(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Tonio Kröger

Thomas Mann

The following entry presents criticism of Mann's novella Tonio Kruger (1903). See also Death in Venice Criticism.

Tonio Krdger is Mann's semi-autobiographical story of a disillusioned writer who rediscovers his love for humanity. Produced early in Mann's career, the novella introduces several themes that Mann subsequently explored in such novels as Buddenbrooks and Doctor Faustus, including the nature of artistic self-consciousness and the role of the artist in society. Tonio Kro'ger examines these issues through a series of dichotomies, one of which is symbolized in the protagonist's name: Tonio, reminiscent of his artistic, southern, and aesthetic background; Kriger, of his bourgeois, northern, and social side. The reconciliation of these two poles is achieved in the story through Tonio's lyrical and sometimes sentimental reflection on the past. In this respect, Tonio Krd'ger differs from Mann's subsequent writings, while on a technical level it shares with his later works an extensive use of leitmotif, a device using an almost musical repetition of phrase or event to portray character and theme.

Plot and Major Characters

Tonio Kröger consists of three narrative sections. The first is set in Tonio's hometown on the Baltic Sea, which, though unnamed, resembles Mann's native Lfibeck. This section includes two brief episodes from Tonio's childhood: the first, a walk through town with his friend Hans Hansen, and the second, a dancing class with Ingeborg Holm. Blue-eyed and blond-haired, Hans and Ingeborg are both objects of Tonio's youthful admiration and reminders of his isolation from the bourgeoisie, an estrangement that he analyzes in the central, reflective portion of the novella. In this middle section, Tonio, now a writer in his early thirties living in Munich, visits Lisabeta Ivanovna, a young painter. Their discussion of the artistic life and temperament ends in Tonio's decision to visit his ancestral homeland of Denmark in order to escape the sterility of his life in the south and to experience the ordinary joys that he had missed in his childhood. Of several incidents in Denmark, the most significant forms the final portion of the novella. In this final scene, which occurs several months after his arrival in the north, Tonio observes a couple dancing whom he imagines to be Hans Hansen and Ingeborg Holm. He does not approach them, however, and the story ends with Tonio composing a letter to Lisabeta, a confession to his fellow artist of his alienation surmounted at last by his love for humanity.

Major Themes

The thematic structure of Tonio Krdger relies largely on the struggle Tonio perceives between the life of the artist and that of the bourgeoisie. In the work, Mann explored the youthful disillusionment of Tonio by contrasting it with the happiness and blithe naïveté of Hans Hansen and Ingeborg Holm. Tonio, characterized by a sensitive, artistic temperament, feels estranged from the contentment that these two enjoy. Creating a dichotomy between art and life, as well as intellect and nature, Mann explored the ramifications of this separation and portrayed Tonio—the writer and artist—as the agent of reconciliation between these facets of existence. Isolated from others, Tonio also faces the danger of an escape into sterile aestheticism, which promotes art as a refuge from actual living. He avoids this, however, by going to Denmark to experience life again. While there, he reaffirms his faith in humanity and love for life.

Critical Reception

Written in 1902, Tonio Krdger prefigures many of Mann's later works in terms of style and theme and serves as a structural model for the remainder of Mann's novels. It follows a modernist poetic in figuring the artist as excluded from ordinary society. It also contains many autobiographical elements common to Mann's writings on the nature of artistic self-consciousness and creation. The work differs, however, from his later novels in terms of its personal tone, which some have called excessively sentimental. Others see the work as his most lyrical, and Mann himself called the work a "prose ballad." Critics differ on this point but most acknowledge that the story has elicited a strong emotional response from readers. Detractors of the work note shallow characterization among its chief weaknesses, and some fault Mann's universalization of a particular type of artist, one isolated from society. Still, most critics have found in Tonio Kruger a compelling and well-wrought story of artistic discovery and consciousness.