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Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 660

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...

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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 and nuance, Mann’s comic genius saturates episode, dialogue, and description. The reader delights in the orange-peeling party, the vignette of the city of cats, the satire on impish Dudu, the sly retorts, and the sharp epithets. Joseph considers the artful jest as God’s best gift to man, “the profoundest knowledge we have of that complex, questionable thing we call life.” Jacob’s roguery and Joseph’s felicitous rapport enable them to achieve their serious purposes. Where would either have got without the comic sensibility to pull it off time after time?

Had it been composed by a tranquil scribe in placid times, this epic would be astonishing. That it came down from the most turbulent time in its author’s life and the history of Europe is even more impressive. The work was received quite propitiously. Mann was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1929 while still working on Joseph and His Brothers. Early the next year, he toured the Near East, storing up memories of scene and lore which come to life in the Egypt novels. He returned to Germany and there finished The Young Joseph and began Joseph in Egypt before leaving Germany again on a trip from which he would never return. Exiled by the Nazis, Mann became a wanderer like Joseph and his ancestors. His daughter managed to recover the manuscript from their home, which Adolf Hitler had confiscated.

Completed in the United States in 1942, the tetralogy celebrates a victory of enlightenment over darkness. The conflict in Egypt between followers of Amun and Aton reflects the division of public opinion in Europe on Nazism. The cult of Amun uses fear and bloodshed to enforce a policy of reactionary nationalism, just as the storm troopers did. Certain salient characteristics of Nazi officialdom are parodied in the portraits of the vicious dwarf Dudu and the high priest Beknechons. Mann later compared Joseph and his administration with Henry Wallace and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Both administrations succeeded in feeding the poor and dominating foreign powers. Both radically altered the relationship between the government and the economy.

The Joseph novels prophetically urge Western civilization not to take the road of Fascism toward bondage, lies, and death. It is significant that Mann found a higher road—toward life, prosperity, and love—in the tradition of the Jews, whom Hitler persecuted. Mann’s epic sought to restore the blessings of civilization by enlightening Europe in its darkest hour.

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