Analysis of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain

Considered a landmark in world literature, The Magic Mountain by the highly respected German novelist Thomas Mann (1875–1955) reveals the conflicting political and cultural trends that divided families and nations throughout Europe in the early 20th century. Set on a Swiss mountaintop in the years leading up to World War I, Mann’s magic mountain is not the picturesque scene waiting to be made into an idyllic postcard, but a sanatorium for those precariously ill with tuberculosis.

The novel opens with Hans Castorp, a recent graduate in engineering, arriving to visit his cousin who suffers from the devastating ailment. His good deed, however, is soon met with bad news—doctors have found that Castorp too has tuberculosis. He agrees to stay at the sanatorium for three weeks of rest (the prescribed cure) but becomes captivated, as the other patients do, to the unusual, otherworldly reality found inside the institution. His three-week visit becomes a seven-year stay. It does not take long before his life becomes void of the day-to-day struggle for existence, of the commitments and outside engagements that mark the hours of life. Without these things, Castorp, like his fellow patients, begins to lose track of time and turns to comfortable recreations to reestablish not only a sense of time, but also a sense of community.

Thomas Mann / Yousuf Karsh

Castorp becomes the central character of Mann’s bildungsroman, his “novel of education.” This genre of German literature provides readers with a “coming of age” type story where helpful role models encourage and enable less than savvy youths on their respective journeys toward life’s goal—becoming a contributing member of society. But the bildungsroman, in Mann’s style, puts a twist into the typical German plot progression. Hans never finds a role model, a mentor, or a lodestar to lead him into the realm of German adulthood, and yet he becomes more responsible, more educated from his years of exposure not only to the trends and events of his culture, but also to the strong and self-contradictory personalities whose doctrines seem to defy their life experiences. Most notable in the novel is a European Jew who watched his father’s crucifixion in a pogrom, and who yet became a Christian and joined the Jesuit religious order renowned for its militant defense of Catholic doctrine. Mann uses the residents of the sanatorium to build a dialogue chronicling the various national mentalities and intellectual ideas encapsulating the prewar period in Europe and to remind the new generation of the historical dimensions through which the current culture emerged.

Castorp moves easily into the Berghof (mountainside) routine. He rests for hours wrapped in blankets on his private balcony and partakes in the frequent festivities provided by the staff, whose primary focus seems to be insulating patients from the reality that they each remain hopelessly in the clutches of death. Although patients remain unaware that the staff discreetly removes the corpses of the dead by night, the reader is reminded of the potential for any character at any time to fall victim to the disease that brought him or her to the picturesque Swiss mountaintop. It is this use of irony with the characters, with the narrator, and with the world Mann creates that removes the possibility of the reader finding a fixed point of reference. The story becomes a hermeneutical dance with tradition— reinterpret and posit to the present or watch tradition fade to stereotype.

Mann also presents a deep philosophical lesson for the German reader through Castorp’s encounters at the sanatorium in Davos. Here Castrop moves away from a world governed by objective time where actions suffer the consequences of cause and effect and moves into a world governed by human perception, allowing Hans to grasp the intellectual legacy of his culture. The symbolism of the magic mountain reveals a difficult reality to the German reader—that Germany’s fate is bound to the common European tradition. Choose the sensible route, the route of moderation embodied by Hans Castorp or become politically polarized and fall prey to the type of extremism that would lead a nation to become an instrument of war. The Magic Mountain appeals to the moral values of culture, the values that provide future generations with the hope that all is not lost, while also displaying the self-destructive powers found within every culture. At the sanatorium the patients are divided into social and ethnic groups represented by seven dinner tables. Castorp eats at each one before he leaves the Berghof, learning valuable lessons even at the schlechten Russentisch (bad Russian table).

German engineer Hans Castorp takes a seven-year sabbatical from the rigors of life, entranced by the atmosphere and personalities inhabiting the magic mountain. Castorp listens and learns; he observes and learns in keeping with the traditional bildungsroman genre. His pragmatic mind opens and the only thing that can remove him from the world of Der Zauberberg is the onslaught of World War I. Everyday life calls him to return and fight in Germany’s Great War, but before he leaves to join the other foot soldiers in the chaos and death of war, he experiences a vision during a snowstorm. In the vision he sees humankind at peace, civilized and humane, although with a sinister secret underneath the pleasant surface. His vision leads to daydreams and the verbalization of problems critical to the novel. Castrop leads the reader through Mann’s final scrutiny of German heritage, a once rich, romantic heritage now relegated behind the life-enhancing virtues of western European culture.

The novel closes with Mann’s true and evident irony. Hans Castrop leaves his magical mountain, his bastion of subjective time, and reenters the realm of actions and consequences. He leaves the sanitarium where death is hidden behind the cheerful tones of staff members and enters the battlefield where death does not hide. He survives seven years in an atmosphere of a contagious and deadly disease to stand in the midst of a vicious battle that seems impossible to survive.

Thomas Mann / Friedrich Mueller/ullstein bild/Getty Images


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 Press, 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: European Literature, German Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: