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...
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