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....
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