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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1034

Schoolboy Tonio Kröger discovers that he deeply admires, indeed loves, his classmate Hans Hansen. The boys are physical and intellectual opposites. Hans is handsome in a Nordic way with steel-blue eyes, straw-colored hair, broad shoulders, and narrow hips, while Tonio has the dark-brown hair, dark eyes, and chiseled features of the south. Hans’s walk is strong and athletic, Tonio’s idle and uneven. It hurts Tonio that Hans responds to his obvious admiration with easygoing indifference. When Hans is late for their after-school walk and finally appears with other friends, Tonio almost cries, but when Hans recalls their agreed-on walk and says that it was good of Tonio to wait for him, everything in Tonio leaps for joy.

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Though he is aware of the differences between himself and Hans, Tonio never tries to imitate his friend. He knows that Hans will never read the copy of Friedrich Schiller’s Don Carlos, Infant von Spanien (1787; Don Carlos, Infante of Spain, 1798) that he gives him, that even if he did, he would probably never recognize its dual themes of indestructible friendship and forbidden love. Tonio also realizes that he cannot develop Hans’s interest in riding. Tonio would prefer to read a book on horses and admire their strength and beauty rather than to be on horseback. Though Tonio recognizes that he is different, he is hurt when Hans calls him by his surname because “Tonio” sounds too “foreign.” Tonio likes the unusual combination, “Tonio Kröger.”

Tonio’s extraordinary sensitivity causes him to feel things more deeply than most boys. Indeed, his ability to recognize sham and ill-breeding, even in his teachers, results in school absenteeism and poor grades, which trouble and anger Consul Kröger, Tonio’s fastidious, tall, blue-eyed father. Tonio’s beautiful, black-haired mother, Consuelo, seems to him blithely indifferent to his grades, and Tonio is glad about this, though he considers his father’s attitude somehow more respectable and dignified.

Tonio, now age sixteen, has suddenly become infatuated by blond Ingeborg Holm. Though he has known her all of his life, she suddenly seems to have acquired a special beauty. Tonio is aware that he feels the same ecstatic love for Inge that he felt for Hans several years earlier, and that this transformation has occurred during Herr Knaak’s private dancing class. The perceptive Tonio has considered Knaak’s effeminate and affected demonstrations and gestures those of “an unmentionable monkey” and is embarrassed when the dancing master calls him “Fraulein Kröger” after Tonio has taken a wrong turn in the dance.

Mortified by his friends’ laughter, Tonio takes refuge in the corridor, wonders why he always seems to feel so much pain and longing, and wishes that he were at home reading Immensee (1849; Immensee: Or, The Old Man’s Reverie, 1858), a romantically joyful story by Theodor Storm. Tonio wishes Inge would come out and console him, but he realizes that she has probably laughed at him like all the rest. Dark-eyed Magdalena Vermehren, “who was falling down in the dances,” would be impressed that a magazine has recently accepted one of his poems, but this would mean nothing to Inge. Tonio resolves to be faithful to Inge, even though his love remains unrequited.

By the story’s next juncture, Tonio’s mother and father have died, the family firm has been dissolved, and the Kröger house has been sold. Tonio goes his own way, lives in various cities in the south, and continues to acquire respect for his intellect and the power of the Word. He comes to think of life as a labyrinth, but even in the throes of depression his artistry sharpens. His exotic name becomes associated with excellence, and his writings gain a large audience. At the same time, Tonio’s appearance comes to resemble his work: fastidious, precious, refined.

It is in the southern German city of Munich that the now-established Tonio meets his attractive artist friend Lisabetta Ivanovna. Lisabetta chides Tonio for his formality and fastidious appearance. She claims that he does not look like an author, but Tonio argues that wearing a velveteen jacket or adopting Bohemian ways does not make one an artist. This interview gives Tonio a chance to expound his views on art, specifically the art of writing.

The art of writing is not a blessing but a curse that one begins to feel very early. It begins with a sense of isolation and estrangement from others, and this sense grows deeper with the years until there is no hope of reconciliation. As a result, the true artist is recognizable. The writer, Tonio continues, always speaks most directly to “the same old gathering of early Christians . . . people who are falling down in the dance.”

In the last section of the story, Tonio journeys north to the town he had left thirteen years earlier. He finds his boyhood home, even expects to see his father come from its entrance, but discovers that it has now become the town’s public library. For a time he is detained by the police, who confuse him with a wanted man, but he proves his identity with the proof-sheets of his latest book. He quietly enjoys this little encounter as he continues his journey north to Denmark.

Tonio enjoys Aalsgaard, the Danish seaside resort where his northward journey ends. One morning after a leisurely breakfast, Hans Hansen and Ingeborg Holm walk through the room. Inge is dressed as she used to be at Herr Knaak’s dancing class; Hans wears his sailor’s overcoat with its gilt buttons. They are not the Hans and Inge of Tonio’s youth but are similar in type. Tonio continues to observe the couple closely in his writer’s way and even notices that the nasal pronunciation of the orchestra leader resembles that of Herr Knaak.

In a conversation with Lisabetta, Tonio confides the results of his trip. He has determined that it is his ability to love the ordinary that has made him an artist. Nevertheless, he stands between two worlds, a part neither of the bourgeois world about which he writes, nor of the abstract world occupied by those who coldly adore the beautiful.

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