Duty,Pride, And Merit In Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks Essay, Research Paper
October 11, 2001
Theories of Familial Duty in Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks
The novel Buddenbrooks was written by Thomas Mann in 1901. He was born in 1875, soon after the unification of Germany. He wrote several books, short stories, and essays for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. With the advent of World War II, Mann left Germany and lived the rest of his life in San Diego until his death in 1955.
Mann’s novel, Buddenbrooks takes place in Lubeck, (Northern Germany) from 1835 until roughly 1875-76. The novel opens with the Buddenbrook family having a dinner party. It is a sort of housewarming party for the Buddenbrooks who have recently moved to one of the biggest homes in the town after the previous owners, the Rastekamps, are forced to sell and leave the town after their firm fails. We learn that the Buddenbrook family is one of the most powerful merchant families in the town, enjoying it’s height of wealth and prestige. We are introduced to Johann Buddenbrooks, the patriarch of the family, but soon see that it is Jean, his son, that is truly in control of the family’s affaires. In the very first part of the book it is evident that the “decline of the family” is already beginning when Johnann’s first son, Gotthold, (from his first marriage) sends three letters demanding a larger share of the family business. Gotthold has married below his station, sent away with his inheritance, and ignored by the family. As the book continues, we learn that the primary characters are really Jean’s children, Tony, the oldest child, and Thomas, the middle son. The third son, Christian, manages to bring only embarrassment and loss of money to the Buddenbrooks family. Clare, the youngest daughter is hardly mentioned; she is a pious, serious girl who marries a pastor. The novel spans four generations, but most of the action follows the lives of Thomas and Tony Buddenbrook, the third generation. Tony Buddenbrook grows up a very privileged and pretty girl. At the age of 18 or so, a businessman named Grunlich asks for Tony’s hand in marriage. Tony becomes so depressed at the idea of marrying Grunlich that her parents send her on a vacation to the Baltic Sea. She meets a young medical student named Morton Schwarzkopf. They fall in love with each other, and it is because of Morten that Tony begins to see and understand the social class system; to see why people want to change the status quo, and that sometimes people need to sacrifice themselves for a higher cause. Tony returns home speaks to her father, looks in the family Bible at the significant events in the Buddenbrooks family history, and realizes that she must marry Grunlich out of duty to her family. Tony marries Grunlich, a few years pass, Tony has a daughter named Erika, and then the walls begin to collapse around her. It is discovered that Grunlich has made his “money” by actually borrowing money on the credit of the Buddenbrook family’s reputation. Tony leaves her dishonest and bankrupt husband, divorces him, and moves back home with her family. Thomas, the second son, follows in his father’s footsteps, taking over the Buddenbrook firm and reinvigorating it with his youthful ambition and ideas. The Buddenbrook family is still regal and respected. Thomas marries well, Gerda Arnoldson, a childhood schoolmate of Tony’s, and is soon made both a consul and a Senator. With this new power and prestige comes more responsibility and anxiety. Tony marries again, this time an older man from Munich, but this marriage too, ends in divorce after Herr Permaneder “retires” on Tony’s dowry, and is then caught in a liaison with the maid. Things for the Buddenbrook family look up when Thomas and Gerda have a son, Hanno, named after his great-grandfather. As the only heir to the Buddenbrook name and fortune many hopes and expectations are forced upon him. Erika Grunlich (Tony’s daughter) faces a similar marital fate as her mother. She marries a man named Hugo Weinschenk, has a daughter, and then her marriage too falls apart after Weinschenk is convicted and incarcerated for insurance fraud. The antics of Christian only serve to further tarnish the Buddenbrook’s social standing. He is lazy, wastes the family’s money by spending his inheritance on drinking, going to the theatre, spending a good part of his time with a “courtesan”. Once the Buddenbrook firm has begun to collapse, other familial tragedies occur. After the death of Madame Buddenbrook (Tony and Thomas’s mother), the family mansion must be sold to the Hagenstroms, the rival family and firm of the Buddenbrooks. Christian marries his courtesan and is soon institutionalized for being mad. Soon after, Thomas collapses in the street and dies of a tooth infection and hemorrhage. Just months later, Hanno, the only Buddenbrook heir (and not particularly promising heir either), dies in a typhoid epidemic at the age of 15. It is with the death of Hanno that the novel concludes. It traces the fluctuation of the power and wealth of the Buddenbrook family, while always demonstrating the continuous decline of the once prestigious merchant family.
