The Holy Sinner

by Thomas Mann

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Characters Discussed

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 446

Brother Clemens

Brother Clemens, the narrator, an Irish monk from the cloister of Clonmacnoise who sets about telling the story of the children of Duke Grimald. Clemens tells the story with great sympathy and poetry, believing his tale to be instructional as well as entertaining. Living in Rome, Clemens (his Irish name is Morhold) believes that his tale of a saint has a universal message: The sinner may be the chosen one (the German title translates as “The Chosen One”).

Duke Grimald

Duke Grimald and


Baduhenna, the grandparents of “the Holy Sinner.” Grimald is the duke of Flanders and Artois and lives in the Castle Beaurepaire with his wife, Baduhenna. They become the parents of Wiligis and Sibylla, two handsome children who are loved by their father; Baduhenna dies giving birth to the pair. The duke dies seventeen years after his wife, leaving the children in the hands of their guardian, Sieur Eisengrein.


Wiligis and


Sibylla, the two comely children of Duke Grimald and his lady, Baduhenna. After Duke Grimald dies, Wiligis becomes a duke and Sibylla a duchess. The two then commit incest. They confess their sin to Sieur Eisengrein, who sends Wiligis off to join the Crusades and orders Sibylla to Eisengrein’s own castle, where she is to have her baby. Wiligis dies on the way to the port of embarkation. Sibylla remains for the time a single woman, repenting of her sin and rejecting all the suitors who come to her.


Grigorss, later Gregorius, the so-called Holy Sinner. He is the child of Wiligis and Sibylla. Cast adrift in a barrel at the order of Sieur Eisengrein, who believes that God will protect the babe if he approves of his survival, the child is found by the fisher folk of the abbey of Saint Dunstan on the North Sea coast. The child is adopted by the abbot of the abbey, Gregorius, who gives the baby his name and has him reared by a fisher family. At the age of six, the child moves into the monastery. Educated by the monks, Gregorius nevertheless dreams of knightly adventures. He learns that he is of noble blood at the age of seventeen and leaves the abbey to find his parents. His knightly ambitions lead him to succor his mother (unknown to him), save her from a brutal suitor, and marry her. When he discovers his sin, he dons the clothes of a beggar and does penance by living on a bare rock in the middle of a lake for seventeen years. He is chosen by a miracle to become the pope of Rome. He becomes a pious leader of the church.

The Characters

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 224

As legendary figures, the two main characters are more than human, not well-rounded, three-dimensional, and credible as ordinary persons. Their beauty, passion, singularity, and steadfastness are the qualities of which legendary tales are made. Extreme in everything they feel, say, and do, whether in love or penitence, pride or humility, they are appropriately astonishing.

Many secondary characters weave in and out of the story like figures in a tapestry. These persons are all entirely human and believable, ranging from the most aristocratic to the most humble. Mention should be made of at least a few of them. The stout-hearted and sensible Sieur Eisengrein helps the sinful twins with practical advice and genuine service, performing deeds of great sacrifice and courage. His wife, Dame Eisengrein, whose passion is motherhood (her own and that of every woman in her care), is memorable for her single-minded maternalism. The fishing folk of St. Dunstan are also completely acceptable as they are portrayed: simple, ignorant, canny, and strong. Their counterparts at the end of the story, the kindly woman of faith and her coarse and crude fisherman husband, are remarkably real. The wealthy man of faith and the cardinal who find Gregorius and bring him back to Rome are highly individualized and admirable. There are many others, too numerous to mention, who contribute to the richness of the story.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 28

Apter, T.E. Thomas Mann: The Devil’s Advocate, 1979.

Cleugh, James. Thomas Mann, 1933.

Feuerlicht, Ignace. Thomas Mann, 1968.

Heller, Erich. The Ironic German, 1958.

Lukacs, Georg. Essays on Thomas Mann, 1964.

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