Thomas Mann Long Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3901

In Meine Zeit (1950), Thomas Mann wrote, If Christian means to consider life, one’s own life, as a guilt, a debt, an invoice to pay, as a subject of religious uneasiness requiring immediate remission, redemption, and justification, then those theologians who see me as the type of un-Christian author are...

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In Meine Zeit (1950), Thomas Mann wrote, If Christian means to consider life, one’s own life, as a guilt, a debt, an invoice to pay, as a subject of religious uneasiness requiring immediate remission, redemption, and justification, then those theologians who see me as the type of un-Christian author are not at all correct. For rarely has the work of a lifetime, even when it appeared to be a skeptical, artistic, and humorous game, been born totally and from the outset of an anxious desire for reparation, for purification, and for justification as was my personal—and so modestly exemplary—attempt to practice the art.

More than that of most writers, Mann’s own literary production can come under the heading of a quest.


As its German subtitle indicates, Buddenbrooks tells of the decadence of a family—by extension, the nineteenth century bourgeoisie, which socially and politically lost to the lower classes it had worked to advance, and aesthetically so enriched the spirit with inner life that no practical energy was left for the outer life of action. In 1835, in Hanseatic Lübeck, the clan of the old grain merchant Johann Buddenbrook appeared wealthy and solid when it inaugurated its economic prominence with a grand banquet (Mann describes it in no fewer than sixty pages) in its seventeenth century palace on Mengstrasse, with offices on the ground floor. Four generations later, the process of weakening and disintegration ends, in 1876, when the delicate and artistic Hanno dies of typhus in a modest house outside Porta.

The decadence, like an uncontrollable germ inside the family body organism, is ineluctable. Mann does not present what is commonly referred to in Marxist terms as class struggle, nor does he base his perspective either on the French, naturalistic tradition or on the historical manner that informs John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga (1922). There is something less scientific or legendary than personal about Buddenbrooks, for it was the chronicle of Mann’s own family as seen by him, an aesthete doting on the fantasies of the inner life yet a bourgeois with a keen sense of reality and of observation. Hence, Mann’s sensibility and understanding are interpenetrated with his irony and detachment. Men and women, relatives and friends, their conversations and values, dress and habits, food and furniture provoke the author’s sarcastic smile, but at the same time he senses in them something solid and virtuous. The banquet sets the stage, like a skillful overture adumbrating many coming themes. Not many events occupy the novel’s six hundred pages, but a whole way of life does.

Johann Senior is orderly and self-assured; Johann Junior (the Consul) is self-satisfied, without his father’s daring and vision; his older brother Gotthold, whose marriage has never received his father’s sanction, finds himself nearly dispossessed. Of the Consul’s children, only Thomas keeps up the family name by being made consul and elected senator, but, though intelligent and elegant, he continues the business lazily and irresponsibly, without self-criticism, dabbling in aesthetics and philosophy, morbidly and nervously concerned with “subconscious needs,” and in the long run ruinously alone in his palace, his wife, business, and future gone. His brother Christian has some of the old Buddenbrook energy, but he cannot harness it, failing repeatedly in business ventures, trying to “find somehow his place in the world,” and finally becoming insane. Their sister Annette inspires no assurance with her impulsiveness and frivolousness. She does not marry the older, unattractive Herr Grünlich, but her elder sister, Tony, who fills the novel, develops both interest and pride in the family genealogy, does not wait for the medical student, Mortens, with whom she has fallen in love at the beach, and marries Grünlich, who turns out to be a self-seeking bankrupt. Tony, on the other hand, is a fine echo of the good bourgeois, sentimental and dutiful, vivacious and supportive, but she must undergo divorce, another marriage, and another divorce, and see her daughter Erika do the same (Erika’s man is jailed for fraud). The other marriage was to Herr Permaneder, a man “as good as bread” but who does not have enough “for home and beer”; he is caught with his arms around the cook Babette, and all breaks up again.

