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.
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...
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