Thomas Mann World Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4562

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...

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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 culture, particularly the music of the German opera composer Richard Wagner.

Mann’s novels are permeated by direct and paraphrased quotations from other literary works, philosophical and historical treatises, the popular press, and other sources. His novels assume on the part of their readership a general understanding of the history of Western civilization and its cultural monuments. In this regard, Mann, who carried the traditions of the nineteenth century novel into the twentieth century, was very much a modernist writer. In his own way, the myriad references to external events and sources found in his novels follow a general pattern established by such modernist literary figures as James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot. Mann’s technique of putting all of these external references and literary symbols into a unified structure is referred to most commonly as the montage, a term that is derived from the montage techniques of the visual arts and the editing techniques of cinema. The montage technique is probably seen to greatest effect in Doctor Faustus. Another technique used by Mann is the leitmotif, the use of a continually recurring phrase, image, symbol, or idea throughout a literary work. The idea of the leitmotif was taken by Mann from the musical works of Wagner, whose lengthy operas were unified by the use of short, recurring melodies.

The Magic Mountain

First published: Der Zauberberg, 1924 (English translation, 1927)

Type of work: Novel

On the eve of World War I, a young man visits a relative at a tuberculosis sanatorium, stays there for seven years before recovering his physical and spiritual health, and then leaves to fight in the war.

The Magic Mountain is essentially a bildungsroman, the story of the education and spiritual development of a single character. The individual in this case is Hans Castorp, a young engineer who, before assuming his position in a shipbuilding firm, decides to go to a sanatorium to visit his cousin Joachim, a soldier who is recovering from tuberculosis. At the sanatorium, a spot is detected on one of Castorp’s lungs, and he decides to stay for a few weeks to take some treatments. Weeks stretch into months, and Castorp remains at the sanatorium long after Joachim has gone. In fact, Castorp stays for a total of seven years. The disease that is really afflicting Castorp, however, is a spiritual malaise. Castorp encounters a wide range of characters at the sanatorium, each of whom has an effect on him. Shortly before the end of his stay, Castorp finds himself hallucinating while hiking after a severe snowstorm. This hallucination serves as a catalyst for Castorp’s decision to reenter the world, which he does by volunteering for military service in World War I. The impression is left with the reader that Castorp’s reintegration into the world is ambivalent at best.

The Magic Mountain shows to great effect Mann’s use of physical disease as a metaphor for spiritual malaise. At its very worst, Castorp’s tuberculosis is a mild case. His decision to stay at the sanatorium is, in reality, a flight from the duties and mundanities of the world. The existence that Castorp leads at the sanatorium is one of contemplation, not unlike the existence of a monk at a monastery. Castorp’s struggle is entirely of an internal nature. He is well-to-do and lives in a world of comfortable, if remote, luxury.

The internal struggle in Castorp’s mind is exemplified in the dialectical relationship between Herr Settembrini and Herr Naphta, the two most intellectual patients at the sanatorium. Herr Settembrini represents reason, while Naphta symbolizes the will-to-power of the suprarational philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. Naphta’s eventual suicide, like the hallucination in the snowstorm, is a vivid jolt to the comfortable existence to which Castorp has become accustomed.

Another image that motivates the novel is the idea of a physical ascent (the action of Castorp ascending to the sanatorium on top of a mountain), symbolizing the attainment of wisdom or spiritual awareness. That Castorp’s struggle to ascend the mountain of self-realization has been an internal struggle, rather than a battle with external forces, is best exemplified by Mann in the final page of the novel, likening Castorp’s time at the sanatorium to a dream. As in all dreams, no one interpretation may be universally valid, and, therefore, the destiny of Hans Castorp, as he descends from the mountain to return to full participation in the world, is left open to debate.

