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First edition (two volumes) covers
Author Thomas Mann
Country Germany
Language German
Genre Novel, Family saga
Publisher S. Fischer Verlag, Berlin
Publication date
OCLC 16705387

Buddenbrooks is a 1901 novel by Thomas Mann, chronicling the decline of a wealthy north German merchant family over the course of four generations, incidentally portraying the manner of life and mores of the Hanseatic bourgeoisie in the years from 1835 to 1877. Mann drew deeply from the history of his own family, the Mann family of Lübeck, and their milieu.

It was Mann's first novel, published in 1901 when he was twenty-six years old. With the publication of the 2nd edition in 1903, Buddenbrooks became a major literary success. The work led to a Nobel Prize in Literature for Mann in 1929; although the Nobel award generally recognises an author's body of work, the Swedish Academy's citation for Mann identified "his great novel Buddenbrooks" as the principal reason for his prize.[1]

Mann began writing the book in October 1897, when he was twenty-two years old. The novel was completed three years later, in July 1900, and published in October 1901. His objective was to write a novel on the conflicts between businessman and artist's worlds, presented as a family saga, continuing in the realist tradition of such 19th-century works as Stendhal's Le Rouge et le Noir (1830; The Red and the Black). More personally, he hoped to surpass the achievement of his eldest brother Heinrich Mann, who had met relative success with his novel In einer Familie (1894, In a Family) and who was working at the time on another novel about German bourgeois society, Im Schlaraffenland (1900, In the Land of Cockaigne). Buddenbrooks is Mann's most enduringly popular novel, especially in Germany, where it has been cherished for its intimate portrait of 19th-century German bourgeois life.

Before Buddenbrooks Mann had written only short stories, which had been collected under the title Der kleine Herr Friedemann (1898, Little Herr Friedemann). They portrayed spiritually challenged figures who struggle to find happiness in (or at the margins of) bourgeois society. Similar themes appear in the Buddenbrooks, but in a fully developed style that already reflects the mastery of narrative, subtle irony of tone, and rich character descriptions of Mann's mature fiction. The exploration of decadence in the novel reflects the influence of Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation (1818, 1844) on the young Mann. The Buddenbrooks of successive generations experience a gradual decline of their finances and family ideals, finding happiness increasingly elusive as values change and old hierarchies are challenged by Germany's rapid industrialisation. The characters who subordinate their personal happiness to the welfare of the family firm encounter reverses, as do those who do not.

The city where the Buddenbrooks live shares so many street names and other details with Mann's native town of Lübeck that the identification is unmistakable, although the novel makes no mention of the name. The young author was condemned for writing a scandalous, defamatory roman à clef about (supposedly) recognizable personages. Mann defended the right of a writer to use material from his own experience.

The years covered in the novel were marked by major political and military developments that reshaped Germany, such as the Revolutions of 1848, the Austro-Prussian War, and the establishment of the German Empire. Historic events nevertheless generally remain in the background, having no direct bearing on the lives of the characters.


  • Plot summary 1
  • Major themes 2
  • Literary significance and criticism 3
  • Thomas Buddenbrook and Schopenhauer 4
  • Film and television adaptations 5
  • See also 6
  • Notes 7
  • External links 8

Plot summary

Major themes

One of the most famous aspects of Thomas Mann's prose style can be seen in the use of leitmotifs. Derived from his admiration for the operas of Richard Wagner, in the case of Buddenbrooks an example can be found in the description of the color – blue and yellow, respectively – of the skin and the teeth of the characters. Each such description alludes to different states of health, personality and even the destiny of the characters. Rotting teeth are also a symbol of decay and decadence because it implies indulging in too many cavity causing foods. An example of this would be Hanno's cup of hot chocolate at breakfast.

Aspects of Thomas Mann's own personality are manifest in the two main male representatives of the third and the fourth generations of the fictional family: Thomas Buddenbrook and his son Hanno Buddenbrook. It should not be considered a coincidence that Mann shared the same first name with one of them. Thomas Buddenbrook reads a chapter of Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Idea, and the character of Hanno Buddenbrook escapes from real-life worries into the realm of music, Wagner's Tristan und Isolde in particular. (Wagner himself was of bourgeois descent and decided to dedicate himself to art.) In this sense both Buddenbrooks reflect a conflict lived by the author: departure from a conventional bourgeois life to pursue an artistic one, although without rejecting bourgeois ethics.

In any case, the main theme of Thomas Mann's novels, the conflict between art and business, already governs this work. Also music plays a major role: Hanno Buddenbrook, like his mother, tends to be an artist and musician, and not a person of commerce like his father.

