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 seen as a process of decay, and even the intellect and the emotions are reduced to unconscious urges according to the then-new psychology of Sigmund Freud. Hans crystallizes these ideas in his feverish love for Clavdia Cauchat, who represents the Russian temperament—the urge to lose oneself, to give in to the emotions, to live life for the sake of life. She is contrasted to Settembrini, the Italian intellectual, educator, and humanist who is an optimist and believes in the perfectibility of humanity by reason. He opposes the fascination with death that Hans manifests. Settembrini is also contrasted to Naphta, his intellectual opponent, who is an irrationalist, a Jew turned Jesuit, with a highly Nietzschean viewpoint. He is a pessimist, deriding Settembrini’s optimism and ridiculing his arguments as inconsistent. In actuality, neither figure means or is meant to convert Hans; their arguments cancel each other, as does so much else in the novel.
Hans finds his own position midway between the various opposing forces. This occurs primarily in the chapter “Snow.” If the magic mountain is a timeless realm above the immediate...
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concerns of the world, “now” is a hermetic world within that realm. Hans loses his way in a snowstorm and, exhausted and in danger of death, has a vision in which he sees juxtaposed an idyllic world of tropical paradise, peopled by gentle and happy folk, with a temple in which a terrible ritual of human sacrifice is being performed. This symbolizes the two poles of human life, and Hans’s response is clear and decisive: Life is inseparably bound up with death, and the horrible is real and cannot be denied, but for the sake of goodness and love, human beings must not grant death dominion over their thoughts.
It is after this chapter that the figure of Mynheer Peeperkorn for a time dominates the novel, a figure of great vitality, simple in his thoughts, but of powerful personality. He is in love with his life force and terrified of losing it, and therefore he eventually commits suicide rather than face decay. He, like the other figures, represents an aspect of contemporary European thought and attitudes. Indeed, his traits, like those of Settembrini and Naphta, were drawn from life, from figures known to Mann. Thus the novel has something of the autobiographical and represents a stage in Mann’s own thought. In the realm he has constructed, all these aspects—fictional bildungsroman, intellectual autobiography, and symbolic portrait of the prewar era—merge. This is made possible in part by the very foundation of the novel, the mountain.
The small community is elevated above the flatlands, in the rarefied Alpine air, remote from the problems of the world and the demands of everyday life. Time is dissolved, the rhythm of the novel moves from sequences of hours to days, weeks, months, and finally years, all rendered indistinguishable by the precise daily routine. In this world outside time, Hans can grow, can hover between conflicting opinions. Here he has freedom, most essentially in the “Snow” chapter, where even space is obliterated. In contrast to the earlier romantic outlook, however, this elevated position of freedom in isolation is not seen as a good thing, for though it provides an aesthetic space in which ideal development can occur, it is divorced from life. Life is the value that Hans’s development finally leads him to affirm—life, with its horror as well as its beauty. When the European world saw itself plunged into World War I, Mann saw himself jolted out of his apolitical aesthetic stance. Therefore it is only fitting that Hans, too, must come down from the mountain to the world of time and action, even if only to be lost among the havoc of a world at war.