Themes and Meanings
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.