Der Zauberberg; The Magic Mountain

Der Zauberberg; The Magic Mountain (1924) 

This epic novel was originally intended to be a novella, a companion to Der Tod in Venedig; Death in Venice. Mann based the story on his visit to a sanatorium on Davos, Switzerland, to visit his wife Katia for three weeks in May and June 1912; she had been incorrectly diagnosed with tuberculosis. Mann wrote the novel in two phases: firstly between 1912 and 1915; and then between 1919 and 1924. In between these two periods of composition World War One occurred (1914-1918), which led to a very public falling out between Thomas Mann, who supported the war, and his brother Heinrich Mann, who opposed it. Between 1915 and 1918 Mann abandoned fiction altogether: instead he wrote Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen; Reflections of an Unpolitical Man (1918) a polemical book in service of the German war effort in which he denounced liberal humanism (as espoused by France, Britain and Heinrich Mann) as hypocritical, and claimed that German culture (as represented by Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Wagner) was more profound than Western civilization. But by 1922 Thomas Mann’s political opinions had changed and, prompted by the assassination of the foreign minister Walter Rathenau in June 1922, Mann delivered a speech in October 1922 in support of the Weimar Republic: ‘Von deutscher Republik’; ‘On the German Republic’. Der Zauberberg; The Magic Mountain bears the imprints of the intellectual and political fermentation in Germany in the first decades of the 20th century. The sanatorium serves as a metaphor for European society on the eve of the war, and its cast of moribund, diseased characters illustrate that this society was condemned. The novel ends with the outbreak of war in 1914, but it is also pertinent to the political instability of the Weimar Republic in the early 1920s. 

Hans Castorp goes to a sanatorium in Davos, Switzerland to visit his beloved cousin Joachim Ziemssen who has been diagnosed with tuberculosis. He intends to spend three weeks there and ends up spending seven years there. During that time he has a brief affair with a married Russian woman called Clawdia Chauchat and meets a series of mentor figures who attempt to mould him intellectually and ideologically. Joachim Ziemssen dies but near the end of the novel he returns as a ghost at a séance, dressed in a World War One uniform. Life in the sanatorium is strictly regimented by Dr Behrens, whom the patients have nicknamed Rhadamanthus (the judge of the dead in Greek mythology). In Wagner’s Tannhäuser, the hero is seduced away from the world by Venus and lives with her in her mountain. In Mann’s novel the sanatorium patients also experience a form of seduction, since tuberculosis speeds up the metabolism and leads to heightened emotional and mental states. In this novel love and disease are seen as closely linked, since both produce an intensification (Steigerung) of experience. The characters in this novel are prisoners of their unruly bodies and minds which refuse to conform to the demands of practical life, as lived in the ‘flatland’ below. The narration of the novel is ironic and even playful at times, but death is rarely far away. The novel combines intellectual inquiry with an acute sense of the fragility of human life and an insight into the temptations of irrationality.

Der Zauberberg; The Magic Mountain reflects on the process of education. Ever since Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre; Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795-96), the Bildungsroman (novel of education) had been a privileged genre in Germany, and the German middle classes prized Bildung (education) very highly, partly in order to compensate for their lack of political influence. The novel calls education into question, since despite Hans Castorp’s many explorations and discoveries on the mountain, it is uncertain whether he actually learns anything; and even if he does learn much, he does little to act upon it. Castorp’s mentors all have feet of clay: Ludovico Settembrini is a humanist and a man of the Enlightenment, but he is also a pompous prude and a racist; Leo Naphta is an intellectually brilliant sadist who (paradoxically) uses rational arguments to undermine rationality; and Pieter Peeperkorn is a powerful, magnetic personality who is so dismayed by his declining sexual potency that he commits suicide. But Hans Castorp also learns about love from Joachim Ziemssen and Clawdia Chauchat.

Der Zauberberg; The Magic Mountain shows that the mind and the body, the personal and the political, are closely intertwined, and the ambivalent, ironic narrative is perfectly suited to conveying this insight, because it permits apparent contradictions to coexist; it suggests that these different spheres of human experience are complementary, rather than mutually exclusive. These spheres also interlock by means of the death motif, which links the philosophical strand of the novel (the attempt to derive meaning in the face of human mortality) with the realistic strand (the medical institution), the historical strand (the outbreak of World War One), and the political strand (the critique of conservative, Romantic inwardness).