Tony’s school-year friend is the Dutch Gerda, whom her brother Thomas married in Holland and who thinks only about her attractiveness, music (Bach and Wagner), and her relationship with the impetuous Lieutenant von Trotha, who is equally interested in music. The semblance of riches continues; Thomas acquires an even grander mansion, on Fischerstrasse, but, as he tells Tony: “Often the outward and visible material signs and symbols of happiness and success only show themselves when the process of decline has already set in.” Even the tender devotion of the “eternal tutor” of three generations of Buddenbrooks, Ida Jungmann, or the correct and attentive teacher of all proper young ladies in town, Sesemi Weichbrodt (whom Mann has conclude the novel with a philosophical observation about life after death: “Es ist so!”—“So it is!”), cannot stem the creeping disintegration. When the last of Thomas’s children, Johann (known familiarly as Hanno), comes along, he is frail and dreamy, musically gifted, a violinist, and he dies in young manhood.

In this context, a natural event such as death assumes symbolic proportions, and retrospectively, through its recurrence, functions almost as a leitmotif. As each character lives his or her life, so does each die his or her death: Johann Senior quietly, with dignity; his daughter Klara, ingenuously; Johann Junior, unexpectedly; Johann Junior’s wife, Elisabeth, deliberately and slowly (the agony takes twenty pages); Consul Kröger, on his outdoor marble steps; Senator Thomas, on the pavement, where two passersby recognize him; and Hanno, exhausted and drained of the little vitality that his music had afforded him. This atmosphere cuts through all social strata encountered in the novel, and through it, the novel rises philosophically above the narrower confines of the decadence of Thomas Mann’s own family.

Tonio Kröger

The story of Tonio Kröger is related to that of Buddenbrooks; even the protagonist’s surname derives from the earlier novel. Unlike Hanno, however, Tonio is a vigorous young writer, strongly reminiscent of Mann; indeed, the autobiographical thrust of the story is only too clear: a temperamental, artistic mother; a practical Lübeck businessman for a father; and a shy, sensitive adolescent poet who feels “inferior” to his companions, such as the normal, healthy, athletic, and popular Hans Hansen, who, though a fine scholar, is not interested in Schiller’s Don Carlos and is far more at ease, and less awkward, on the dancing floor with the Germanic blond Ingeborg Holm, whom Tonio would like to befriend—this is the basic situation. Years later, well known in Munich, Tonio is rejected by the romantic young painter Lisbeta Ivanovna, who deems him incapable of shedding his middle-class background. Several queries plague him: Can a true artist ever feel like a normal, honest person? How can modern art reach simple folk? What is it to be an artist? Disillusioned, he returns to Lübeck, where, as a result of the family’s financial woes, the ancestral home has been sold; after he is almost arrested, he continues to Denmark where, in an isolated hotel, Hans and Ingeborg arrive on their honeymoon. Tonio sees his life as a failure; deprived of the simple joys and “tired out with envy,” he gives up the possibility of living in order to understand it.

Most of this sounds familiar, but the narration is less naturalistic and more impressionistic than in Buddenbrooks, and the artistic motif is more pronounced: the contrast between the modern artist’s need to transcend the human dimension and his attachment to safer and more traditional ways. Tonio is destined to wander forever between these two poles. Corresponding to Tonio’s nature, a musical sense underscores the wandering, displaying Mann’s strong musical consciousness. The work is structured along the lines of the A-B-A sonata form while being punctuated with many nearly word-for-word repetitions of descriptive phrases serving as leitmotifs: a “gentleman with the wild-flower in his buttonhole” (the father); “not being gypsies living in a green wagon” (a metaphor for propriety).


What Mann later referred to as “a certain fascination with decadence” continued in Tristan, which also derived spiritually from Buddenbrooks—from the whole fin de siècle syndrome in relation to the effect that Wagnerian music can have on society—while presaging The Magic Mountain with its sanatorium atmosphere of doctors, attendants, guests, visitors, isolation, and quiet, and the Directress, Fraülein von Osterloh. In Tristan, the monotony of the Einfried Sanatorium for consumptives is broken when the prosperous, robust merchant Klöterjahn takes his fragile, lovely wife there—a pianist and the daughter of a patrician of Bremen who is a violinist and whose high culture suggests, in Mann’s context, a setting of decadence. She became enfeebled giving birth to a sound son, Anton. In her, a melancholy writer, seeker of beauty, and neurotic intellectual named Detlev Spinell, who cannot shake off, as he would like to, his bourgeois ties, sees a wonderful woman living an ill-designed life with her merchant husband. He induces her, against the doctors’ stern orders, to play the piano; the score of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde is intoned, exuding the voluptuousness of death. Now she becomes herself, not just “the wife of Herr Klöterjahn,” but Gabriele Eckhof. Thereafter, however, her health deteriorates rapidly. Spinell infuriates Klöterjahn by suggesting that at least now Gabriele may die basking in her musical beauty, and he exits into the garden, humming the Sehnsuchtsmotiv that accompanies the death of Tristan, though nauseated at the sight of the healthful, “sheer animal spirits” of Anton.

