Joseph and His Brothers

Joseph und seine Brüder; Joseph and his Brothers (1933-43)

This epic tetralogy took Thomas Mann sixteen years to write. It was initially inspired by a visit to Palestine he made in 1925. It was influenced by the work of Johann Jakob Bachofen (1815-1887), who interpreted human history in terms of a struggle between matriarchy and patriarchy. Written during the rise of National Socialism in Germany, it affirms the contribution of Old Testament Judaism to human civilization. In opposition to the primitive instincts promoted by fascism, it advocates a liberal humanist vision, emphasizing psychological insight as well as dialogue and co-operation between different cultures. Among other things, the tetralogy is a celebration of storytelling and the power of the spoken word.

1. Die Geschichten Jaakobs; The Stories of Jacob (written 1926-30, published 1933)

Joseph and his father Jacob are introduced, and we see them discussing lineages; there is a sense of confused identities, timelines and lineages. We learn of the brotherly rivalry between Jacob and Esau. Jacob’s family resides for a while in Schekem (Sichem), but this episode ends in a massacre. Jacob disguises himself as Esau and receives the blessing from Isaac. Then he flees and goes to work for Laban. Jacob marries Lea, thinking she is Rachel. Benjamin is born and Rachel dies.

2. Der junge Joseph; Young Joseph (written 1931-32, published 1934)

Joseph is educated by Eliezer, Jacob’s oldest servant, who teaches him about Abraham and his decision to serve ‘the most high’. Joseph tells Benjamin the story of Adonis/Tammuz and his resurrection. Joseph persuades Jacob to give him the coat of many colours. He tells his brothers his dream, in which they all bow down before him. The brothers become envious of Joseph. They fake Joseph’s death and sell him to the Ismaelites.

3. Joseph in Ägypten; Joseph in Egypt (written 1932-36, published 1936)

Joseph arrives in Egypt during the reign of Amenhotep III (between 1411 and 1365 BC). Joseph is sold as a slave to Peteprê (Potiphar), one of the Pharaoh’s grand eunuchs. Joseph gradually rises through the ranks of the servants, and is trained by the household steward, Mont-Kaw, to be his successor. Joseph encounters the xenophobic, reactionary high priest, Beknechons. Peteprê’s wife, Mut-em-enet, falls in love with Joseph, but he resists her sexual advances.

4. Joseph, der Ernährer; Joseph the Provider (written 1940-43; completed 4 January 1943, published 1943)

Joseph is sent to prison, where the prison warder, Mai-Sachme, recognises his divine quality. New inmates arrive: the Pharaoh’s wine waiter and his baker. Joseph interprets their dreams. The new Pharaoh hears of this and sends for Joseph, who helps Pharaoh to interpret his dream. In return, Pharaoh puts Joseph in charge of the kingdom. Joseph makes Ma-Sachme his deputy and marries Asnath, daughter of the high priest of Atum-Rê in On. Meanwhile, Tamar sleeps with Judah and gives birth to two sons. The famine begins and Joseph’s brothers arrive in Egypt. Joseph conceals his identity, speaking to them using an interpreter. He sends them back to fetch Benjamin, and finally reveals his true identity to them. The brothers bring Jacob to Egypt and he meets Pharaoh. Joseph’s economic policy has affinities with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. Jacob makes a dying speech and he is buried with his ancestors.

English Translation

Thomas Mann, Joseph and His Brothers, trans. by John E. Woods (New York: Knopf, 2005)

Further Reading in English

Dagmar Barnouw, Weimar Intellectuals and the Threat of Modernity (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988)

Paul Bishop, ‘Jung-Joseph: Thomas Mann’s Reception of Jungian Thought in the Joseph Tetralogy’, Modern Language Review 91:1 (1996), 138-58

Greg Bond, ‘“Der Brunnen der Vergangenheit”: Historical Narration in Uwe Johnson’s Heute neunzig Jahr and Thomas Mann’s Joseph und seine Brüder’, German Life and Letters 52 (1999), 68-84

George Bridges, Thomas Mann’s ‘Joseph und seine Brüder’ and the Phallic Theology of the Old Testament (Bern: Peter Lang, 1995)

Raymond Cunningham, Myth and Politics in Thomas Mann’s ‘Joseph und seine Brüder’ (Stuttgart: Heinz, 1985)

Wolf-Daniel Hartwich, ‘Religion and Culture: Joseph and his Brothers’, in The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Mann, ed. by Ritchie Robertson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 151-67

Gabriel Josipovici, The Book of God (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988)

Clayton Koelb, Legendary Figures: Ancient History in Modern Novels (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1998), Chapter 3: ‘The Garment of the Mystery: Thomas Mann’s Joseph Tetralogy’, pp. 47-66

William E. McDonald, Thomas Mann’s ‘Joseph and his Brothers’: Writing, Performance, and the Politics of Loyalty (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 1999)

Elaine Murdaugh, Salvation in the Secular: The Moral Law in Thomas Mann’s ‘Joseph und seine Brüder’ (Bern: Peter Lang, 1976)

Charlotte Nolte, Being and Meaning in Thomas Mann’s ‘Joseph’ Novels (London: Maney/MHRA/IGS, 1996)

Ernest Schonfield, ‘Mann Re-Joyces: The Dissemination of Myth in Ulysses and Joseph, Finnegans Wake and Doctor Faustus’, Comparative Critical Studies 3:3 (2006), 269-90

Alan J. Swensen, Gods, Angels and Narrators. A Metaphysics of Narrative in Thomas Mann’s ‘Joseph und seine Brüder’ (New York: Peter Lang, 1994)

Olga G. Voronina, Depicting the Divine: Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita and Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers (forthcoming, London: Legenda, 2018)

Further Reading in German

Bernd-Jürgen Fischer, Handbuch zu Thomas Manns “Josephsromanen” (Tübingen: Francke, 2002)