Themes and Meanings
The story’s title prepares one for its allusions to the medieval tale of Tristan and Isolde’s adulterous, ill-fated love. However, Thomas Mann has transposed a number of its traditional motifs into a new key. Most striking is his casting of the writer-aesthete Spinell as a new Tristan, for Spinell is anything but lyrical, virile, attractive, or heroic, and therein lies the story’s parodistic irony. However, it is made thoroughly convincing by the appropriation, not of the medieval courtly epic, but of Wagner’s music-drama Tristan und Isolde. In “Tristan,” the fateful potion that the two “lovers” share is not a magic drink, but Wagner’s intoxicating music. The erotic thrall of music and text in Tristan und Isolde is potent, and in their susceptibility to the power of musical art both Gabriele Kloterjahn and Detlev Spinell are thoroughly Mannian characters.
One thematic strand reveals this story’s kinship with another of Mann’s early works, the family chronicle Buddenbrooks: Verfall einer Familie, (1900; English translation, 1924). Gabriele Kloterjahn’s family had entered a decline reminiscent of that in the Buddenbrook family: a waning of practical, bourgeois vitality and the corresponding emergence and refinement of artistic sensibilities. In Spinell’s view, it would have been fitting, even desirable, for the decline to run its course. He harbors such a sublime vision of Gabriele’s former life that he feels justified in reproaching Kloterjahn for intervening and presuming to reverse a natural process.
Spinell himself—solitary, unproductive, and even of dubious virility—bears the marks of a twilight generation. Among Mann’s portraits of the artist, this is one of the most negative. If disease and artistic creativity go hand in hand, Spinell must be seen as a charlatan. It is questionable whether he is truly ill, and his writing seems to be an agonizing labor. He is clumsy, infantile, and ludicrous in his would-be elitism. Although he lays claim to the intellect and the word as his avenging weapons against a philistine enemy, he is portrayed as unworthy to wield them.