Analysis of Thomas Mann’s The Holy Sinner

The novel immediately following the publication of the epic work Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann (1875–1955), The Holy Sinner led Mann and his readers through an entirely different literary experience. Published four years before the author’s death, The Holy Sinner seemed a needed respite for Mann after his magnum opus, a form of a satyr play following the great tragedy. Where Doctor Faustus gives the reader a dense but intimate treatise of Mann’s central thematic concerns, Der Erwählte offers readers a lighter, almost playful experience.

Based on Hartman von Aue’s manuscript of 1187 titled Gregorius, The Holy Sinner is transformed by Mann from the medieval work into far more than a simple parody of a saint’s legend. Der Erwählte displays Mann’s use of his highly developed powers of symbolmaking while concealing questions of extreme seriousness within lively storytelling that alternately delights and shocks the reader. The Holy Sinner recounts the incestuous events leading to the crowning of a fictional Pope Gregory IV. Born of noble but incestuous parents, Grigorss experiences a Moses-type journey as a babe put out to sea. Taken in by fishermen and raised by an abbot, Grigorss leaves his home after discovering his true history. His aimless wandering, however, comes to an end when he comes across a distressed nation plagued by war that is ruled by a pious and beautiful queen. After saving the nation, Grigorss weds the queen and impregnates her. Mann then reveals to the reader that this royal couple are not only husband and wife but also mother and son as well as aunt and nephew. Representing the epitome of all sin, the devout Grigorss journeys to a rock out at sea, where he is shackled for 17 years before pilgrims sent by God arrive to crown him pope.

Echoing the Dostoyevskian theme Beati quorum tecta sunt peccata (Blessed are they who are covered with sins, Psalm 31), Mann explores the depths of the Judeo-Christian concept of original sin. Through Grigorss, the reader must challenge the notion that a soul cannot attain the highest levels of sanctity without passing through the deepest levels of sinfulness. Without sinfulness, the saint cannot acquire knowledge of human nature; without sinfulness, the power of penance and the overwhelming mightiness of grace is never tested. Mann takes the character of the kindhearted abbot who has taken the infant—born in great sin—into his care and symbolically demonstrates the continual effort of God to make our sin his own agony, sin, and cross, thus becoming the God of sinners who allows his grace to spring up from the abyss of sin, providing hope to all.

Reared in a fisherman’s hut and later a monastery, the child Grigorss displays the physique and disposition of his noble origins, and despite a delicate constitution, he fares better than the robust fishermen’s sons in competitions because of his intensely disciplined nature. His nobility has a flaw, however—the flaw of alienation, which Mann has used to pester his heroes since his novel Tonio Kröger (1903). For Grigorss the alienation begins with a long-held, unconsciously sensed feeling of not belonging that is also shared by the fishermen’s children, who see the scholarly Grigorss as somehow mysteriously superior. Their reaction is to shun the boy, causing him further feelings of alienation.

The situation reaches an apex following an altercation between Grigorss and his brother Flann. Clearly the underdog to Flann’s brute strength, Grigorss manages a decisive blow that breaks his brother’s nose. Their mother, disturbed over the injury to her true son Flann, reveals to Grigorss that no blood relationship exists between them; he is a foundling, one whose origins will hinder his belonging in the spiritual realm. The fl aw of alienation is now complete in Grigorss: He belongs neither to the people of his community nor to the people of his own family.

Mann uses this flaw as a backdrop to reveal the full scope of the boy’s sinful origins. Armed with the truth, Grigorss sets out on a self-imposed quest, a crusade to atone for the sins of his parents. Outfitted as a knight, he chooses the fish for his crest as a symbol of St. Peter. He begins his journey across a channel of water, across the same waters he drifted along as a baby. His arrival brings him the answer to his wishes—to deliver a lady of innocence from the most dire peril. The woman hints at knowing him, at recognizing the material she used to cast her infant son onto the turbulent waters of the channel. Even though she finds an exact match to the brocade of his garments, she allows the truth to elude her conscious mind and takes her son to be her husband. Extending the oedipal parallels of the Greek myth, Grigorss fathers two daughters—his sisters.

Once an inquisitive maid brings the truth to the foreground, Grigorss inflicts a penance upon himself: He ventures back to the lands of the fishermen dressed in beggar’s robes and carrying neither bowl nor bread. Allowed to sleep in a shed, he takes their insults and jeering as a salve to his deep wounds, but it is not enough. Cast in a leg iron, he goes to an uninhabited island where his only nourishment is a few drops of “earth milk” oozing from a rock. His physical being is reduced under the strain, but his spiritual being renews. Grigorss becomes Gregorious, the new pope, a man brought back to human life through events explained only by his elevation into saintliness.

The Holy Sinner as parable demonstrates the transformation of extreme sin by extreme penance into salvation. Mann seizes the opportunity to develop a situation (bordering on caricature and burlesque) to its extreme while providing a story that at a deeper level masterfully illuminates the spirit of Christian doctrine. Mann uses incest to represent the summit of human presumption and self-idolatry equated to Adam’s original rejection of God and his divine providence. Mann reminds his readers that no one can claim pure innocence. More important, Mann reminds us that no sin exists that cannot be redeemed by grace.

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