Buddenbrooks. Verfall einer Familie; Buddenbrooks. Decline of a Family (1901)

Thomas Mann’s first novel depicts the decline of a patrician merchant family in 19th-century Lübeck. The action of the novel ranges from 1835 to 1877, and describes four generations of a single family. The novel was published in 1901 when Mann was only twenty-five; in 1929 Mann was awarded the Nobel Prize for it. The novel is semi-autobiographical and draws in part upon the history of Mann’s own family. Of the three central Buddenbrook siblings, Thomas is partially based on Mann’s own father, Christian on his uncle Friedrich Wilhelm, and Tony on his aunt Elisabeth. At the same time, the tension between Thomas and Christian derives much of its force from Thomas’s rivalry with his older brother Heinrich Mann. The novel owes a great deal to 19th-century realism, especially to the work of Theodor Fontane, Anton Chekhov (Three Years), Emile Zola, and the Goncourt brothers (Renée Mauperin), but it combines this with modernist elements including repeated ‘leitmotifs’, collage, and a psychological study of decadence which owes much to Nietzsche and Paul Bourget. The novel also shares in the cultural pessimism which was widespread in Germany around 1900, which can be seen as a reaction to the rapid industrialisation of Germany after unification in 1871. The most notable cultural pessimists around 1900 were Julius Langbehn and Max Nordau. Buddenbrooks engages with the philosophers who had inspired these writers, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. For both of these philosophers the idea of historical progress is an illusion, and the only true reality is the will. One of the high points in the novel is towards the end of Part Ten, when Thomas Buddenbrook reads a section of Schopenhauer’s Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung; The World as Will and Representation (1819). Buddenbrooks, published at the turn of the century, marks the junction where realistic narrative acquires a powerful reflective dimension.

It is possible to draw a parallel between the decline of the Buddenbrooks and the decline of the Hanseatic town of Lübeck. In the late 19th century, many middle-sized German towns lost their economic importance, whilst Hamburg and Berlin grew rapidly. But despite the novel’s reference to historical events, the novel implies the existence of an underlying, timeless, mythic dimension (on this mythological dimension of the novel, see reading list below, Richard Sheppard). For example, the fate of the Buddenbrooks repeats that of the previous owners of their house, the Ratenkamps, who gradually lost their competitive edge. Any attempt to offer a monocausal explanation of the decline of the Buddenbrooks is thus very problematic. Their decline could be interpreted as a failure to adapt to changing, external, historical circumstances; but it could also be understood in terms of an internal crisis, one which is linked to psychological and biological factors. Successive generations of the Buddenbrooks are weaker, more indecisive and more prone to aestheticism. The last of the Buddenbrook males, Hanno, expends his failing energies by playing Wagnerian variations on the piano. Is this a mirror of wider socio-historical trends, or are the Buddenbrooks simply a spent force, doomed to repeat the closing stages of a natural cycle?

This tension between historical and ahistorical interpretations of the novel is played out in critical debates about the rivalry between the Buddenbrooks and the Hagenströms. The Marxist critic Georg Lukács interpreted the two families as symbolising the historical transition from burgher to bourgeois, i.e. from old-fashioned paternalism to ruthless, anonymous modern capitalism. According to this reading, the Buddenbrooks cannot adapt to the Hagenströms’ new way of doing business, which relies on credit and high-risk, ruthless speculation. Martin Swales accepts this interpretation but modifies it, pointing out that the two families have much in common, and that the differences between them may be more a matter of perception than anything else (see reading list below, Martin Swales, Buddenbrooks: Family Life as the Mirror of Social Change (1991), p. 93).

Buddenbrooks is a thrilling portrayal of a family in decline. The morality and the ideas it depicts may seem outdated today. Even so, much of the novel is still instantly recognisable and compelling, and this is because the family is the social institution which continues to define most people’s lives.

Part One opens in October 1835: the Buddenbrooks are holding a grand dinner in their new house in the Mengstraße. Old Johann’s estranged first son, Gotthold, writes, demanding his share of the family fortune.