The Magic Mountain also exemplifies the author’s preoccupation with music. In this regard, the novel serves as an important link between his earlier short stories that deal with or refer to music and his later masterwork Doctor Faustus. In The Magic Mountain, however, musical performances have a redemptive quality. Toward the end of Castorp’s stay at the sanatorium, a new Victrola has been added to the amenities of the establishment, and Castorp avails himself of this new device on an almost daily basis. In one memorable section of chapter 7 titled “Fullness of Harmony,” Castorp listens to five musical selections: the last two scenes from Giuseppe Verdi’s Aïda, Claude Debussy’s Prélude a l’après-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun), the second act of Georges Bizet’s Carmen, Franz Schubert’s “Lindenbaum,” and Valentine’s aria from Charles Gounod’s Faust. These five musical selections have obvious metaphorical value in the novel. Death by suffocation in Aïda has a certain morbid appropriateness in a novel whose main characters are suffering from tuberculosis. The dreamlike quality of Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun approximates the dreamlike existence of Castorp and his fellow patients, who must of necessity emphasize their mental, rather than physical, existence. Carmen represents the dangers of passion, dangers that constantly threaten the sanatorium’s inhabitants. The Schubert song (from the composer’s song cycle Winterreise (winter journey) evokes the memory of Castorp’s own “winter’s journey” and its resulting hallucinations. Valentine’s aria represents the acceptance of duty and death and is, in many ways, a foreboding of death.

These five musical selections, therefore, operate collectively as a summation of the novel’s main thematic ideas. Yet the selection from Gounod’s Faust functions not only as part of a recapitulation but also as a foretelling of future events. Valentine’s dedication to duty, even in the face of death, is a metaphor for the premature departure from the sanatorium by Castorp’s soldier-cousin Joachim. Likewise, Valentine’s aria presages Castorp’s departure from the sanatorium and his joining the military at the outbreak of World War I. Valentine’s aria is also played on the Victrola later during the séance, in which the spirit of the now-dead “Joachim” appears. This episode demonstrates the perfection of Mann’s literary technique. The leitmotif, montage, and frequent use of extended metaphors combine in such a way as to bring about an unprecedented complexity of meaning to the novel.

Doctor Faustus

First published: Doktor Faustus, 1947 (English translation, 1948)

Type of work: Novel

A German avant-garde composer, whose personal life parallels the events of German society up to the end of World War II, creates influential musical compositions, contracts syphilis, and eventually dies of the disease.

Doctor Faustus is arguably one of the most significant novels of the twentieth century in any language. Acclaimed as a masterpiece at the time of its original publication, Doctor Faustus has been the subject of hundreds of scholarly articles and books.

The story centers on the life and career of Adrian Leverkühn, a preternaturally gifted man who is born into the Germany of the Second Reich in the generation following the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). The novel follows Leverkühn’s life and career until his death in 1943. Leverkühn is born into a provincial middle-class farming family. His parents are conventional, but his father does harbor some eccentric scientific interests. During his childhood, Leverkühn becomes lifelong best friends with Serenus Zeitblom, who serves as the novel’s putative narrator. Originally attracted to both mathematics and music, Leverkühn goes to college to study theology, a course of study that he eventually abandons in favor of music. Leverkühn’s prowess as a composer advances rapidly, but it is not until after he contracts syphilis from a prostitute (his only sexual experience) that his music becomes totally original and groundbreaking. As the syphilis proceeds to destroy Leverkühn’s physical and mental states, his creativity as a composer increases. After having achieved the first fruits of international success, Leverkühn suffers a complete nervous and mental breakdown and spends the last ten years of his life as an invalid.

The most significant aspect of the novel is the author’s use of the Faust legend, the age-old story of a man who sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for wealth, power, and sexual prowess. Although the only situation in the novel overtly similar to the traditional Faust story is the imaginary dialogue between Leverkühn and the Devil, which occurs in chapter 25, the Faust legend is a very powerful presence in Mann’s novel. Central to the Faust legend is the contract, the quid pro quo, between the Devil and Faust. The Faustian contract for Leverkühn involves his contracting syphilis from a prostitute. At the price of the loss of his physical and mental health, the syphilis unleashes untold powers of creativity within Leverkühn. The syphilis from which he suffers is, in turn, a symbol of the “disease” of extreme nationalism and ethnic chauvinism that eventually led the Germans to embrace Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. In both cases—Leverkühn’s contraction of syphilis and the coming to power of Hitler—Mann makes it clear that the parties involved have entered into their “agreements” by their own volition, just as the original Dr. Faust entered into his demoniac pact of his own free will. Significantly, Leverkühn’s final composition of his creative career is a cantata titled “The Lamentations of Dr. Faustus.”

