(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Johannes Friedemann, as a month-old infant in Lubeck, had taken a bad fall while in the care of his drunken nurse. As a result, he is destined to live out his life as a hunchback and a dwarf. Remarkably so, Friedemann as a young adult has made an accommodation with his plight. At sixteen he had fallen in love with a blond girl his age, but one summer afternoon he saw her embracing and kissing a boy while hiding behind a jasmine bush. Friedemann made an instant vow: “Never again will I let myself in for any of it. To the others it brings joy and happiness, for me it can only mean sadness and pain. I am done with it.” As a consequence, the dwarf teaches himself to revel in the changing splendors of the natural world: He learns to love music (in fact, he plays the violin passably), literature, and especially the theater, his real passion. In a substantive way, then, he has made his private peace with the world. Indeed, his surname in translation can mean “the man who seeks or finds peace.”

In June of his fateful year, Friedemann happily celebrates his thirtieth birthday. Taking inventory of his life, Friedemann considers that he has boldly renounced that which he will never have, has successfully established himself in business, lives happily in the family home with his three unmarried sisters (Friederike, Henriette, and Pfiffi), and can optimistically anticipate ten or twenty more years of the good life: “And I look forward to them with peace in my heart.”

In July, little Friedemann has five encounters with a voluptuous married woman, Frau Gerda von Rinnlingen. Her husband, who is forty years old (Gerda is sixteen years his junior), is a military officer (Colonel von Rinnlingen) and is the newly appointed district commander of the Lubeck area. Strangely enough, almost from his first sight of her, Friedemann instinctively recognizes and accepts Gerda as the agent of his doom; that is, she will bring about his death in a most direct way.

On a Tuesday noon, Friedemann has his first glimpse of her. While he is strolling with a business acquaintance, they see her in a yellow car being drawn by a pair of thoroughbreds. In a few words Thomas Mann describes her. Gerda’s hair is red-blond; her face is “oval, with a dead-white skin and faint bluish shadows lurking under the close-set eyes.” Friedemann fixes his gaze on her as she goes by. She in turn nods at him. While his companion chatters on, Friedemann stares stonily at the pavement.

Three days later he comes home for lunch and is informed that the district commander and his wife have arrived for a courtesy visit. Ignoring protocol, Friedemann without explanation retreats to his room and refuses to meet them. When his...

(The entire section is 1113 words.)