Themes and Meanings
This early work of Thomas Mann encapsulates the theory of art he would develop in his novella Der Tod in Venedig (1912; Death in Venice, 1925) and in many of his subsequent works. It reflects his readings in the works of the philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) and Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) and uses the device of leitmotif, the short recurring phrase that distinguishes given characters, emotions, or situations in the musical dramas of Richard Wagner (1813-1883).
Nietzsche’s theory of balanced opposites as the source of art appears in the story’s numerous juxtapositions. Externally, these exist in the story’s northern and southern locales and represent northern intellect and southern passion. Tonio’s hometown and the Danish town he visits as an adult are balanced by Bavarian Munich (Tonio’s place of residence as a successful writer) and the Italian pilgrimage Tonio makes when he leaves his boyhood home. Within the story, Tonio’s fastidious father is complemented by his fiery, non-German mother, Consuelo, and opposition continues in Tonio’s attraction to Hans and Inge. Significantly, Magdalena and Lisabetta, who more closely resemble Tonio, become the audience for his art. The ultimate fusion of opposites, and by Nietzsche’s definition art’s origins, is appropriately in the name of the story’s protagonist.
Schopenhauer’s theory of the will and representation finds expression in Tonio’s careful observations of all he sees. He records these from boyhood, and as he grows older and wishes to see pattern and continuity in his life, these impressions return in altered settings. This explains the haunted journey northward that Tonio undertakes as well as his fear that his long-dead father will suddenly emerge from his boyhood home. (A connection between Danish locale, Tonio’s father obsession, and the ghost of Hamlet’s father seems implied.) His artist’s power of will to mold representation also accounts for Tonio’s ability to see Hans, Inge, and Knaak in the people at the Danish resort.
Mann loved Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (1876) and determined to incorporate Wagnerian-style leitmotifs in his work. The wildflower that Consul Kröger wears, as well as his fastidious appearance, reappear in the dress of the successful Tonio. Similarly, Tonio writes for those “always falling down in the dance,” the epithet given originally to Magdalena.