Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 230

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...

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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.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 648

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 false names to secure more eggs than the rationing legally allows. These routines, as Mann includes them in this tale, are representative of the broader issues common to Germany at the time.

Art and Artists in Society
A second thematic consideration in Mann’s fiction is the role of art and the artist in society. As the story unfolds, Professor Cornelius expresses his disapproval of many of contemporary art forms and society’s attitudes towards them. He takes issue with the way Herzl comes to the party wearing make-up. The Professor also takes offense at Herzl’s interactions with ‘‘the little folk,’’ when Herzl rolls his eyes up and puts his hand over his mouth and blesses them when he first meets the children. The Professor believes ‘‘he is so addicted to theatrical methods of making an impression and getting an affect that both words and behaviors ring frightfully false.’’ As with Mann’s representation of society by one small family, here too he represents his concerns about the artist in one character. Mann’s primary concern is that art and the artist have become too self-indulgent to be taken seriously. The party guests are preoccupied with posturing and looks. He looked at this theme in many other works, most notably in Tonio Kroger.

Past versus the Present
The Professor’s infatuation with history establishes another of Mann’s themes, the conflict between the past and the present. The Professor says on several occasions that he believes that only the past is worthwhile; the present is not as important. He believes that the past is stable and the present is unstable because it is constantly changing, and he dislikes instability.

Search for Self-Identity
Yet another theme that is found in this story is the search for self-identity. Most of the characters in the tale take on false identities or desire to be someone other than who they are. The Professor struggles throughout the story with his loss of prestige due to the country’s economic downturn and with the loss of Ellie’s affection as she becomes interested in people other than her parents. As a result, he searches for a way to identify himself. Bert tries to look and behave like Xaver; Ingrid and her brother both adopt false identities on the bus and during their telephone pranks. Even Ellie wants to be Max’s sister.

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