Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1057

The Joseph story suggested to Mann almost everything important in life, so for sixteen years, from 1926 to 1942, he kept amplifying, reinventing, and explaining it until he had created an epic forty times longer than its source in Genesis. It immerses one more deeply in its own fictional world...

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The Joseph story suggested to Mann almost everything important in life, so for sixteen years, from 1926 to 1942, he kept amplifying, reinventing, and explaining it until he had created an epic forty times longer than its source in Genesis. It immerses one more deeply in its own fictional world than a brief account could, and the reader emerges with a feeling of familiarity with life as it was lived in Jacob’s tents or eighteenth-dynasty Egypt. Yet Mann was not primarily concerned with historical realism. Like John Milton in Paradise Lost (1667, 1674), Mann sought to explain the highest matters to modern minds by interpreting biblical lore.

The tetralogy could be called a Bildungsroman, since it traces the growth of Jacob and of Joseph from boyhood to manhood. Its scope, however, is more ambitious. Joseph and His Brothers is about the growth of Western civilization itself. In the way Joseph outgrows his puerile vanity and harnesses his energies for the common good, the direction of cultural evolution is discerned, from the early tribal patriarchies to modern megastates. As Joseph and Pharaoh transcend the violence and bestiality of polytheism, so civilization rises from barbarity to refinement. A dreamy and artful shepherd boy becomes administrator of a powerful empire. In him, the individual and the collective, the artistic and the political, are reconciled. Joseph is not a mere portrait of the artist but a paradigm of the progress of civilization.He learns his lessons well at Jacob’s knee but does not stop there. He gains wisdom from Babylonian and Egyptian traditions as well, blending in him-self the Hellenic, Hebraic, and other Near Eastern elements of Western civilization.

The progress of civilization is linked with the developing concept of God. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob build their ideas of the Most High from primitive beginnings in Yahu, “a troublesome sort of hobgoblin,” and Jewhe, who spits fire and snorts steam. They know a spiteful and lonely deity who is jealous of his bond with man and prone to fits of fury, once nearly destroying the earth and all that was in it by flood. The patriarchs’ “labour upon the godhead” leads to a more comprehensive and exalted Lord, in whose thought “all the manifold shapes of things were first present” and by whose words creation was ordained. Vast as all space, He includes everything, “not the Good, but the All.”

Mann asks whether Abraham should be called the Father of God for having “thought Him into being” and whether man was made in God’s image to be used as a mirror, a tool of God’s self-knowledge and, thus, His evolutionary progress. So much is made of Joseph’s egotism because the germ of the idea of God can be seen in it. “The claim of the human ego to central importance,” Mann says, “was the precondition for the discovery of God,” the notion of self being wrapped up with the idea of unity or of the whole. Thus, a belief in the sanctity of God leads to a belief in the dignity of the individual and the dignity of humanity. Joseph’s progress from dreamy conceit to imperial power is a mythical formula of that whole religious and cultural transformation.

Joseph comes to Egypt at a time of great religious upheaval. The rigid religion of Amun, based on fear and brute force, is losing its hold. The new Pharaoh hates war and resents the principles of the priests of Amun, leaning instead toward worship of the loving lord of the sun, Aton. Under Joseph’s influence, he moves from polytheism toward monotheism, even changing his personal name from Amenhotep to Ikhnaton. In Egypt Joseph proves that his keen understanding of God could alter the destinies of empires as well as of families.

Mann once called myth the way old men think about young humanity. His mythical way of thinking is reinforced by the theme of correspondence, which pervades all four novels. As if in tune with the celestial music of the revolving spheres, images, thoughts, and events are correlated by the correspondence of present with past, nature with spirit, and the world below with the world above. Joseph learns that a spiritual abstraction such as numeration can control the enormous forces of nature and time, so he delights in the mysteries of the 360 degrees in a circle, the five extra days in the year, or the magic of threes and sevens. Insight into the correspondence of moral worlds above and below makes Joseph’s triumph possible, for he realizes that what appears sunny refers to the underworld. His mythical mind sees all human life as a kaleidoscope which produces changing patterns from the same materials. Thus, Mut’s ripping his jacket mythically corresponds with the shredding of the coat of many colors and with the dismemberment of the Egyptian god Osiris.

Correspondence renders even slight details rich with symbolic meaning. The ram, for example, signifies God’s bond with man after being substituted on Abraham’s altar of sacrifice. In his death throes, Isaac pathetically thinks he is turning into a ram. Jacob gets rich through uncanny skill in breeding the animal. Joseph imagines Jacob’s disgust at a ritual in which the daughters of Egypt yield themselves to rams. Rachel’s name means “mother sheep,” and her son is called an inspired lamb by Pharaoh. Joseph is mythically linked with the moon as well. A nomad in its course among the heavenly bodies, the moon symbolizes the inner qualities of the tam wanderer. The nomadic man must negotiate fortune and misfortune, favor and disfavor. The ever-changing moon typifies such mediation, receiving light from the sun and giving it to earth. Playing female to the sun and male to the world, the moon is special to lovers, who, like Jacob and Rachel, save their most meaningful moments for moonlight. Joseph associates the moon with Ishtar, the goddess of love. Though his father once rebukes Joseph for baring himself to the moonlight during his midnight meditations, his dreamy moon musings confirm the mythological cast of his mind in his early youth. Much of the meaning and method of this mythical epic are recapitulated in one of its sentences: “For we move in the footsteps of others, and all life is but the pouring of the present into the forms of the myth.”

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