Thomas Mann Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

In addition to his short fiction, Thomas Mann wrote novels, essays, and some poetry. When he received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1929, his novel Buddenbrooks (1901; English translation, 1924) was cited specifically, though many of his later novels have received wide acclaim. Especially widely read and written about are the novel Der Zauberberg (1924; The Magic Mountain, 1927), a philosophical exploration of post-World War I dilemmas, and the four volumes of Joseph und seine Brüder (1933-1943; Joseph and His Brothers, 1934-1944, 1948), a modern mythology based on biblical tales. Mann’s essays, collected in Adel des Geistes (1945; Essays of Three Decades, 1947), cover a broad range of political and literary issues.


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

During more than half a century of writing and publishing both fiction and nonfiction, the German writer Mann received at least a dozen honorary doctoral degrees from universities in Europe and the United States. Though Mann lost both his honorary doctorate from the Rheinische Friedrich Wilhelm Universität in Bonn and his German citizenship in 1936, when he was accused of “subversive attacks on, and the gravest insults to, the Reich,” he was reinstated as an honorary doctor at Bonn in 1947. Among his other honorary doctorates, two stand out in particular: One was his honorary doctorate from Harvard University, which he received together with Albert Einstein in 1935; the other was an honorary doctorate of natural sciences from the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule of Zurich in 1955, a degree that especially pleased Mann because it was so unusual.

Mann received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1929, and he received numerous other honors throughout his writing career, including the Herder-Prize of Czechoslovakia for exiled writers in 1937. During his international travels, both before and during his exile, Mann received many personal honors. In 1935, he was the guest of former American president Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife at a private dinner at the White House. From 1938 to 1941, he was a visiting professor at Princeton University, and in 1953, two years before his death, Mann saw Pope Pius XII in private audience.

Mann’s fiction is diverse, sometimes reflecting conventions of the nineteenth century, as in Mann’s early novel Buddenbrooks, sometimes exploring philosophical dilemmas, as in his novel The Magic Mountain, sometimes experimenting with stream-of-consciousness writing, as in the final chapter of his novel Lotte in Weimar (1939; The Beloved Returns, 1940), and sometimes rewriting mythology, as in the tetralogy Joseph and His Brothers, based on a biblical story, and the novella The Transposed Heads, adapted from a Hindu legend. Always, however, Mann infused a new irony into his fiction. He is a key figure in Western literature.

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Thomas Mann (mahn) presents a complex intellectual and aesthetic physiognomy, primarily in the area of long and short fiction, though for many he is equally powerful as an autobiographical, literary-critical, or political essayist. Alongside his novels and novelettes stand his novellas and short stories; the two types of fiction are often mixed in collections such as Ausgewahlte Erzählungen (1945).

A true twentieth century classical author, Mann spanned all the restless philosophical issues of his day, obsessed with the notion of decay and nothingness, with the concept of beauty superhumanly understood and melancholically associated with death, and with the shifting verities of political, social, and moral existence in a decadent world. On one hand, with the exception of the World War I period, during his early and middle years he guarded jealously his posture of intellectual independence and impartiality before historical events, retaining the objectivity of a witnessing spectator and artist, either acquiescing or rejecting (and doing so often, given the distance he maintained) with ironic glances. On the other hand, this stance did not preclude (particularly toward the end of his life) a strong ideological, idealistic commitment. These qualities of fundamental impartiality and occasional engagement spilled over into his noncreative writing, from the essays later collected in Adel des Geistes: Sechzehn Versuche zum Problem der...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

While concerned primarily with the problem of Germany, however socially, politically, artistically, or morally perceived, Thomas Mann’s focus always benefited from an awareness of spatial and temporal considerations, from the geographical and the historical. Holland and London, Valparaiso and Florence, Russia and Venice, Palestrina and Switzerland, Italy and the Near East, Mesopotamia and Egypt, Torre di Venere and Davos, India and Lisbon—all these settings round out a worldview that is in no way restricted to the Rhineland or Thuringia or Munich or Lübeck, Hamburg, Weimar, or Bremen. Similarly, the historical dimension shifts broadly, from the Napoleonic wars in Buddenbrooks and the Italian Renaissance in Fiorenza or the Lutheran Reformation in Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen to medieval society in The Holy Sinner, the Greek civilization in passages from Death in Venice, the Judeo-Egyptian world in Joseph and His Brothers, even the prehistorical world, in passages from Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man. All was designed to arrive at a better understanding not only of Germany but also of the human condition, of what it means to be human.

The sheer breadth of his perspective facilitated, perhaps even inspired, one of Mann’s major analytical devices: contrast and antithesis. The Dionysian of Italy and the arts, of profane love and the irrational, is juxtaposed to the Apollonian of Germany and the mercantile, of sacred love and the rational. Like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and many other “Teutons” before him, Mann felt acutely the lure of southern Europe, the so-called Drang nach Süden, whereby Italy (and Greece, sometimes translated into what is Latin, French, or even Russian) beckons like a Siren of art, music, and poetry the efficient and practical will of the northerner. The bohemian attracts the bourgeois. With the attraction, interwoven with the whole question of genius or the superior creative spirit, come the notions of disease, sickness, and death as they counterbalance soundness, health, and life.

If the names and origins of the characters mislead at times in this regard, the antithetical premise remains the same. Tonio Kröger (Italian-German)—like the German engineer Hans Castorp in The Magic Mountain, who falls in love with the French-named Russian Clavdia Chauchat—is torn between the two poles, very much like the author himself. The Germanic Hans Hansen and Ingeborg, in Tonio Kröger, are juxtaposed to the Slavic and more romantic Lisabeta Ivanovna; in The Magic Mountain, the rational Italian humanist scholar Settembrini opposes the mystical, Jesuit-trained Jew Naphta; and in Doctor Faustus, the staid, conservative bourgeois Professor Serenus Zeitblom contrasts only too obviously with the genial hedonist composer Adrian Leverkühn. The same kind of dialectic obtains outside Mann’s novels and novellas, for example, in “Gesang vom Kindchen,” with the Nordic father and the southern/eastern mother; in Fiorenza, with the hedonistic Lorenzo and the ascetic Savonarola; indeed, even in “A Man and His Dog,” with the mongrel Bauschan and the purebred Percy. This contrasting technique usually makes for character delineations that project Mann’s own views through the protagonists or that portray eccentricities through the secondary characters.

Most often people are dealing with artist figures, creators concerned with beauty, and the sound of music is generally audible. According to the nineteenth century philosopher...

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Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Consider the relationship between physical and spiritual health in the fiction of Thomas Mann.

What problems did Mann face in his admiration for Richard Wagner, who in certain ways also appealed to the Nazis?

Contrast northern and southern German culture as seen in Mann’s works.

Does today’s greater knowledge about homosexuality enhance the modern reader’s appreciation of Death in Venice?

Examine the concept of German patriotism in Mann’s fiction.

How does a literary leitmotif differ from a musical one?

What were Mann’s chief literary successes while living in the United States?


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Berlin, Jeffrey B., ed. Approaches to Teaching Mann’s “Death in Venice” and Other Short Fiction. New York: The Modern Language Association, 1992. Part 1 (materials) focuses on general introductions, reference works, and critical studies. Part 2 (approaches) contains in-depth essays on Mann’s handling of many themes and his approach to comedy, tradition, modernism, Sigmund Freud, and other thinkers and writers. Includes an extensive bibliography.

Cullander, Cecil C. H. “Why Thomas Mann Wrote.” The Virginia Quarterly Review 75 (Winter, 1999): 31-48. Examines Mann’s statements about his creativity, his fiction, and his...

(The entire section is 941 words.)