Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

A work such as Joseph and His Brothers occurs seldom in literary history. So extraordinary and idiosyncratic an undertaking deserves the epithet “unique.” Formal literary categories shed less light on such singular achievements than most, yet Mann’s tetralogy belongs on the shelf with other modern comic epics in prose, such as John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678-1684), Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615), and Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759-1767). It fits the epic formula, which calls for a hero of superhuman capacity and transnational significance, an episodic structure, divine intervention, and a sustained elevated style.

Although a tone of high seriousness and didactic purpose pervade it, Joseph and His Brothers is a comic masterpiece. In tragedy, things do not work out for the better, but they do here. Tragedy involves the loss or lack of something at a crucial moment, but here is God’s plenty of everything. For example, time is abundant: Tragedy tends not to happen until, somehow, time runs out; here, there is time for everything. Events have plenty of time not only to happen, but to recur in the mythical cycle and to be remembered ad infinitum, as well. There is always time for retelling, for savoring the ironies of intent and event, and for ridiculous magnification or reduction through interpretation. In its use of time, handling of detail, vast repetition, and cosmic perspective, the whole manner of Joseph and His Brothers is comic rather than tragic.

Acutely sensitive to irony...

(The entire section is 660 words.)