The novel Buddenbrooks has several themes, but one of the most ubiquitous is that of the magnitude of familial duty in 19th Century Germany. The concept of familial duty is not one that contemporary Americans can relate to easily. There are several reasons for this. The nuclear family is not necessarily the traditional family of the past and the extended family does not play as important a role as before. Historically, the family was the focal point of ones activities and ambitions. Today it is uncommon for someone to follow in their “father’s footsteps”, or to view marriage strictly as a business arrangement that will bring money or honor to the family. In the era of Thomas Mann, not only was this common, but it was expected of the aristocratic and wealthy merchant families in Europe. Mann traces the decline of the family through the actions of primarily Tony and Thomas Buddenbrook. However, this is not because their devotion to family honor led to their downfall. Rather, it serves as a contrast to Christian Buddenbrook in particular, their brother who brought shame upon his family as a direct result of his egotism and lack of sense of familial duty. Mann is very deliberate in showing that the decline of familial duty results in a decline in the family structure as a whole. He also is clear about the inevitability of the decline of the traditional class system in general. Despite loyalty to the family, “flaws”, e.g. people like Christian, Gotthold, etc., in the noble classes, only aid the revolutionary cause. The novel traces not only the decline of the family, but also the transfer of importance from familial duty to duty to oneself, the duty to make “Merit the only crown.” (134)
Tony Buddenbrook is portrayed as the most dutiful child in the family. At the age of 18 she marries a man she despises in order to bring honor to the family, and to the Buddenbrook firm. Initially, Tony is adverse to the idea of marrying for fiscal purposes. She wants to wait until she meets someone she loves to make a commitment. Ironically enough, it is not until she falls in love with someone who is not in her social class that she understands the importance of family duty. When Tony meets Morten Schwarzkopf she is still a silly, egocentric child. It is not until they discuss life and politics, particularly the reality of “sitting on the stones”, that Tony begins to see things from an external perspective. “Sitting on the stones” is a metaphor that means that no matter what, one must always do things one would rather not do, but must because they have to be done. Morten says that Tony will “as Madame Such-and-such…will vanish for good and all into your elegant world and…it’s off to sit on the stones for the rest of one’s life.” (136) A letter from her father has a similar effect on Tony. “We are not born, my dear daughter, to pursue our own small personal happiness, for we are not separate, independent, self-subsisting individuals, but links in a chain; and it is inconceivable that we would be what we are without those who have preceded us and shown us the path that they themselves have scrupulously trod, looking neither to the left nor to the right, but, rather, following a venerable and trustworthy tradition.” (144) Early on in her life, Tony realizes that she is, indeed a link on a chain, and to uphold her family’s social position, she must be willing to sacrifice herself to enjoy the benefits of being in a wealthy, merchant family. Ironically, Tony believes that she must act this way out of familial duty, rather than because she truly believes that this is the correct way to live. She continues to reiterate the revolutionary ideas presented to her by Morten Schwarzkopf throughout her entire life. Even in her old age “She would repeatedly assert the freedom and equality of all men, dismissing class hierarchy out of hand, castigating privilege and the abuse of power and expressly demanding that the only crown be the crown of merit.” (647) Tony Buddenbrook was always the most concerned with keeping up the family’s name and image. She was the most distressed when any harm came to any of her family members, the firm, or when other firms and families, particularly the Hagenstroms fared better than the Buddenbrooks. When she divorced Grunlich, Tony desperately wanted to remarry as soon as possible because, “…by marrying a second time…I am making up for my first marriage. It’s my duty, I owe that much to our family name.” (335) Indeed, it is Tony, forever obsessed with Buddenbrook prestige and duty, that manages to keep the family together, encourage the other Buddenbrooks to maintain the family name and reputation. However, with the death of Thomas, Tony realizes that “It’s all over now.” (664)
