Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The title of the story suggests the primary issues with which Thomas Mann is concerned. From the opening sentence, with its dismal account of the family’s frugal meal, Mann presents a detailed picture of postwar Germany as reflected in the experiences of the Cornelius family. The inflation, the shortages and privations, the general lawlessness and laxity—all are indicated in details about the servants and the guests, in conversations among the family members, and especially in the professor’s musings. Frau Cornelius must interrupt her preparations for the party to cycle hurriedly into town to buy provisions with money that may lose all value at any moment. The refreshments are extremely simple, many of the guests are not in evening clothes, the dancing is strange and unattractive, the music too loud.

The professor realizes that he is out of place in this postwar world, and he feels hostile toward the present. Thus, he is troubled by his devotion to his little daughter, suspecting that his great love for her is somehow connected with his love for the past and also connected in some way to death.

The second part of the title is related to Ellie’s uncontrollable and bewildered sorrow, her childish yearning for the kind young man who danced with her. In her unrestrained anguish, Ellie also appears to partake of the general “disorder” of the times.


(Short Stories for Students)

Degeneration of Society
Several prominent themes run though Mann’s writing. One is the theme of the degeneration of society and its impact on the people in the society. From his first major work, Buddenbrooks (1901), to his last completed work, Felix Krull (1954), Mann lived in and wrote about a society that was undergoing major changes. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the effects of the Industrial Revolution were still being felt all across Europe. People were displaced because of the increasing centralization of industry. Workers were losing their individual identity as industrial centers grew larger and more impersonal. Small family businesses and occupations were lost. Human beings were being turned into parts of a greater machine.

In ‘‘Disorder and Early Sorrow,’’ the degeneration of society was brought about by the Great War (World War I). Once again, the war displaced people; businesses, towns, and communities were destroyed and abandoned, leaving the people to collect in larger cities to compete for the meager support they could find there. The people were stripped of individuality and thrust into a chaotic society not of their own making, and not to their liking. The Cornelius family is representative of that situation. The Professor has maintained his position as a university history teacher, but his salary, though very high, is consumed by rampant inflation. Food prices and availability are a daily concern for the family. The mother must make special trips to buy eggs before the money loses its value. Others in the family use...

(The entire section is 648 words.)