Thomas Mann Short Fiction Analysis
Thomas Mann’s early stories are set in late nineteenth century and early twentieth century Europe, primarily in Germany and Italy. The protagonists are artists, disillusioned romantics with an ironic view of the cost of their art, which is an isolation from others. They are often burghers turned artist, often physically deformed, further isolating them from life around them and traditional courtship. To avoid the pain and disappointment of love, these protagonists retreat to art and nature, but in midlife, usually when they reach thirty years of age, they are suddenly overwhelmed by passion, usually for an unworthy and superficial beloved. Simultaneously, the disillusioned romantic usually comes face to face with his own superfluity, as does Mann’s dilettante, in the story “Der Bajazzo” (“The Dilettante”), when he recognizes himself as “a perfectly useless human being.” Though the sense of superfluity is quite often triggered by unrequited love, the object of the love, the beloved, is treated only superficially.
Such is the case, for example, with Amra in “Luischen” (“Little Lizzy”), who obliviously orchestrates her husband’s destruction and stares vacantly at him while he dies of grief over her mistreatment of him. Mann says of Amra that she is not “sensitive enough to betray herself because of a guilty conscience.” The disillusionment, in fact, has little to do with the beloved. Rather, the disillusionment is a device to trigger the protagonist’s introspection, his moment of awareness brought on by the experience. The moment of awareness for Amra’s husband, Christian Jacoby, kills him. Other protagonists live on, lacking the will even to kill themselves, such as the narrator in Mann’s story “Enttäuschung” (“Disillusionment”), who says of his disillusionment that it has left him “alone, unhappy, and a little queer.”
Mann’s protagonists yearn for experience, for connection with the day-to-day living of those around them, and for a synthesis between body and spirit, discipline and impulse, reason and passion, involvement and withdrawal, action and inaction. They are fascinated by grief, death, and disease. In Mann’s story “Der Kleiderschrank” (“The Wardrobe”), for example, the dying man is drawn to the boardinghouse of a woman who has a “repulsive eruption, a sort of fungus growth, on her brow.” Again, in Mann’s story “Tobias Mindernickel,” Tobias is fascinated by a child’s bleeding injury and by his dog Esau’s injury. He is so fascinated by Esau’s injury that, after it has healed, he tries to reinjure the dog and, in the process, kills it.
Two works typical of Mann’s early short fiction are “Der kleine Herr Friedemann” (“Little Herr Friedemann”) and Tonio Krönger. In these works, Mann develops the Symbolist theme of the artist’s solitude, the theme of the burgher turned artist, and the themes involved in the battles between body and mind, passion and intellect, action and inaction.
“Little Herr Friedemann”
In “Little Herr Friedemann,” the title story from Mann’s 1898 collection of stories, Mann explores the themes of obsession with beauty and disillusionment with romanticism. Johannes Friedemann, a hunchback because he was dropped by his drunken nurse when he was an infant, seeks a life of fulfillment through art and nature. This pursuit is encouraged by his ailing mother, who, after fourteen years of a lingering illness, dies, leaving Friedemann with his three unmarried sisters. Like other protagonists in Mann’s short fiction, Friedemann “cherishes” his grief over his mother’s death and moves further into his solitary existence. To the extent that he thinks of his own death, he envisions it like his mother’s death, a “mild twilight radiance gently declining into dark.” At the age of thirty, after constructing a rigorously disciplined life, Friedemann becomes obsessed with a beautiful woman, Frau Gerda von Rinnlingen. Battling between passion and reason, between action and inaction, Friedemann finally summons his courage to go to Frau Rinnlingen and confess his love. He hopes that she will feel pity for him. She instead dismisses him with a “short, scornful laugh” as she clutches his arm and flings him sideways to the ground. The rejection leaves Friedemann “stunned and unmanned” and shuddering. In this moment of awareness, he directs his anger against himself. He is filled with “a thirst to destroy himself, to tear himself to pieces, to blot himself utterly out.” He drags himself to the river and, with a faint splash, drowns himself. The final image is a “faint sound of laughter” in the distance. Friedemann is among Mann’s disillusioned romantics who do not survive their moment of awareness.