As in The Magic Mountain, Mann uses physical disease as a symbol for spiritual and cultural decline. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, syphilis was an incurable disease with a mortality rate approaching one hundred percent. Its symptoms could be mitigated and temporarily halted, but the disease was inevitable in its effects until the discovery of penicillin. Therefore, the selection of syphilis as a symptom of spiritual and cultural decline was significant because the disease was irreversible. Mann uses syphilis symbolically to suggest the inevitability of the decline of German civilization.

Mann uses Leverkühn’s life to parallel events occurring simultaneously in German politics and society. Leverkühn’s lifetime roughly approximates that of Hitler, the implication of which is that the same historical forces that brought the Nazis to the fore had a similar effect on Leverkühn’s art. Leverkühn’s final physical and mental collapse occurs in 1933, the year in which the Nazis came to power in Germany. Leverkühn dies in 1943, a year in which the war in Europe turned decidedly against the Axis Powers, leading to their eventual defeat.

The selection of a composer as the symbol of Germany’s moral and cultural decline is significant in that music is generally regarded as the most German of the arts. One composer, Richard Wagner, held a particular fascination for both Mann and Hitler. Wagner’s operas based on Teutonic myths were a great enthusiasm of Hitler’s, as were Wagner’s anti-Semitic racial views, as expressed in the composer’s book-length diatribe, Das Judentum in der Musik (1869; Jewry in music). Mann had an ambivalent attitude toward Wagner; he greatly admired the composer’s music but was repelled by the man himself. It was Mann’s essay “The Sufferings and Greatness of Richard Wagner” that led to Mann’s public denunciation and eventual exile to America. In a real sense, then, music and politics were intricately related in the nightmare of events occurring in Nazi Germany.

Adrian Leverkühn’s daimon, the catalyst whose function it is to see that the protagonist’s fate is fulfilled, appears in many guises, but perhaps never more significantly than in the being of Wendell Kretzschmar, the American expatriate music master and Leverkühn’s only real teacher of composition. Kretzschmar’s significance as a daimon extends not only to Leverkühn’s choice of a career as a composer—it is Kretzschmar who ultimately supplies Leverkühn with the justification to abandon theological studies and return to music—but also to the course that Leverkühn’s musical career will follow.

Leverkühn’s years of theological study at the University of Halle cause him to be influenced by several versions of his daimon. Professor Kolonat Nonnenmacher instructs Leverkühn in Pythagorean philosophy and reinforces Leverkühn’s long-held fascination with an ordered cosmos, particularly one susceptible to mathematical reduction. Nonnenmacher’s lectures also deal with Aristotelian philosophy and stress the philosopher’s views on the inherent drive to the fulfillment of organic forms—in other words, the urge toward the unfolding of destiny. These lectures have a profound impact on Leverkühn, who comes to the realization that his personal destiny is not necessarily of his own making.

Leverkühn’s daimon finds a different and more subtle version in the form of Ehrenfried Kumpf, Mann’s caricature of Martin Luther. Kumpf’s theology rejects humanism and reason and embraces a rather lusty appreciation of life, including its sensual pleasures, of which music is but one facet. Although Kumpf is a minor figure in the novel, his influence is long-lasting on Leverkühn, who adopts the former’s archaic German phraseology and syntax and who eventually abandons the rationality and “coldness” of theology for the “warmth” of music.

Of all Leverkühn’s professors at Halle, none leaves a more permanent impression and is more overtly a manifestation of Leverkühn’s daimon than Eberhard Schleppfuss, the mysterious theologian whose very difficult lectures combine the tenets of Christianity with a blatant Manichaeanism. Schleppfuss views evil as a necessary concomitant to good and posits a sinister interpretation of the nature of creativity.