Thomas Buddenbrook is the sole Buddenbrook that keeps the firm and reputation. Like Tony, Thomas meets and falls in love with someone out of his social class, and also decides that his duty as a son is more important fulfilling his own desires. He to believes that familial duty is the highest calling of all. After the death of his disinherited uncle Gotthold, Thomas performs a morbid soliloquy for himself and his uncle. “But one must keep up appearances. You had…to little of the idealism that enables a man to cherish, to nurture, to defend something as abstract as a business with an old family name- and to bring it honor, power, and glory. That requires a quiet enthusiasm that is sweeter and more pleasant, more gratifying that any secret love.” (269, 270) Thomas goes on to become the head of the Buddenbrook firm, as expected of him. He brings the firm new money, invigorates his employees with his enthusiasm for business, and manages to keep the firm’s reputation, despite a steady decline in business. Thomas even manages to makeup for Tony’s marital failures through his marriage to the rich Gerda Arnoldson. Gerda and Thomas are even able to produce an heir to the Buddenbrook family, Hanno. Throughout his life, Thomas manages to maintain his family’s reputation. He believes that the opinion of the public is crucial. As a result, he is fastidious in his appearance and in his actions. It goes so far as to prove eccentric and tiresome. He struggles both personally and professionally. He makes some business decisions that his forefathers would not have made because they did not “Make for a peaceful night’s sleep.” (Advice from his father on making business decisions, p. 173), and these cost him both financially and mentally. Thomas reads a book, a pessimistic book that causes him feel as though his life has not been worth living. He decides to turn his life around, but when pausing to think about what the consequences would be of carrying out his new philosophy, he goes back to his old ways. “When he awakened feeling slightly embarrassed by the intellectual extravagances of the night, he had an inkling of how impossible it would be to carry out his fine intentions…He …began to ask himself whether his experiences of the previous night were truly for him…His middle class instincts were roused now- and his vanity as well: the fear of being seen as eccentric and ridiculous. Would such ideas really look good on him? Were they proper ideas for him, Senator Thomas Buddenbrook, head of the firm of Johann Buddenbrook?” (637) In some ways, Thomas is arrogant about the way things are changing. When a “merely middle class man” (644) is elected to the Senate, Thomas clearly voices his disapproval. “…Standards are being lowered- yes, the general social niveau of the senate is on its way down…It offends something in me. It’s a matter of decorum, it’s simply bad taste.” (644) Eventually the struggle to maintain the family business, personal appearance, and the status quo is too much. Thomas collapses dead in the street. With the death of Thomas, comes the final blow to the Buddenbrook family’s era of wealth and prestige. His wife says, “You can’t believe how he looked when they brought him in. No one has ever seen even a speck of dust on him, he never allowed that, his whole life long. What vile, insulting mockery for it to end like this.” (659) The Buddenbrook mansion, Thomas’s new house, are sold, the firm liquidated. It is with the death of Thomas that the Buddenbrook family reaches its nadir. The death of Hanno, the only Buddenbrook heir, is merely the period at the end of the sentence.
The novel traces the decline of the Buddenbrook family through the actions of those most desperate to sustain it. Mann’s message seems to be that the decline of the aristocratic families is not fiscally based, but rather the result of a shift in priorities. The traditional system only worked when everyone fulfilled their duties to their family. When individual members of the noble families began to marry into other social classes they not only reduced their financial supremacy, but also weakened their family unity. Individualism is seen as a weakness in characters such as Gotthold, Christian, and Hanno. Mann portrays the Buddenbrook family as both noble and ignorant. He seems show some admiration for the loyalty that Tony and Thomas have for their family and their duty to bring it honor, while at the same time mocking their futile and vain intentions to maintain the status quo. The novel Buddenbrooks is a good representation of the benefits and detriments of familial duty, as well as the conflicts that they presented, during 19th Century Germany.