Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 1057 words.)