Literary significance and criticism

Thomas Mann did not intend to write an epic against contemporary aristocratic society and its conventions. On the contrary, Mann often sympathizes with their Protestant ethics. Mann criticizes with irony and detachment. When Die protestantische Ethik und der 'Geist' des Kapitalismus (1905, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism) by Max Weber was published, Thomas Mann himself recognised the affinities with his own novel. The same happened with Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926) by R.H. Tawney. (See Hugh Ridley's Thomas Mann: Buddenbrooks – Cambridge, 1987).

Before writing the novel, Mann conducted extensive research in order to depict with immaculate detail the conditions of the times and even the mundane aspects of the lives of his characters. In particular, his cousin Marty provided him with substantial information on the economics of Lübeck, including corn prices and the city's economic decline. The author carried out financial analysis to present the economic information depicted in the book accurately.

Accurate information through extensive research was a general topic in Thomas Mann's other novels. Some characters in the book speak in the Low German of northern Germany.

In the conversations appearing in the early parts of the book, many of the characters switch back and forth between German and French, and are seen to be effectively bilingual. The French appears in the original within Mann's German text, similar to the practice of Tolstoy in "War and Peace". The bilingual characters are of the older generation, who were already adults during the Napoleonic Wars; in later parts of the book, with the focus shifting to the family's younger generation against the background of Germany moving towards unification and assertion of its new role as a major European power, the use of French by the characters visibly diminishes.

All occurrences in the lives of the characters are seen by the narrator and the family members in relation to the family trade business: the sense of duty and destiny accompanying it as well as the economic consequences that events bring. Through births, marriages, and deaths, the business becomes almost a fetish or a religion, especially for some characters, notably Thomas and his sister Tony. The treatment of the female main character Tony Buddenbrook in the novel resembles the 19th-century Realists (Flaubert's Madame Bovary and Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina), but from a more ironic and less tragic point of view.

The influence of Buddenbrooks on later novels of the 20th century is probably less than Mann's other novels. Nonetheless, Faulkner said of the novel that it was for him "the greatest novel of the century" and kept an edition of Buddenbrooks in his home library bearing Mann's own signature.

Thomas Buddenbrook and Schopenhauer

In Part 10, chapter 5, Thomas Mann described Thomas Buddenbrook's encounter with Schopenhauer's philosophy. When he read the second volume of Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation, Thomas Buddenbrook was strongly affected by Chapter 41, entitled "On Death and Its Relation to the Indestructibility of Our Inner Nature." From this chapter's influence, he had such thoughts as "Where shall I be when I am dead? ...I shall be in all those who have ever, do ever, or ever shall say 'I' " ..."Who, what, how could I be if I were not—if this my external self, my consciousness, did not cut me off from those who are not I?"..."soon will that in me which loves you be free and be in and with you – in and with you all." "I shall live...Blind, thoughtless, pitiful eruption of the urging will!" Schopenhauer had written that "Egoism really consists in man's restricting all reality to his own person, in that he imagines he lives in this alone, and not in others. Death teaches him something better, since it abolishes this person, so that man's true nature, that is his will, will henceforth live only in other individuals." According to this teaching, there really is no self to lose when death occurs. What is usually considered to be the self is really the same in all people and animals, at all times and everywhere. Irvin D. Yalom had a character in his novel describe it as follows:

However, a few days after reading Schopenhauer, "his middle class instincts" brought Thomas Buddenbrook back to his former belief in a personal Father God and in Heaven, the home of departed individual souls. There could be no consolation if conscious personal identity is lost at death. The novel ends with the surviving characters' firm consoling belief that there will be a large family reunion, in the afterlife, of all the individual Buddenbrook personalities.

Film and television adaptations

A silent film version directed by Gerhard Lamprecht was filmed in Lübeck and released in 1923.

Alfred Weidenmann directed a two-part film version of Buddenbrooks starring Liselotte Pulver, Nadja Tiller, Hansjörg Felmy, Hanns Lothar, Lil Dagover and Werner Hinz. Buddenbrooks – 1. Teil was released in 1959, and Buddenbrooks – 2. Teil was released in 1960.

Franz Peter Wirth directed a 10-hour TV version, premiered in 1979. It was filmed in Gdańsk, which had been less damaged by war than Lübeck was.

Another film version, starring Armin Mueller-Stahl, was released in 2008.

See also


  1. ^ "The Nobel Prize in Literature 1929". Retrieved November 11, 2012. 

External links

  • Buddenbrooks Map
  • Buddenbrooks: Verfall einer Familie (original German text)
  • "Buddenbrooks and the Novel of Business," Ted Gioia (Fractious Fiction)
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