

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1924: To curb inflation, Germany issues a new Reichmark. Each new Reichmark is worth one billion of the old marks, which are withdrawn from circulation.

1997: Germany of the 1990s has one of the strongest economic systems in the Western world. Even after absorbing the former country of East Germany, it is a leader among all European nations. But this has not come without some difficulties. The industrial output of the eastern parts of the country was far below that of the western section.

1925: Adolf Hitler publishes the first volume of Mein Kampf, which he dictates to Rudolph Hess while he is in prison. In it, he outlines his ideas for social reform, commenting that ‘‘The great masses of the people . . . will more easily fall victims to a great lie than to a small one.’’

1998: Nazi hate groups, in both Germany and the United States, come under attack from the Jewish Anti-Defamation League for their Internet Web sites devoted to Holocaust-denial propaganda.

1920s: Cabaret theater is popular entertainment in the big cities of Germany, especially Berlin. Young people are attracted by the relaxed moral atmosphere of the 1920s, and nightclub stage shows often push the boundaries of decorum and obscenity.

1998: A new version of the stage play The Diary of Anne Frank opens on Broadway, coming under fire for its revisionist interpretation of The Diary of Anne Frank, the story of a teenager’s life in hiding from the Nazis during World War II. Cynthia Ozick, a noted Jewish critic and writer, objects to the optimism and universality of the production.

Media Adaptations

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‘‘Disorder and Early Sorrow’’ was adapted by Franz Seitz for the film ‘‘Disorder and Early Torment,’’ Jugendfilm, 1977.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Bolkosky, Sidney. ‘‘Thomas Mann’s ‘Disorder and Early Sorrow’: The Writer as Social Critic,’’ in Contemporary Literature, Vol. XXII, No. 2, Spring 1981, pp. 218-33.

Court, Franklin E. ‘‘Deception and the Parody of Externals’ in Thomas Mann’s ‘Disorder and Early Sorrow’,’’ in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. XII, No. 2, Spring 1975, pp. 186-89.

Cowley, Malcolm. ‘‘The Last Great European: Thomas Mann,’’ in his Think Back on Us: A Contemporary Chronicle of the 1930’s, edited by Henry Dan Piper, Southern Illinois University Press, 1967, pp. 291–94.

Hatfield, Henry. Thomas Mann, revised edition, Knopf, 1962.

Leser, Esther H. ‘‘New Humanism: Fading of Formal Genre Limitations,’’ in Thomas Mann’s Short Fiction: An Intellectual Biography, edited by Mitzi Brunsdale, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1989, pp. 181-92.

Mann, Thomas. Stories of Three Decades, translated by H. T. Lowe-Parker, Knopf, 1936, pp. v-ix.

Meyer, Agnes E. ‘‘Thomas Mann’s Fable for Today,’’ in The New York Times Book Review, June 8, 1941, pp. 1, 15-16.

Further Reading

Critical Essays on Thomas Mann, edited by Inta Ezergailis, G. K. Hall, 1988, 270 p. Reprinted essays on many of Mann’s works.

Heilbut, Anthony. Thomas Mann: Eros and Literature, University of California Press, 1997, 638 p. A biography of Mann, in which the author compares Mann to other great writers, including Goethe, Melville, and Kafka.

Prater, Donald A. Thomas Mann: A Life, Oxford University Press, 1995, 554 p. A biography of Mann.

‘‘Thomas Mann,’’ in Short Story Criticism, Volume 5, edited by Thomas Votteler, Gale, 1990, pp. 305–60. Reprinted critical essays on Mann’s short fiction.

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