The Magic Mountain is essentially a bildungsroman, the story of the education and spiritual development of a single character. The individual in this case is Hans Castorp, a young engineer who, before assuming his position in a shipbuilding firm, decides to go to a sanatorium to visit his cousin Joachim, a soldier who is recovering from tuberculosis. At the sanatorium, a spot is detected on one of Castorp’s lungs, and he decides to stay for a few weeks to take some treatments. Weeks stretch into months, and Castorp remains at the sanatorium long after Joachim has gone. In fact, Castorp stays for a total of seven years. The disease that is really afflicting Castorp, however, is a spiritual malaise. Castorp encounters a wide range of characters at the sanatorium, each of whom has an effect on him. Shortly before the end of his stay, Castorp finds himself hallucinating while hiking after a severe snowstorm. This hallucination serves as a catalyst for Castorp’s decision to reenter the world, which he does by volunteering for military service in World War I. The impression is left with the reader that Castorp’s reintegration into the world is ambivalent at best.
The Magic Mountain shows to great effect Mann’s use of physical disease as a metaphor for spiritual malaise. At its very worst, Castorp’s tuberculosis is a mild case. His decision to stay at the sanatorium is, in reality, a flight from the duties and mundanities of the world. The existence that Castorp leads at the sanatorium is one of contemplation, not unlike the existence of a monk at a monastery. Castorp’s struggle is entirely of an internal nature. He is well-to-do and lives in a world of comfortable, if remote, luxury.
The internal struggle in Castorp’s mind is exemplified in the dialectical relationship between Herr Settembrini and Herr Naphta, the two most intellectual patients at the sanatorium. Herr Settembrini represents reason, while Naphta symbolizes the will-to-power of the suprarational philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. Naphta’s eventual suicide, like the hallucination in the snowstorm, is a vivid jolt to the comfortable existence to which Castorp has become accustomed....
(The entire section is 899 words.)