Death in Venice

No more decadent piece can be found among Mann’s works than Death in Venice. Another Mann-like protagonist and (successful) writer, Gustav von Aschenbach, exhausted by his labors and his art’s artifice, journeys to Venice to seek invigoration and renewal. On the beach and in a Lido hotel lounge, he notices four Polish children with a governess, the sole boy, Tadzio (about fourteen years old), “astonishing, even terrifying” him with his “really godlike beauty.” He felt an “unending delicate appeal to his senses” as he devised all kinds of ways to espy him, in the hotel and streets, on boats and sand. All of this takes place without a word of communication between them. The lad who naturally stands for beauty contrasts with the writer who has to strain to create it; Homer and Plato are invoked to help explain Aschenbach’s insane love for the boy (he resorts to cosmetics to look younger); rather than invigoration, Aschenbach cultivates a further weakening of his being. Learning of an outbreak of cholera in the city, he neither informs the Polish family nor departs to safety. He falls victim to the disease, and on the day the family is due to leave and Tadzio is dipping a final time into the sea, waving as if beckoning to him, Aschenbach dies.

Mann’s exceptionally symbolic, even precious style drags the Greek gods into Byzantine Venice (Dionysus ultimately dispatches Aschenbach), makes Tadzio represent degeneration and death, and plays fluidly with antitheses: youth and old age, Christianity and classicism, Germany (the north) and Italy (the south), health and disease, voluptuous aestheticism and moral conscience, love and death.

The Magic Mountain

Symbols, motifs, and antitheses interweave in the unusual and complex novel of life and treatment in a sanatorium, The Magic Mountain, which moves toward a greater equilibrium and understanding with reference to the totality of living, including its simpler aspects, by stepping away somewhat from the gravitational themes of decadence and dissolution. Hans Castorp, a German engineer from Hamburg, visits his cousin Joachim (who dies after leaving and returning to the institution) in the Alpine valley at Davos, Switzerland. Feeling fatigued with a slight chest oppression in this “magic” realm, Castorp decides to take the cure, extending his sojourn of three weeks to a stay of seven years, losing all track of time until the 1914 “thunderclap” of World War I breaks the spell. In the end, the author hints that Castorp lost his life as a soldier, yet the magic spell opens up to him a new world of spirit as he comes in contact with various people representing various living forces; in the aggregate, his mountaintop experience brings into view all shades of European culture.

The Magic Mountain has been called a bildungsroman, that is, a novel of individual development; more than this, however, it is a novel of ideological adventure (through long discussions on every conceivable subject, Mann attempts a summa of modern knowledge—impossible, of course, but still impressive). It functions on various levels. To begin with, there is the naturalistic description of pathological realities revolving around the illnesses, as well as the presence of many European nationalities, which together suggest embryonically a future society, thanks to the institution’s isolated elevation. Then there is the evolution of Castorp as he undergoes many influences: his erotic awakening, immaturely with Pribislav Hippe and passionately (though Mann never had a flair for overwhelming passion) for the sensual and divine Russian redhead, Clavdia Chauchat, representing Eastern eroticism; the intellectual discourses with the Enlightenment humanist and nineteenth century libertarian, the clear rationalist Settembrini, as opposed to the irrational, instinctive, medievally mystic and romantic “apostle of darkness,” Naphta, the lawyer who wins the arguments. Naphta shoots himself in a duel with Settembrini. Castorp does not choose between them; they are less characters than ideas in dialogue, ideas blowing through Germany at the time, and their duel was to rend the world.

There is also the unsavory psychiatrist Dr. Krokowski, who probes the recesses of the mind, and the Director, Dr. Hofret Behrens, detached and cynical with his explanations of human anatomy; these influences shape the intellectual and emotional mosaic of Castorp’s formation. Finally, there is Time, which emerges as a passive yet instrumental force whose rhythm beats at a different pace (it nearly stands still) amid the rarefied snows and allows ideas to acquire personalities, as if they were characters.