Friedemann, often considered a prototype of Gustave von Aschenbach in the novella Death in Venice, illuminates the struggle between passion and intellect, a leitmotif linking the various stories in the first volume together. It is the disillusioned romanticism embodied in Friedemann that moves Mann, in his second volume of stories, Tristan, toward what critics have called a “new artistic intellectualism.”
In the novella Tonio Kröger, Mann again develops the burgher-artist theme, evident in the title name itself. The name “Tonio,” for Mann, symbolizes the artistic heritage of Italy, and “Kröger” symbolizes the disciplined intellectualism of his German father. The protagonist, Tonio Kröger, is a sort of synthesis of the artist and intellectual. An outsider in his youth, Tonio later considers isolating himself from society, but he rejects the impulse, thus allowing himself to find a sort of consolation.
The novella begins as Tonio waits for his childhood friend Hans Hansen, so that they can go for a walk, something Hans has almost forgotten while Tonio has “looked forward to it with almost incessant joy.” Though Tonio does not want to be like Hans, he loves Hans, not only because he is handsome but also because he is “in every respect his [Tonio’s] own opposite and foil.” Tonio is brooding, sensitive, and introspective, while Hans is lively, insensitive, and superficial.
Hans and Tonio are separated, years pass, and when Tonio is sixteen years old, his passion for Hans turns to Ingeborg Holm, who makes his heart throb with ecstasy. Tonio, like Friedemann in “Little Herr Friedemann,” is aware that his beloved is “remote and estranged,” but still he prefers her company to that of Magdalena Vermehren, who understands him and laughs or is serious in the right places. Tonio, realizing the implications of his unrequited love for Hans and later for Inge, speaks of being flung to and fro forever “between two crass extremes: between icy intellect and scorching sense.”
In contrast to Hans and Inge is Lisabeta Ivanova, Tonio’s close and candid artist-friend of approximately his own age. Though she offers Tonio consolation during his turmoil, she also calls him bourgeois, because he is drawn to the superficial Hans and Inge and because he wants to be ordinary. Lisabeta and Tonio explore in dialogue the implications of the artist’s existence. Lisabeta, unlike Tonio, is reconciled to her role as an artist.
After thirteen years, Hans returns, and Tonio comes upon him with Inge; Hans and Inge, two of a type, get along well together. Nevertheless, when Tonio, Hans, Magdalena, and Inge all end up at a dance, Tonio tries to make Inge jealous by dancing with Magdalena. Like many of Mann’s disillusioned romantics, Tonio hopes that his beloved will suddenly return the passion that he feels for her. Inge, however, is incapable of feeling passion for Tonio. She is, in fact, oblivious to his anguish and remains at the dance with Hans. Dejectedly, Tonio returns to his room.
The novella ends with a letter that Tonio writes to Lisabeta from his room at Aalsgard. In the letter, Tonio concludes that he can be happy with the unrequited love of his ideal beauty. He says to Lisabeta of his unrequited love that it is “good and fruitful.” He relishes the “longing” in it and the “gentle envy.” He concludes that, through the love, he experiences a “touch of contempt and no little innocent bliss.” Unlike the unrequited love of Johannes Friedemann that leads to Friedemann’s self-loathing and death, the unrequited love of Tonio Kröger somehow consoles and sustains him.
A significant change in Mann’s later short fiction appears in his treatment of aging. In the earlier works, the protagonists tend to be thirty-year-old disillusioned romantics, characters drawn to youth as much as beauty. The culminating point of this fascination with youth is in the story “Das Wunderkind” (“The Infant Prodigy”), in which the protagonist is eight, looks nine, and is given out for seven. The child, dressed in white silk, has dark circles around his eyes and is already bored, isolated, and somewhat cynical. Nevertheless, the audience is spellbound by the prodigy’s youth.
In Mann’s later works, the protagonists develop a fear of aging. For example, Gustave von Aschenbach in the novella Death in Venice and Frau Rosalie von Tümmler in the novella The Black Swan, upon reaching their early fifties, fall passionately in love as they are dying, Aschenbach of cholera and Tümmler of cancer. As in Mann’s early works, the beloved ones are young. In the later works, however, the protagonists dread their own aging, eventually creating young-old death masks for themselves, masks that, ironically, turn out to be their death masks. In addition to exploring the fear of aging, Mann begins to explore new ideas, such as the effects of evil on passive...
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