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Thomas Mann: Buddenbrooks (Buddenbrooks)

This is Mann’s first great novel and one of the great bourgeois novels. It tells the story of the Lübeck family the Buddenbrooks. In 1875, when the novel starts, the family business is prosperous and the family is doing well. Antonie (Tony) the daughter is wooed by a well-to-do but older businessman, Grunlich. She is disgusted by the idea of marrying him and runs away, only to fall in love with a poor medical student. Her family get her back and she realises her duty and marries Grunlich. Her marriage is not happy, as Grunlich keeps her hidden away in the country but she finally accepts her duty. However, it seems that Grunlich is not as well off as thought and had only married Tony to use the Buddenbrook name to help his own business. Tony gets a divorce and returns to the family home with her daughter. She subsequently marries again but this second marriage is equally unsuccessful and she divorces this second husband.

Tony has two brothers and it is Tom that takes control of the business but, after initial success, the business starts to fall on hard times. Tom has a son, Johann, who is sickly and who will die in a typhoid epidemic soon after his father collapsed and died in the street. The other brother – Christian – is weak and mainly interested in his actress girlfriend who he is finally able to marry when Tom dies, only for her to put him an institution, claiming he has lost his mind. Tony’s daughter, Erica, makes a bad marriage and her husband ends up in prison. With Hanno’s death, the Buddenbrook line ends.

Mann tells a wonderful story, using what will be one of his favorite themes – death and decay. In this case it is the death and decay of an entire family but, of course, the family mirrors old Europe which we will see decaying in Mann’s later work in various forms. In many respects this is clearly a nineteenth century novel but its theme also foretells the twentieth century and is the start of Mann’s exploration of the twentieth century soul.

Publishing history

First published in German by Fischer 1901
First published in English 1924 by Knopf