In this shuttling back and forth between life and death, Castorp would not be able to take stock of himself and his position in the world without the constant drama of oppositions and without being surrounded by all types of personalities. This includes the magnificent and grotesque Dutchman, the friend of Madame Chauchat, Mynherr Pepperkolm, who becomes the ruling spirit of the group but burns himself out in Dionysian fervor. Thanks to all these “events,” Castorp gains experience of the world and a balanced view of it, as in the revelation in chapter 5 (“Snow”), when, drowsy in a snowstorm, he dreams of the Apollonian “people of the Sun” (the Greeks), whose moderation and serenity counterbalance the concealed but coexisting Dionysian, elemental, evil forces of life; the dream sets forth the dual structure underlying civilization and art.

The Joseph and His Brothers tetralogy

Dreams assume prominence in the tetralogy Joseph and His Brothers. Mann’s familiarity with Freud’s theories of the subconscious and dreams, with Jung’s archetypes, with Goethe’s primal types, and with Nietzsche’s Eternal Return was brought to bear on the Genesis story of Joseph—very faithfully retold, but with a clear concern for its mythological import. Thanks to his intellectual mentors, Mann was able to retell the story for the moderns and for future generations, humanize the myth, and make it contemporary. A “prelude” to the first volume, The Tales of Jacob, establishes the mythological motifs. Then comes the story, without particular concern for chronology: Jacob’s special love for Joseph, God’s favorite; Jacob’s reverence for the God (Adonai) who subjects him to many trials; Jacob’s seven years’ work to obtain the hand of Rachel from the “devilish” Laban; the nuptial-bed substitution of Leah for Rachel; Jacob’s acquisition of the birthright from Esau; his childbearing relationships with Laban’s daughters and their maids; Dinah’s denial by Simon and Levi and her rape; and Jacob’s flight to Hebron and Rachel’s death as she gives birth to Benjamin.

The Young Joseph highlights the brother-feud motif. Joseph’s normal human weaknesses; his youthful pride in being the elect; his referral of his brothers’ misdeeds to his father; his recounting of his flattering dreams to all; his brothers’ fear of the loss of birthright and voluntary exile; Joseph’s seeking them out, immodestly donning the multicolored cloak; his brothers’ revenge by throwing him into the pit from which he is “resurrected” (a common motif) by the Midianite merchant and then sold into slavery—all these events make Jacob wonder about the fulfillment of Abraham’s sacrifice. Mann’s masterful characterization endows each brother with distinct psychological attributes.

The Eternal Mother motif—the Oedipus complex—appears in the third volume, Joseph in Egypt. Here Joseph becomes a servant of Potiphar (who, contrary to the biblical version, is a cultivated and complex man); Joseph earns Potiphar’s favors, being now a true Egyptian named Osarsif. The volume’s main action revolves around Potiphar’s wife, Mut-em-enet, who falls in love with Joseph and falsely accuses him to her husband when he rejects her. Mann studies the woman psychomedically, from her self-struggle through her covert revelation to her open and indecorous self-offering. Sensing the real situation, the sympathetic Potiphar sentences Joseph with the mild punishment of detention in an island fort.

Finally, in Joseph the Provider, the mythic significance of the dream emerges, as Joseph acquires the reputation of a dream interpreter and is called back to Pharaoh (Amenhotep IV) to explain the dream of the seven fat and seven lean cows. Episodes of his marriage to the virgin daughter of the High Priest, Amun, introduce historical and cultural descriptions, a process dear to Mann, who then blends in, after the birth of Manasses and Ephraim, an account of Joseph’s successful welfare program and administrative system generally. Then, circularly, the novel returns to Hebron, to the last years of Jacob, the idyll with Tamar, the brothers’ journey to Egypt without Benjamin, the recognition and the reunion of father and son in Goshen, and the membership of Manasses and Ephraim in the Twelve Tribes.

Mann’s measured view of human nature, exaggerating neither the goodness of the good nor the evil of the evil, brings into relief, in more than two thousand pages, the story of Joseph as an archetypal situation; at the same time, the work, appearing between 1933 and 1943, called attention to what might be termed the “mission of Israel”—signifying metaphorically, through the eternal mythology, Mann’s faith in democratic principles and the values of liberty.

