Thomas Mann Thomas Mann World Literature Analysis

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Thomas Mann World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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In a creative life as prolific and varied as Mann’s, it is very difficult to enumerate one or several overall themes that permeate his literary output. One general theme is the search for spiritual meaning in one’s life, which is necessarily concerned with banal details of business, family relations, and everyday activities. The dichotomy between spirit (Geist) and life (Leben) in Mann’s work has an authentic ring inasmuch as Mann himself was both a member of the upper bourgeoisie and a creative artist of the highest caliber. This concern with the spiritual dimension of life led Mann to investigate the philosophical and religious thought not only of German civilization but also of the Greek, ancient Hebrew, and Oriental cultures. In his novella Der Tod in Venedig (1912; Death in Venice, 1925), Mann examined the influence of the Apollonian-Dionysian dichotomy of ancient Greece and the effect it had upon the story’s protagonist, Gustav von Aschenbach. In the tetralogy of novels Joseph and his Brothers, the biblical story of Joseph and his return from the pit into which he was cast by his brothers is utilized as a metaphor for human redemption. In the novella Die vertauschten Köpfe: Eine indische Legende (1940; The Transposed Heads: A Legend of India, 1941), the Eastern concept of reincarnation and its consequences are examined in great detail.

For Mann, the internal psychological life of a character was generally at odds with the external events and situations in which the character was found. The conflict between the real life of a character and his or her ideal psychological yearnings (in German this is termed Zerrissenheit) motivated much of Mann’s writing. In Buddenbrooks, for example, the mundane, bourgeois existence and its attendant business and civic duties of Thomas Buddenbrooks, the scion of a wealthy Lübeck family of merchants, are at odds with Thomas’s spiritual yearnings and repressed artistic proclivities; they eventually manifest themselves in Thomas’s wife (who is a brilliant violinist) and their child Hanno, who suffers a tragic death from typhoid fever at an early age.

Also of great significance in Mann’s works is the idea of decadence, the feeling that past standards are being obviated in the present. This idea occurs on personal, artistic, and cultural levels. For Mann the spiritual and/or physical decadence of an individual is often analogous to the decline of individual artistic creativity or a general decadence of the culture at large. A common device utilized by Mann is to allow physical disease to symbolize spiritual degradation. This depiction is seen to greatest effect in the novel Doctor Faustus, in which the syphilis suffered by the protagonist, composer Adrian Leverkühn, serves as the symbol of his spiritual and creative decline, which in turn serves as the symbol of the decline of German civilization into the barbarities of the Nazi regime.

Mann’s prose style is lofty and elegiac, a beautiful embodiment of the finest prose attainable in high German. He is given to philosophical discourse, oftentimes of a very complicated nature, which displays the tremendous influence of the German philosophers Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Friedrich Nietzsche. Yet simultaneously present in Mann’s prose is a pervasive ironic quality, at times verging on the comic. When close scrutiny is given to the statements made by Mann’s most serious characters, it is often revealed that they are contradicting themselves or coming to illogical conclusions.

Mann was also a master of descriptive detail of both the physical settings of his novels and the psychological states of his characters. He was an astute observer of human nature and manners and, in this regard, he compares most favorably with the American novelist Henry James. Mann was a man of great culture and learning, as evidenced by the range and depth of subject matter presented in his works. A common theme in his novels is the role of music in German...

(The entire section is 4,562 words.)