The brother-sister mystique, the spiritual versus the physical, and the mysterious unity in duality are some of the themes found in many of Thomas Mann’s works. In The Holy Sinner, these themes are expressed even in the English title; it suggests the ambiguities of such polarities as good and evil, holiness and sinfulness, and piety and sensuality.
The symbolic narcissism of incest and the sinfulness of pride furnish the novel with its central idea, but salvation through God’s forgiveness and grace is the novel’s primary focus. The self-love of “the bad children,” the twins, was caused by pride and, in turn, resulted in the sin for which each, after brief joy, spends most of a lifetime in atonement. Even in their penances there is a duality, for while Sibylla cares for the sick and afflicted in the humblest circumstances, Gregorius, the product of a sinful relationship, is chosen to lead the Church in its highest position.
The tension between man and woman must also be recognized as important to the author’s purpose in this novel. This tension is best expressed in the conversation between the wealthy, matter-of-fact Roman, Probus, and his intellectual wife, Faltonia, whose opinion and advice he seeks after his vision. Faltonia astutely analyzes his dream vision, and when Probus expresses disappointment that she has no advice for him, she replies with insight and some acerbity, pointing out that it is an ecclesiastical matter, in which the Church requires that women be silent. After suggesting that the Church might be better served if rational women had a voice in it, she declines to discuss the possibility but proceeds to give Probus some simple, straightforward advice.
In apparent and poignant contrast to this amusing scene is the second appearance of the fisherman and his wife. After finding the key to the fetter in the belly of the fish that he has caught, the arrogant fisherman is totally humbled and prostrate with fear of eternal damnation. Yet the heart of his wife is so filled with joy and faith that around her head there appears to be more light than anywhere else in the dark and humble room.
In these two brief scenes, Mann brings to his fantastic tale a human and realistic element that takes the novel out of its imaginary and medieval setting and places it where any modern reader can recognize its significance.