Doctor Faustus

Like other works by Mann, Joseph and His Brothers, through its pattern of themes, may be seen in terms of a musical structure. The great outpouring of musical ideas in Mann’s works, however, came with Doctor Faustus. Only personal taste and private affinity can choose among the early Buddenbrooks, the middle The Magic Mountain, and the late Doctor Faustus for the award of the golden pome, but surely the latter is a highly significant creation. Again, as in Mann’s earlier work, symbols commingle with intricate motifs to make for a complex multidimensionality—Mann’s hallmark—that, by its very nature, manages to make contact with any number of contemporary concerns. The motifs involve political allegory, eternal return (the Faust theme itself), the artist versus society, and music—in other words, the political, the mythical, the personal, and the artistic.

The period covered by the novel is from 1930 to 1940, a morbid decade in German history, symbolized by the demoniac composer Adrian Leverkühn. His lifetime friend, the respectable and somewhat naïve bourgeois Serenus Zeitblum, narrates the biography. The opening, set in Thuringia and presenting Adrian’s formative years, introduces enough elements, like a musical overture, to suggest future developments, something the protagonist’s studies in Halle (law) and Leipzig (music) also do. The promptings of art make the creative and demoniac Leverkühn a rebel, condemned to personal, loveless unhappiness as he “condemns” himself to his art, which favors a higher order of existence, an ecstasy rising above bourgeois mediocrity, and which, in Nietzschean fashion, belongs to an elite of suffering. Such suffering Leverkühn willfully invites (not unlike Nietzsche) by disregarding the warnings of his prostitute friend, Esmeralda, and contracting syphilis through her—a disease that, as he had surmised, will excite his creative imagination. In Italy, in Palestrina, the decisive encounter occurs: Whether through reality, sick imagination, hallucination, or vision, Leverkühn meets the Devil, with whom he signs a twenty-four-year pact that will enable the composer to pen impressively futuristic scores in exchange for a frigid renunciation of all meaningful human contacts, including love. In Pfeiffering, near Munich, Leverkühn composes his great Lamentatio Doctoris Faustis, an apocalyptic oratorio making use of extraordinary musical ideas and devices. After playing it on the piano for his gathered friends, Leverkühn confesses his terrible story, wild with folly. This happens in about 1930. He dies insane, in 1940, in his native village.

German history, from Bismarckian 1870 to Hitlerian 1940, the year of the Blitzkrieg, figures in the reader’s mind as more than mere innuendo; Germany, too, had made a pact with the Devil. For this, Mann summons a recurrence of the Faust legend—the Faustbuch of 1587—rather than the elevating Goethean version. Mann’s modern Faust, then, comes to stand also for the artist who in the twentieth century must (or believes he must) assume demoniac traits—indeed, invite the repulsion of disease, with its human isolation and aridity—to attain a privileged status.

Leverkühn’s good and admiring biographer Zeitblum is startled at both the political and the biographical events, which he narrates with a sadness typical of an intelligent but stolid bourgeois incapable of action. The honest recounter cannot fathom the gelid genius of his friend. One of the novel’s fascinating devices is the use of this narrator, which, combined with the author’s manipulation of his fiction, produces an expressive, dual perspective. It is the author, however, who is responsible for the technical discussions on music (as in chapter 8, for example, concerning Beethoven’s Piano Sonata, Opus 111) and, obviously, for the novel’s symphonic pattern (the early exposition of musical motifs, their development, and their climactic recapitulation). Leverkühn’s twelve-tone “invention” is Schönberg’s Tonreihe, and many of his philosophical reflections relate to Theodor Adorno’s comments on modern music. The new artist—shaping abstractions and stressing reason over instinct, seeking unusual combinations that, through their ambiguity, direct themselves less to the traditional human ear than to a “cosmic order” of aesthetic experience—invites, in his diseased ecstasy, his own tragic demise. Perhaps art, having become metacerebral, can no longer claim to be a human verity. As with art, so with modern life. Zeitblum can only ask, “When, out of extreme despair, will a new dawn of hope arise?”

Doctor Faustus thus can be seen as Mann’s final call for serenity and balance, for a shaking off of the morbid decadence and apocalyptic fanaticisms to which the twentieth century is heir. This appeal to sanity remains his legacy.

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