Analysis of Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers

The series of four biblical novels by renowned German author Thomas Mann (1875–1955) chronicles the ancient history of the Jews and evolves as a refutation of prolific racist mythmaking during the Nazi era. Mann wrote the tetralogy over a 16-year period, collectively titled Joseph and His Brothers: The Tales of Jacob (Die Geschichten Jaakobs), Young Joseph (Der junge Joseph), Joseph in Egypt (Joseph in Aegypten), and Joseph the Provider (Joseph der Ernaehrer). The novels focus on the biblical story of Joseph, great-grandson of the Jewish patriarch Abraham and a young man of amazing talents, self-confidence, and divine trust in God’s providence. Joseph must and does survive his own egotism, the resentment and envy of his brothers who sell him into slavery, as well as false imprisonment in order to become the savior of his Egyptian tormentors during a time of deadly famine.

Thomas Mann in his Pacific Palisades home, where ‘books, books, books’ covered floor-to-ceiling shelves. Photograph: Ullstein Bild/Getty Images

Mann takes this biblical narrative and transforms it into a blend of mythology and psychology, adding subtle motivations not apparent in the biblical account and creating a variation on Friedrich Nietzsche’s Overman (Ubermensch). Joseph starts out as a boy raised in Israel. Cherished by his father, the young Joseph does not possess the maturity or the discernment to realize the damage his father’s favoritism has created between himself and his brothers. This wedge culminates in Joseph’s forced journey into the complexities of Egyptian civilization and his initiation into the new horizon of modernity. Mann uses this new horizon as a vehicle by which Joseph frees himself from the unhappy circumstances of his boyhood. Joseph grows, matures, and transforms into a leader who does not turn his back on his own culture but instead leads his people into a future removed from the legends of the past. Joseph avoids the trap of tyrannical patriarchy and evolves into a concerned and wise statesman, a model through whom new myth can be formulated.

Mann chose to present a theme that is set in the distant past and not in the familiar mode of novelistic inquiry where the writer approaches the story from the present time and looks backward. Mann chose to get behind the epoch of the story and look forward. This innovative approach begins with a prologue, a master piece in itself, which engages the latest scientific discoveries concerning the beginnings of human existence on earth. Scouring the depths of our origins long before histories were written, Mann takes his readers up through the eras of orally transmitted legend, demonstrating his belief that every legend contains a relevant fact, an event of decisive importance to humanity. From this initial exploration of the bottomless depths of human origins, the story begins, but Mann does not provide the reader with a simple narrative retelling of the Joseph story. Instead, he provides a modern concern, and it is this double theme that holds his narrative together—the age-old questions addressing why the members of this one family, Joseph’s family, were chosen by God to hear his voice, to enter into his covenant, and to experience his blessing. Mann offers a glimpse into this complicated theological and psychological arena by revealing the family as having a deep, unappeasable, and at times troubling concern or caring for things spiritual and for God. With a holy obsession, the members of Joseph’s family—past, present, and future—are willing to risk life and limb for the right and godly way of life; they will turn away from the enticements and temptations of the temporal world, and they will hold contempt for those who put their trust in monuments of stone (the pyramids).

A second question deals with whether or not the actions, episodes, and events in the lives of humanity are predestined or predetermined by a single, divine plan. Joseph’s family believes, accepts, and surrenders to the notion of a divine plan, but Mann presents this facet with a bit of a twist: He allows the characters to share in the connection and motivation of the episodes, and he thus builds the theme. The main characters— Jacob, Joseph, Judah, Potiphar, and the young Pharaoh—exist as historical personages from a specific moment in time, but Mann also allows moments in which the lives of the historical figures blend with those of their forefathers. In addition, the characters are at times given moments of consciousness allowing them to see themselves, and even one another, as part of the mystical divine plan, the preordained “whole.” This approach, however, lessens the novel’s dramatic quality, if only somewhat, by eliminating the character’s exposure to the consequences of a final, critical, or irrevocable decision. Other factors, however, minimize or eliminate the dramatic finality within a story, such as the various literary tools (leitmotif, anticipation, irony) and analytical devices (Jungian topology and Freudian analysis) available that are also designed to lessen the finality of experience, thus demonstrating experience to be repeatable. While Mann may imperil the definitive motivation of the “whole,” he produces a spiritual effort that receives its validation not from something it aims at or strives for, such as a goal, but from within itself and its own intensity. The main characters, chosen by God, therefore appear to the reader as parts of a fully determined divine plan.

Joseph and His Brothers offers a four-part series of novels chronicling the biblical story of Joseph and marks what many biographers and critics claim is the furthest point from the “German question” that Mann could venture. Nonetheless, parallels exist. Joseph’s brothers, like the German people, act as a collective whole in the dastardly deed that sold young Joseph into slavery. Not one of his brothers intervened on Joseph’s behalf, leaving Mann to take his readers to the precipice of a difficult question reeking of Mann’s classic sense of irony: If one’s own brother will not face up to an evil action, should we be so shocked by the appalling reaction of a population bewildered by the actions of the fascist regime who also did not protest?

Analysis of Thomas Mann’s Stories

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Categories: German Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

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