The Magic Mountain, begun in 1912 but written largely after World War I, was actually planned as a novella, inspired by Thomas Mann’s own brief stay at a sanatorium at Davos-Platz, Switzerland. In fact, his early novella Tristan (1903) lays much of the groundwork for the later novel, which grew in bulk and complexity to become a veritable mirror of European society in the period leading up to World War I. It comes directly out of the tradition of the German bildungsroman, or novel of development, in which a relatively unformed character is exposed to various aspects of life and a range of influences. In a gradual process, that character achieves form, false goals are cast aside, and the true calling and, even more important, the right relationship to life are discovered.
Hans Castorp is just such a character when he arrives from the flatlands for a brief visit at Berghof. Mann emphasizes his bourgeois background and the lack of firm convictions and direction in his life. For Mann, the North German type—Hans is from Hamburg—always represented the solid, respectable middle-class life. However, Hans is also something of a quester, curious and adventuresome in the spiritual and intellectual realms. He observes the new world of the sanatorium intently and becomes involved with the personalities there, inquiring and holding long conversations. The narrative voice of the novel, as in most of Mann’s works, has a certain ironic distance, but the pace of the work is very much tied to Hans’s own experience of events and temporal rhythms. The three weeks of his planned visit stretch out to seven years, and the work becomes the record of the growth of his character in a microcosm of European society.
Mann’s style developed out of the nineteenth century realist school, and he observes and describes reality with minute care. In his major novels, though, his style becomes increasingly symbolic and the structure increasingly expressive of symbolic values. Thus, the individual character development of Hans reflects the problems of European thought as a whole, and the various ideas to which he is exposed represent various intellectual and spiritual currents of the epoch.
Hans initially falls prey to a fascination with death, a dangerous attraction to the irresponsible freedom of the mountain world, the temptation to turn inward and to fall in love with sickness. He studies the illness whose symptoms he himself soon exhibits. He visits the “moribundi” and has long talks with Behrens and Krokowski, two of the doctors. Here life is...
(The entire section is 1053 words.)