Analysis of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks

Of the many works by the renowned German author Thomas Mann (1875–1955), including Death in Venice and The Magic Mountain, none match the epic proportion or literary legacy of the novel Buddenbrooks. Written early in his career, this story of the decline of the family symbolized by the Buddenbrooks chronicles not simply an increase in generational disregard for familial responsibility, but also acts as a redefinition of the limitations imposed on the individual members of the family. The novel traces the transfer of importance from familial duty to self-fulfillment despite the hopes and expectations coveted by passing generations. Mann constructs a history covering four generations, beginning at the apex of business success for the Buddenbrook family and ending with their extinction as the sole surviving progeny succumbs to typhus. The basic plot of this first novel corresponds to Mann’s own ambivalent feelings about the bourgeois life while reflecting the personal tension he experienced as a young artist to pursue his father’s business interests.

Mann opens the novel in celebration. Three generations of the Buddenbrook family have moved into a house on Mengstraße and mark the festive occasion with friends. Through Mann’s words a portrait emerges, one which gathers and reveals the underlying themes the novel will continue to explore in the pages to follow while subtly emphasizing the clear generational differences that provide the novel’s tension. The reader receives a deep sense of the Napoleonic ideals reflected and opposed within the family.

Thomas Mann

Thomas Mann in 1946. Yousuf Karsh

Johann Buddenbrook, a genial patriarch who is a practical and serious businessman, leaves his grain business to his family-oriented son Jean. All fares well for the family until the time arrives for the Buddenbrooks’ bourgeois legacy to pass down to Jean’s children. The decay of the family fortune is narrated through Thomas, a cunning businessman who finds life progressively tiresome. His marriage produces a son, Hanno, and an increase in fortunes through his wife’s dowry, but Thomas lacks the ability to manage and prosper his business affairs. The Buddenbrook fortune dwindles under his leadership and is liquidated upon his death at age 49. His other siblings, likewise, live short or unproductive lives. His sister Antonie (Tony) marries twice with the support and prompting of her family, yet both marriages end in divorce. A second sister dies at an early age from tuberculosis, and Thomas’s only brother, Christian, crippled by hypochondria and psychopathic tendencies, fails to contribute to the success of the family business. The Buddenbrook legacy now falls into the hands of Thomas’s son Hanno. Still a child himself, Hanno never has the opportunity to take up the family business, as he dies of typhus at the age of 15. As the last living family member, Hanno’s death marks the completion of the family decline.

While the Buddenbrooks do succumb as a family unit, inner dynamics work diligently to bring about the family’s demise, making the final collapse inevitable. Through Johann Buddenbrook a tradition is established in the family firm that requires different generations to work together to secure the business’s success. Symbolized through the almost liturgical recordings of business achievements in the family’s Gutenberg Bible, the house on Mengstraße becomes a symbol of tradition. The succeeding generations have an increasingly difficult time abiding by the traditional laws of the firm, which is demonstrated by the leitmotif of bad teeth. Thomas Buddenbrook is successful. He breaks every record in the firm’s history despite numerous obstacles and becomes a senator in government activities. The decline of the Buddenbrooks therefore is not as a result of financial trouble but stems from physical and mental weakness. Readers know early on that Thomas has bad teeth, but it is not until a trip to the dentist at the age of 49 that his weakness, symbolized by a decayed, hollowed tooth, takes his life. Since all other heirs likewise demonstrate such weakness, the family business follows the natural progression into obscurity.

The house on Mengstraße also serves as a leitmotif. The original owners, the wealthy Ratenkamp family, experience their own decline within its walls. This fate seems inherited by the Buddenbrook family when they take over the residence. The reader is left to ponder if the Hagenström family (a rival family) will die out in a fashion similar to the Buddenbrooks and the Ratenkamps.

The depth of realism found within Buddenbrooks testifies to Mann’s literary expertise. Through the character of Tony, Mann demonstrates the ever-increasing degree by which the interests of the family firm force family members to sacrifice their personal happiness. Tony falls in love with Morten Schwarzkopf, a man from a modest background. With him she finds happiness, the type of happiness that opens the doors of wonder and discovery such as the beauty of the sea and the political changes brewing within the country. With Morten, Tony experiences what her family cannot give her, yet when her family interferes and tears her away from Morten, Tony dutifully submits. Far more compelling, however, is the irony with which Mann completes Tony’s role. The young woman will endure the failure of two family-approved marriages, yet Tony alone will not deter from feeling the need to protect the family tradition. She will uphold the principles of the firm even though they have become void of meaning, and it will be Tony who serves to symbolically represent the tenacity by which familial ideals cement individuals to old ideas. As a further ironic twist, she is the only character left alive at the conclusion of the novel.

Documenting the fictional history of four generations created a substantial compilation, even by 19th century standards. The daunting manuscript generated a two-volume novel despite the publisher’s fears of meager sales and unsuccessful attempts to persuade Mann to condense the book. By the second edition, Buddenbrooks catapulted him into celebrity status. Mann’s vivid characterizations and meticulous detail brought life to the Buddenbrook family, but he would not attempt again the realism so well received by his reading audience. The novel would stand alone as Mann’s testament to the individual within the family.

Analysis of Thomas Mann’s Stories

Brennan, Joseph Gerard. Thomas Mann’s World. New York: Russell & Russell, 1962.
Bruford, Walter Horace. The German Tradition of Self-Cultivation: Bildung from Humboldt to Thomas Mann. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1975.
Bürgin, Hans. Thomas Mann, a Chronicle of His Life. Mobile: University of Alabama Press, 1969.
Hatfield, Henry Caraway. Thomas Mann: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1964.
Heilbut, Anthony. Thomas Mann: Eros and Literature. Riverside: University of California Press, 1997.
Heller, Erich. The Ironic German, a Study of Thomas Mann. London: Secker & Warburg, 1958.
———. Thomas Mann, the Ironic German: A Study. Mamaroneck, N.Y.: P. P. Appel, 1973.
Kahn, Robert L. Studies in German Literature. Houston: Rice University, 1964. Masereel, Frans. Mein Stundenbuch, 165 Holzschnitte Von Frans Masereel. Einleitung von Thomas Mann. Munich: K. Wolff, 1926.
Mueller, William Randolph. Celebration of Life: Studies in Modern Fiction. New York: Sheed & Ward, 1972.
Reed, Terence. Thomas Mann: The Uses of Tradition. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974. Robertson, Ritchie. The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Mann. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Stock, Irvin. Ironic Out of Love: The Novels of Thomas Mann. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1994.

Categories: German Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

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