In Part Two, the Hagenströms (the rival family) are introduced; Madame Antoinette Buddenbrook expires, closely followed by her husband old Johann; Tony goes to Therese (Sesemi) Weichbrodt’s pension where she makes friends with Gerda Arnoldsen and Armgard von Schilling.

In Part Three, Bendix Grünlich arrives and courts Tony or rather, he courts her parents. In Travemünde, Tony meets Morten Schwarzkopf, but she renounces him and marries Grünlich. Thomas renounces Anna, the shop girl he loves.

In Part Four, Tony gives birth to Erika; the revolution of 1848 reaches Lübeck; Grünlich is bankrupted and Tony divorces him; Konsul Johann (Jean) dies of a stroke.

In Part Five, Uncle Gotthold dies; Christian returns home from Valparaiso and becomes a ‘suitor’; Clara marries Sievert Tiburtius and Thomas marries Gerda Arnoldsen.

In Part Six, Christian embarrasses Thomas, saying that businessmen are swindlers; Christian goes into business in Hamburg; Tony marries Permaneder; Tony divorces Permaneder.

In Part Seven, Hanno is baptised; Christian’s business folds and Thomas reproves him about his relationship with Aline Puvogel; Thomas becomes a Senator and moves into his new home in the Fischergrube; Clara dies and Thomas is furious because his mother gives Clara’s inheritance to Tiburtius; the Austro-Prussian war of 1866.

In Part Eight, Erika marries Hugo Weinschenk; Hanno suffers from night terrors; Thomas decides to speculate on the Pöppenrade harvest; the firm’s centenary celebrations are disrupted by the news that the Pöppenrade harvest has been destroyed. Weinschenk is sent to prison.

In Part Nine, Konsulin Elisabeth dies of pneumonia; the next day there is a terrible row between Thomas and Christian; the house in the Mengstraße is sold to Hermann Hagenström; Hagenström moves in and Tony cries.

In Part Ten, Hanno plays with Kai and enjoys his holidays at the seaside; Weinschenk is released from prison and disappears; Thomas has become an actor, a shadow of his former self; he suspects Gerda of having an affair with Leutnant von Throta; Thomas reads Schopenhauer and soon afterwards he dies.

In Part Eleven, in 1876, Gerda sells the house in the Fischergrube and moves into a small villa with Hanno; Christian marries Aline and is committed to a lunatic asylum; Hanno experiences a long day at school. The novel closes in the autumn of 1877: Hanno dies of typhus and is survived by a chorus of unmarried women. Sesemi Weichbrodt, the comic midget, delivers a final affirmation.

Further Reading in English

Fermín Allende, ‘Poor Thomas Buddenbrook! Family Business in Literature’, Business and Economic History On-Line, vol. 7 (2009)

Elizabeth Boa, ‘Buddenbrooks: Bourgeois patriarchy and fin-de-siècle Eros’, in Thomas Mann, ed. by Michael Minden (London and New York: Longman, 1995), pp. 125-42

Elizabeth Boa, ‘Mann, Buddenbrooks’, in Landmarks in the German Novel (1), ed. by Peter Hutchinson, (Oxford and Bern: Peter Lang, 2007), pp. 99-116

Lilian R. Furst, ‘Re-reading Buddenbrooks’, German Life and Letters 44 (1991), 317-29

Lilian R. Furst, Through the Lens of the Reader: Explorations of European Narrative (New York: State University of New York Press, 1992), Chapter 10 on Buddenbrooks, pp. 149-62

Peter Gay, ‘The Mutinous Patrician: Thomas Mann in Buddenbrooks’, in Gay, Savage Reprisals: Bleak House, Madame Bovary, Buddenbrooks (New York and London: Norton, 2002), pp. 111-46

Jocelyne Kolb, ‘Thomas Mann’s Translation of Wagner into Buddenbrooks’, Germanic Review 61 (1986), 146-53

Todd Kontje, Thomas Mann’s World: Empire, Race, and the Jewish Question (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011)

Todd Kontje, The Cambridge Introduction to Thomas Mann (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011)

