Although grounded in a specific time and place--the years preceding World War I at Davos-Platz in the Swiss Alps--this novel has a quality of being timeless and not of this world. The setting is strange--a sanatorium for the tubercular in a town with a healthy but unpredictable climate. Also, because patients go there presumably to recover but basically to kill time in a world withdrawn from the pressures of real life, time moves differently, becoming a kind of eternity.
When Hans Castorp, the dreamy young German protagonist, arrives to visit his cousin Joachim, a matter-of-fact soldier, he is planning to stay three weeks. At first uncomfortable with the rigid routine and slow pace, Hans soon becomes accustomed to it and eventually enjoys it. When the doctor in charge finds in Hans symptoms of tuberculosis, the weeks turn into months and eventually into years.
Through its length, its story line, and numerous discussions by narrator and characters, the novel dislodges the reader’s standard sense of time. The activities of the pre-war world below, though altering the world irrevocably, have no impact on the cloistered life of the sanatorium, except for such leisure-time innovations as the phonograph and the moving picture. This is its appeal for Hans, while Joachim yearns for that outside world, yet movingly must die apart from it.
The relationships in the sanatorium parody those in the real world, lacking permanence and commitment. Passivity wins over action. Hans’s love for Clavdia Chauchat is frustratingly incomplete. His richest involvement is with the contentious Italian philosopher Settembrini, whose intellectual challenges galvanize Hans’s often overly sensitive, even foolish, mind.
The entire novel involves the reader intensely in its feelings and ideas, provoking one to examine one’s own responses to the challenges of life.
Hatfield, Henry. From “The Magic Mountain”: Mann’s Later Masterpieces. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1979. The chapter “The Magic Mountain” provides a concise and broad introduction to the novel in the context of Mann’s other later works; a good place to start for beginners. Includes some discussion of contemporary critical opinion and politics.
Heller, Erich. Thomas Mann: The Ironic German. South Bend, Ind.: Regnery/Gateway, 1979. The chapter “Conversation on the Magic Mountain” is a delightfully informative study of the novel in the form of a dialogue. Perhaps Heller’s best-known statement on Mann’s work and a key to further study. Magisterial.
Ridley, Hugh. The Problematic Bourgeois: Twentieth-Century Criticism on Thomas Mann’s “Buddenbrooks” and “The Magic Mountain.” Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1994. A study of the reception of these two major novels in both literary and political history. Places the works in the contexts of the debate over modernism and of psychological and philosophical criticism.
Weigand, Hermann J. “The Magic Mountain”: A Study of Thomas Mann’s Novel “Der Zauberberg.” Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1964. Though published first in 1933, this study still offers much to the beginning student of Mann’s novel. Provides a close reading with an especially interesting discussion of Germanness in the pre-World War I epoch.
Ziolkowski, Theodore. Dimensions of the Modern Novel. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1969. The chapter “Thomas Mann: The Magic Mountain” provides a careful reading of the form, content, and substance in the novel, paying special attention to the narrator and his attitudes toward time. Useful connections to other German novels of so-called high modernism.