Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1191
In his four Joseph novels, Thomas Mann explores the roots of Western civilization by elaborating on the stories of Abraham’s descendants, which are recorded in the last half of the book of Genesis. The first novel in the tetralogy, Joseph and His Brothers, explains how Joseph’s ancestors developed and bequeathed to him a profound desire to serve only the Highest, the One, the Living God. In obedience to his God, Abraham had nearly sacrificed his son Isaac before God told him to put a ram on the altar instead. When Isaac, old and almost blind, bestows the divine blessing, he is tricked into giving it to Jacob, his smooth son, rather than Esau, the hairy one, after their mother dresses her favorite in goatskins.
Jacob leaves home to herd sheep for Laban, with whose lovely daughter Rachel he soon falls deeply in love. For seven years he labors for the right to marry her. Then, on the wedding night, Laban pulls a trick by sending his older daughter Leah to Jacob’s bed instead. Before daylight reveals the substitution, they have consummated the nuptials nine times, conceiving a son, Reuben. Leah bears Jacob several more children before Jacob’s subsequent union with Rachel produces Joseph and later Benjamin, whose birth proves fatal to Rachel.
One of Jacob’s tales concerns his famous dream of a stairway to Heaven, where he wrestles from an angel a blessing that his numerous posterity will be called Israel after him. By two wives and two concubines he begets twelve sons, whose descendants form the tribes of Israel. He also has a daughter, Dinah, who is wooed and kidnapped by and then married to the Prince of Shechem. Her brothers devise a gruesome revenge. In negotiations with her abductor, they secure a promise that Shechemites will adopt certain Hebrew customs, including circumcision. Then, while all the men of Shechem are recovering from their wounds, Joseph’s brothers fall upon the city and massacre them. The shepherd king is horrified by his sons’ violence, especially the excesses of Simeon and Levi.
In the second novel, The Young Joseph, Joseph’s brothers turn on him. More beautiful, imaginative, and virtuous than they, Joseph faces problems with self-absorption and the envy of others. His brothers’ resentment is exacerbated by Jacob’s favoritism, particularly evidenced by his giving to Joseph the coat of many colors, an elaborately embroidered garment worn by Leah on her wedding night. Joseph further chafes them by reporting his dreams of angels, heavenly bodies, and sheaves of wheat bowing down to him. In chagrin, the brothers withdraw from Jacob’s tents and pitch camp a few miles away, until Jacob sends Joseph to retrieve them. When he arrives, they beat him and dump him into a pit. Reuben saves his life by deflecting the brothers’ blows and later returns in secret to pull him out of the pit. He finds it empty: Joseph has been rescued by traveling salesmen, who pay twenty pieces of silver for him and lead him into Egypt. The brothers present the torn and bloody coat to Jacob, allowing him to think that his favorite son has been devoured by wild beasts.
The third novel, Joseph in Egypt, deals with slavery and sex. Joseph is sold to Potiphar, a high government official and friend of Ikhnaton, the Pharaoh of Egypt. At birth, Potiphar was castrated in an act of religious piety by his parents, but he is nevertheless yoked with Mut in ceremonial wedlock. The upright Mont-kaw, his overseer, recognizes Joseph’s genius and arranges an introduction to his owner. Joseph soon wins Potiphar’s favor with a charming discussion of artificial pollination. He is promoted from gardener and dumbwaiter to majordomo, but obstacles persist. The malicious dwarf Dudu thwarts him by helping Mut make sexual advances to Joseph. Often she orders Joseph to attend her privately in the palace, but Joseph always turns these sessions into business briefings on his work in the household. Eyebrows are raised around the palace after a ladies’ party where, while they are peeling oranges with sharp knives, Mut calls Joseph in to pour the wine. Such is his beauty that the ladies gasp and cut their fingers. Years of frustration culminate when Mut nearly bites through her tongue and implores Joseph, “Thleep—with me!” After she suggests that they kill Potiphar, Joseph flees as she tears off his jacket. Dudu stirs Potiphar’s suspicion, and Mut lodges a false charge of rape. Potiphar transfers Joseph to Pharaoh’s prison, ordering the snitch Dudu to bear the expected physical punishment instead.
The fourth novel, Joseph the Provider, is a spectacular success story. The warden Mai-sachme puts Joseph in charge of the other prisoners, including Pharaoh’s chief baker and chief wine steward, recently implicated in an unsuccessful coup attempt. When they are troubled by strange dreams, Joseph explains their meanings: that the wine steward will be found innocent and the baker guilty, and so they are. A reputation for dream interpretation brings Joseph to Pharaoh’s attention. Joseph wins the boy-king’s heart in long conversations on theology, governmental administration, and dreams. Pharaoh had dreamed of seven skinny cows consuming seven fat ones and of seven withered ears of corn swallowing seven full ones. Joseph deftly leads Pharaoh to see in the dreams a prophecy of famine. To avert disaster, he makes Joseph his chief administrator. By Joseph’s wise governance, an enormous grain surplus is amassed and the great landowners and neighboring district kings are brought under Pharaoh’s thumb as the crops fail and assets must be liquidated.
Meanwhile, Joseph’s sister Tamar manages “to squeeze herself into the history of the world.” As a girl she had absorbed wisdom at Jacob’s knee. Then, one after another, she weds two of Judah’s sons, both of whom soon die, leaving her a childless widow. Jacob will not let her marry Judah’s third son, so she masquerades as a temple prostitute and seduces Judah himself, thus founding the line of descent leading to the Messiah.
Famine forces Joseph’s brothers to come to Egypt for grain. Shorn and clothed as an Egyptian official, Joseph is not recognized by his half-brothers, who bow down to him now as he had dreamed. On the pretext that they are spies, he takes Simeon hostage, thus forcing them to bring Benjamin to him. On their return, he reveals his identity but takes Benjamin hostage in order to lure Jacob to Goshen. On their way home, the brothers worry about how to break the news to their aged father, whose grip on life might be jolted by either revelation: that Joseph is alive or that Benjamin is being held hostage. The task falls to the musical girl Serah, whose glad song penetrates Jacob’s understanding without breaking his heart. He consents to be carried to Goshen, and there he is finally reunited with his beloved son. Joseph asks forgiveness, but instead Jacob bestows the blessing on Judah and adopts Joseph’s two sons as his own, since Joseph’s achievement is so worldly and so Egyptian.