Further Reading


Esther K. Bauer, ‘Penetrating Desire: Gender in the Field of Vision in Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg and Christian Schad’s Graf St. Genois d'Anneaucourt’, Monatshefte 101:4 (2009), 483-98

Michael Beddow, The Fiction of Humanity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982)

Michael Beddow, ‘The Magic Mountain’, in The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Mann, ed. by Ritchie Robertson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 137-50

Elizabeth Boa, ‘The Aesthetics of Disgust in Der Zauberberg’, Publications of the English Goethe Society 78:3 (2009), 131-46

Elizabeth Boa, ‘The Trial of Curiosity in Der Zauberberg’, Oxford German Studies 38:2 (2009), 175-87

W. H. Bruford, The German Tradition of Self-Cultivation: ‘Bildung’ from Humboldt to Thomas Mann (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), Chapter 10 on Der Zauberberg

Jason Ciaccio, ‘Time Wasted: Narcotic Analysis of Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg’, The German Quarterly 90:3 (2017), 299-314

Stephen D. Dowden, A Companion to Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain (Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1998)

Eric Downing, ‘The Technology of Development: Photography and Bildung in Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg’, Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift 77:1 (2003), 92-129

Fredric Jameson, ‘Form Production in The Magic Mountain’, in F. Jameson, The Modernist Papers (New York and London: Verso, 2007), pp. 55-95

Joshua Kavaloski, ‘Performativity and the Dialectic of Time in Thomas Mann's Der Zauberberg’, German Studies Review 32:2 (2009), 319-42 

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

Michael Minden, The German Bildungsroman. Incest and Inheritance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), Chapter 5 on The Magic Mountain

Michael Minden, ‘The Magic Mountain (“Des weiteren”)’, Publications of the English Goethe Society 64 (1996), 38-52

Roy Pascal, ‘The Magic Mountain and Adorno’s Critique of the Traditional Novel’, in Culture and society in the Weimar Republic, ed. by Keith Bullivant (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1977), pp. 1-23

Debra N. Prager, Orienting the Self: The German Literary Encounter with the Eastern Other (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2014), Chapter 5 on Der Zauberberg, pp. 220-82

T. J. Reed, Thomas Mann: The Uses of Tradition, 2nd edn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996)

Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, vol. 2, trans. by Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1985) [Original: Paul Ricoeur, Temps et récit. Tome II. La configuration dans le récit de fiction (Paris: Seuil, 1985)]

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

Ritchie Robertson, ‘Sacrifice and Sacrament in Der Zauberberg’, Oxford German Studies 35 (2006), 55-65

Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988)

Ronald Speirs, ‘Mann, Der Zauberberg’, in Landmarks in the German Novel (1), ed. by Peter Hutchinson (Bern: Peter Lang, 2007), pp. 117-33

Martin Swales, The German Bildungsroman from Wieland to Hesse (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), Chapter 6 on The Magic Mountain

Martin Swales, Mann: Der Zauberberg (London: Grant & Cutler, 2000)

Hans Rudolf Vaget (ed.), Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain: A Casebook (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008)

Hugo Walter, Space and Time on the Magic Mountain: Studies in Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century European Literature (New York: Peter Lang, 1999)

Karolina Watroba, Mann’s Magic Mountain: World Literature and Closer Reading (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022)

I. A. and J. J. White, ‘The Importance of F. C. Müller-Lyer’s Ideas for “Der Zauberberg”’, Modern Language Review 75:2 (1980), 333-48

Jennifer Marston William, Killing Time: Waiting Hierarchies in the Twentieth-Century German Novel (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2010), Chapter 2 on Der Zauberberg, pp. 68-95

Theodore Ziolkowski, Dimensions of the Modern Novel: German Texts and European Contexts (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969), Chapter 3 on The Magic Mountain, pp. 68-98


Further Reading in German


Malte Herwig, Bildungsbürger auf Abwegen: Naturwissenschaften im Werk Thomas Manns (Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 2004)

Hans Wisskirchen, Zeitgeschichte im Roman. Zu Thomas Manns ‘Zauberberg’ und ‘Doktor Faustus’ (Bern: Francke, 1986)