Leverkühn’s involvement with music is made permanent, however, only after the liaison with the prostitute Esmeralda, which, interestingly enough, occurs after Leverkühn has witnessed the Austrian premiere of Richard Strauss’s opera Salome (based on Oscar Wilde’s visionary Decadent drama). This liaison is a curious phenomenon in that neither lust nor intellectual curiosity appears to be its root cause. In many ways, Leverkühn is as irresistibly drawn to the prostitute Esmeralda as the symbolic butterfly hetaera esmeralda of chapter 2 is susceptible to visual or olfactory stimuli. There is a certain inevitability in both cases in which moral laws and the individual will are transcended by reflex actions firmly based in the instinctive domain. Additionally, Leverkühn’s brief sexual encounter permits the appearance in rapid succession of two other manifestations of his daimon, namely Dr. Erasmi and Dr. Zimbalist, both of whom are thwarted from treating Leverkühn’s syphilis in its incipient stage.

Leverkühn’s fall is akin to the fall of Adam; both are terrible yet necessary for the evolution of the human condition. One can no more imagine a Christian view of history without Adam’s transgression than a continuation of musical evolution beyond Wagner without the imposition of a seminal figure such as Leverkühn. The connection between Leverkühn and Adam is further strengthened by the fact that one of Leverkühn’s first mature works is a setting of William Blake’s poem “A Poison Tree,” with its references to the poisoned fruit and the serpent who despoils an altar. In the end, however, as Mann always makes clear in his writings, untempered creativity ultimately consumes its creator. All knowledge, all fruits of artistic genius carry with them a terrible price in the imaginary world of Mann’s fiction.

Tonio Kröger

First published: 1903 (English translation, 1914)

Type of work: Novella

A young German author experiences and comes to terms with the difference between his artistic temperament and the healthy, yet sterile, bourgeois society.

Tonio Kröger is one of Mann’s best stories and was the author’s favorite work, understandable inasmuch as many of the details of the story are autobiographical in nature. The protagonist is the scion of a very respectable upper-middle-class family. The father is a north German patrician, while the mother, Consuelo, is of southern European origin. This dichotomy is apparent not only in the unusual combination of names of the protagonist but also in the inability of Tonio to resolve the conflict between his artistic nature and the expectations of bourgeois society.

The quintessence of the bourgeois world is symbolized by Hans Hansen, Tonio’s best friend, and Ingeborg Holm, the object of Tonio’s unrequited love. Hans excels at everything that is expected of the son of a respectable family—school, sports, social activities—while Tonio’s accomplishments, other than those pertaining to his artistic ambitions, are lackluster and indifferent.

Tonio’s father dies, his mother marries an Italian musician, and Tonio leaves his northern German hometown to live in the south. While he is in southern Europe, his health declines, but his artistry increases. His first publications meet with critical and popular acclaim, and for the first time in his life he experiences the success that had so eluded him in the past.

Some time later, Tonio is living in Munich and runs into his friend, the painter Lisaveta Ivanovna. After a lengthy and heated discussion, Lisaveta declares Tonio to be a failed bourgeois. At the end of the summer, Tonio decides to take a vacation in north Germany and Denmark, in essence retracing his bourgeois youth. He arrives at his resort in Denmark and has a pleasant, uneventful stay, until one day near the end of his sojourn. Hans and Ingeborg appear at the resort to attend a dance. The couple do not recognize Tonio, but he recognizes them. While he is watching the couple dancing, Tonio reminisces about the dancing lessons that the three of them took when they were little. His confidence and spirit restored, Tonio writes to Lisaveta and says that in the future his writing will be concerned with his love of the ordinary, uncomplicated lives of his north German compatriots, who were really the inspiration for his art in the first place.

Once again, one sees the stress that Mann places on the idea of a dichotomy existing between the “healthy” bourgeois world and the “diseased” world of the artist. This dichotomy also has a geographical dimension for Mann: Northern Europe is “healthy,” safely bourgeois, and stable; southern Europe, however, is mysterious and “diseased,” but it is also the source of artistic creativity.

