Analysis of Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus

The creative portrayal of Germany’s descent into evil comes to life in the pages of the acclaimed postwar novel by Thomas Mann (1875–1955), Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer, Adrian Leverkühn, as Told by a Friend. This complex novel has been called many things by biographers, critics, and even Mann himself. It has been deemed the most important work of Mann’s career and the mark of his last treatise on German culture and its intellectual tradition. Doktor Faustus is a story that uniquely captures Germany’s downfall following the adoption of national socialism, while allowing Mann as a writer to come full circle with his own personal development through the exploration of an artistically ambitious young man’s upbringing in a traditional German environment. Readers are reminded of other Mann characters such as Hanno Buddenbrooks and Tonio Kröger, as the author wrestles again with themes from novels past; however, Mann approaches the character Doktor Faustus with a completely different intellectual framework.

Employing the greatest theme contributed by Germany to world literature, Mann constructs a retelling of the Middle Ages story of Faust. This “montage” technique allows Mann to present Adrian Leverkühn as a new Faust who receives the opportunity to secure his artistic desires by sealing a pact with the devil. However, Leverkühn is more than an embodiment of Goethe’s Faust: He is also a representation of Nietzsche, whose stages in life Leverkühn mirrors; he is Luther and Beethoven and Schönberg and other musicians. In essence, the life of Leverkühn embodies the entirety of German cultural development.

Mann decides for the first time to change his narrative perspective and write the novel using a first-person narrator. Serenus Zeitblom, Ph.D., is a professor of literature and friend to main character Adrian Leverkühn. Representing the educated German, Zeitblom holds a clear intellectual perspective of the historical and political events that led Germany into the approaching catastrophes of National Socialism and another world war, but he raises no voice and takes no action against these developments; this is a point Mann makes against German intellectuals in his writings throughout the painful period of European fascism. Through Zeitblom, the reader encounters Adrian Leverkühn, a man who believes he was born too late, losing the possibility of creating true works of original art, a man driven to produce art (music) that has never existed before. Mann uses Leverkühn as the prototype of the German character unafraid of unleashing self-destructive forces to attain his goal, determined to go his own way without regard for the damage that may befall him or others from the choices he makes.

This choice of point of view, however, makes reading Doktor Faustus much more challenging. Zeitblom becomes to the reader an intimate, a confidant of sorts on whom the reader must rely in order to have Leverkühn’s story fully revealed. Zeitblom is not a character with such charisma as to transfix the reader with pleasure. Instead, at times the reader finds Zeitblom to be the object of empathy, while at other times he draws only a mild or lukewarm reception and occasionally strikes the reader with a cold emptiness. His passionate histories of Ines and Clarissa Rodde build reader trust, while his too frequent references to his “Erschütterung” (shock or agitation) over Leverkühn’s “humanly” behavior builds reader suspicion. Overshadowing all, the reader learns that Leverkühn is not the Leverkühn depicted by an omniscient narrator, but a different character, one that Mann seems to have generated, in part, to establish his structure of ambiguities.

Zeitblom, in fact, becomes a masterful vehicle of ambiguity for Mann through his consistent references to music that does not exist. Zeitblom conveys to the reader a music that expresses “unspokenness,” a music that speaks without committing itself to any meaning. When Zeitblom tells the reader that a certain feature of the music is unverkennbar (unmistakable), the reader takes pause. Mann leaves the reader with the risky tool of choice and gives the freedom to choose whether to doubt or to believe. Leverkühn’s music exists for the reader only in this form, but it is a form that stresses the unity between Zeitblom and Leverkühn, who make up Mann’s two halves of one self, whose connectedness is underscored by the du (you) Leverkühn uses to address not only himself but also Zeitblom. To have used a real composer would have removed the hostile collusion Mann masterfully creates between narrator and subject. Instead, Mann is able, through Zeitblom, to sum up his own lifelong obsession with the description of music, to confront his own critical language with that of true musicians, and to allow the two languages (music and words) to criticize and complement each other.

In broad terms, Mann places considerable demands on his readers. Doktor Faustus becomes a tapestry of symbolic and literal meanings, of myth, realism, allegory, allusion, and ironic ambiguity. Mann utilizes parallels that are rarely direct equations. In addition, at times he consciously undermines the oppositions at the core of his complex thematic structure. This approach allows him to create a hero involved in trends from which he remains detached and transforms that tension into a fundamental paradox revealing a character that stands for the forces of fascism and yet is distinct from those forces. Through the character of Doktor Faustus—Zeitblom—Mann attempts to grasp the dialectics of subjectivity and objectivity, of compulsion and freedom, and the connections between politics and art, the bonds of collective experience, and individual psychological drive—all for the purpose of explaining an apocalypse. A skillfully orchestrated display of the dynamic command of language and of literary techniques comprising Mann’s artistry makes Doktor Faustus one of the great 20th-century novels.

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Categories: German Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

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