Wolf Lepenies, Between Literature and Science: The Rise of Sociology, trans. by R. J. Hollingdale [translation of Lepenies, Die drei Kulturen, 1985] (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), Chapter 13: ‘Weberian motifs in the work of Thomas Mann’, pp. 297-312

Georg Lukács, Essays on Thomas Mann (London: Merlin, 1964)

Larry D. Nachman and Albert S. Braverman, ‘Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks: Bourgeois Society and the Inner Life’, Germanic Review 45 (1970), 201-25

Hugh Ridley, Thomas Mann: Buddenbrooks (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987)

Hugh Ridley, The Problematic Bourgeois: Twentieth-Century Criticism on Thomas Mann’s ‘Buddenbrooks’ and ‘The Magic Mountain’ (Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1994)

Judith Ryan, ‘Buddenbrooks: between realism and aestheticism’, in The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Mann, ed. by Ritchie Robertson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 119-36

Anna Katharina Schaffner, ‘Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia sexualis and Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks: Exchanges Between Scientific and Imaginary Accounts of Sexual Deviance’, Modern Language Review 106:2 (2011), 477-95

Anna Katharina Schaffner, Modernism and Perversion: Sexual Deviance in Sexology and Literature, 1850-1930 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011)

Ernest Schonfield, ‘Civilization in the dining room: Table manners in Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks’, in Un-civilizing Processes: Excess and Transgression in German Society and Culture, ed. by Mary Fulbrook, German Monitor 66 (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007)

Ernest Schonfield, ‘Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks as Bestseller’, in The German Bestseller in the Late Nineteenth Century, ed. by Charlotte Woodford and Benedict Schofield (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2012), pp. 95-112

Ernest Schonfield, Business Rhetoric in German Novels: From Buddenbrooks to the Global Corporation (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2018), Chapter 1, pp. 20-39: ‘Managing Appearances in Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, 1901’

Richard Sheppard, ‘Realism plus Mythology: A Reconsideration of the Problem of “Verfall” in Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks’, Modern Language Review 89:4 (1994), 916-42

Martin Swales, ‘Symbolic Patterns or Realistic Plenty? Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks and the European Novel’, in Publications of the English Goethe Society 60 (1991), 80-95

Martin Swales, Buddenbrooks: Family Life as the Mirror of Social Change (Boston: Twayne, 1991)

Martin Swales, ‘Subjectivity and the Public Realm’, in Martin Swales, Studies of German Prose Fiction in the Age of European Realism (Lewiston and Lampeter: Mellen, 1995), pp. 99-115

Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism [1904-05], trans. by Talcott Parsons (London and New York: Routledge, 2001)

Ernst M. Wolf, ‘Hagenströms: The Rival Family in Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks’, German Studies Review 5 (1982), 35-55

Holly A. Yanacek, Feeling differently at the fin de siècle: Representations of emotion and cultural change in German literature, 1890-1901, PhD dissertation, University of Pittsburgh (2016) [on Proquest database]

Further Reading in German

Ken Moulden and Gero von Wilpert (eds.), Buddenbrooks-Handbuch (Stuttgart: Kröner, 1988)

Max Weber, Die Protestantische Ethik, ed. by Johannes Winckelmann, 2 vols (Munich: Siebenstern, 1968-69)

There are several family sagas in German which bear comparison to Buddenbrooks:

Bernhard von Brentano, Theodor Chindler (1936, reprinted 2014; about a Bavarian family)

Der Nister [Pinchus Kahanovich], Di mischpoche Maschber (vol. 1: 1939; vol. 2: 1948. Yiddish; about a Ukranian-Jewish family. English translation: The Family Mashber, 1987. German translation: Die Brüder Mashber. Das jiddische Epos, 1990)

Barbara Piazza, Die Frauen der Pasqualinis (2010; about a German-Italian family)

Gabriele Reuter, Aus guter Familie (1895, about a German family from Thüringen. English translation: From a Good Family, trans. by Lynne Tatlock, 1999)

Eugen Ruge, In Zeiten des abnehmenden Lichts (2011; about an East German family. English translation: In Times of Fading Light, trans. by Anthea Bell, 2013)

Gabriele Tergit, Effingers (1951, reprinted 1978; about a German-Jewish family)