One important literary device utilized by Mann in Tonio Kröger is the leitmotif. For example, whenever Tonio’s mother is mentioned, she is described with the same phrase: “who played the piano and the mandolin so enchantingly.” Tonio Kröger is an extremely important work in Mann’s literary output in that he developed many of the techniques and themes that he would perfect in his later major novels.

Death in Venice

First published: Der Tod in Venedig, 1912 (English translation, 1925)

Type of work: Novella

A famous writer suffers from an emotional crisis while on vacation in Venice, becomes infatuated with a young boy, and dies of cholera.

Death in Venice is one of the greatest novellas of the twentieth century and has been adapted for film (1971, directed by Luchino Visconti) and opera (1973, with music by Benjamin Britten and libretto by Myfanwy Piper). In this story, Mann further develops many of the ideas that he had so successfully explored in Tonio Kröger.

The story is centered on Gustav von Aschenbach, a famous writer who has come to Venice for a vacation. Aschenbach is suffering from fatigue and world-weariness, the result of intense literary efforts and an incipient emotional crisis. When Aschenbach arrives at his hotel in Venice, he notices a Polish family that is also on vacation, in particular, a young boy named Tadzio. Aschenbach’s serenity is disrupted by his emotional response to the boy’s youthful beauty and athletic grace. Wherever Aschenbach goes, he manages to run into Tadzio and his family. He begins to think of the boy as a character from Greek mythology. Rather than admit his ambivalent feelings toward Tadzio, Aschenbach makes plans to leave Venice, partly because the city is beginning to suffer from a deadly cholera epidemic that is being covered up by civil authorities worried about the loss of tourist revenues. When Aschenbach arrives at the railway station to leave, he discovers that his luggage has been sent ahead to the wrong destination. Aschenbach goes back to his hotel and once again follows Tadzio and his family around various Venetian locations. Disquieting dreams plague Aschenbach, who imagines that Tadzio is a participant in Dionysian revels. One day, after most of the guests have departed the hotel, Aschenbach goes to the beach, where he sees Tadzio and his family. Feeling weaker and weaker, Aschenbach dies of cholera.

Death in Venice brings to the fore the major themes that were to dominate Mann’s later writings, particularly the tension involved in the mind’s struggle between self-control and reckless, emotional irrationality. Aschenbach is the paradigm of the objective thinker, a man whose mental processes are under such fine control that he appears to be lacking any true emotion or sentimentality. The floodgates of emotion are released in Aschenbach only after he views Tadzio. Yet Aschenbach’s turmoil is entirely internal in nature; Tadzio is the catalyst by which the strings of mental self-control within Aschenbach’s mind are released. Aschenbach, in fact, never speaks to Tadzio, and it is suggested that Tadzio and his family are completely unaware of Aschenbach’s presence.

The internal emotional struggle Aschenbach is undergoing is represented by Mann in classical terms. Mann uses the ancient Greek gods Apollo (god of reason, knowledge, and the arts) and Dionysus (god of sensuality, drunkenness, and boundless creativity) to represent the dichotomy between reason and irrationality. The Apollonian side of Aschenbach is present during his waking hours, when he can use his finely developed powers of self-control to subdue his attraction for Tadzio; while he is asleep, however, the Dionysian aspect of Aschenbach’s psyche is released, and his imagination runs rampant with emotional speculation about Tadzio.

Another classical aspect of the story is the seeming inevitability of its outcome, an end that is rooted in the protagonist’s destiny, much like the role that destiny and fate played in the classical dramas of ancient Greece. Wherever Aschenbach goes, he runs into Tadzio; when Aschenbach tries to leave Venice, his luggage is accidentally shipped to the wrong destination. It is unclear whether Aschenbach is being controlled by forces beyond his control or whether he is subconsciously creating these “accidents” so as to prevent his leaving Tadzio. In the end, however, the side of Aschenbach’s psyche that served him so well in his career as a successful author (Apollonian self-control, health, northern geographical location, and bourgeois normality) succumbs to the mysterious inner workings of the id (Dionysian abandon, disease, southern geographical location, repressed homosexuality).

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