History: Thomas Mann started 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. This was his first novel and a huge literary success.
The 25-year-old high school dropout maintains an ironic detachment from a narrative that so closely paralleled characters and circumstances in his hometown that residents of Lubeck were scandalized.
Plot: Buddenbrooks is set in Lübeckin N. Germany. Old Johann and his French wife Antoinette invite their family and friends to celebrate their move (Oct. 1835) into their new home & business offices on Meng Strasse. He is the son of the founder, who established the wheat and grain wholesale firm of Johann Buddenbrooks in 1768. Consul Johann B. tells his father of the letter from his stepbrother Gotthold (Old Johann’s son from his marriage, to Josephine) demanding his part of the inheritance. Gotthold has married beneath the family's standards to a shop owner and is snubbed by JB2, who blames Gotthold for the death during his childbirth of Josephine. Antonie (Tony, 8 y/o), Thomas (10) , and Christian (7) are the children ofJohann Jr.
The guests discuss Napoleon and the French monarchy currently under Louis Philipp. The poet Hoffstede celebrates with a romantic verse. Christian takes sick. They debate the proposed Customs Union with Mecklenburg and Schleswig-Holstein. Johann advises his father against any further loss of capital to Gotthold.
Johann Jr. and Elisabeth Kröger have daughter Clara in 1838. Tony visits her wealthy grandparents and repulses the crude advances of Hermann Hagenström, thereby losing her friendship with Julie H. In 1841, Old Johann and later his wife Antoinette die and Gotthold receives a cash settlement.
Consul Johann takes over the business and constantly worries about the cash flow. Christian courts a theater woman regarded as a courtesan. Tony is sent to Therese Weichbrodt's boarding school, where she befriends Armgard von Schilling (an aristocrat from Mecklenburg), Gerda Arnoldsen (who plays the violin and is from Amsterdam), and Eva Ewers (now from Munich).
The commercial agent Bendix Grünlich courts Tony with her father's strong encouragement despite Tony's intuitive repulsion and objections. He claims to be doing well in his business. Tony is sent to summer in Travemünde (a resort town at the seashore), where she meets and falls in love with the pro-democracy, anti-aristocracy medical student, Morton Schwarzkopf. But her father favors Bendix, who has threatened suicide, and in 1845 she reluctantly consents to marry Bendix and live with him on the outskirts of Hamburg. Tom says goodbye to his secret lover, a salesgirl.
The ill-conceived revolution by the "rabble" of October 1848 in Lübeck is suppressed by the paternalistic words of consul JB3 and the stress causes the death of Lebrecht Kröger.
Tony has money problems with Grünlich, there is no love in the marriage, the banker Kesselmeyer demands repayment of his loans, and Grünlich is unmasked as a fraud. Her father consul JB3 takes Tony and her daughter Erika back into their home and refuses to help Grünlich, who announces that he only married her for the money. They divorce in 1850. Tom also moves back into the home. Lebrecht Kröger's wife dies leaving an inheritance. Justus Kröger, brother of Elisabeth, disowns his younger son Jakob and favors only his other son, Justus. Christian goes to Chile. Elisabeth becomes increasingly religious and has various religious meetings and hangers-on in her house.
In 1855, consul Johann dies. Finances are in good shape and Thomas vows to do great things with the firm. Christian returns and is acting strangely and inappropriately and complains of various symptoms. He is made head clerk at the firm but loses interest and spends excess time drinking, smoking, visiting the Club, telling stories, and womanizing.
Uncle Gotthold dies and his children are spiteful. Pastor Sievert Tiburtius of Riga proposes (1856) and marries Clara. Tom becomes engaged to Gerda Arnoldsen (1856) and marry. They have a lavish dinner party.
Tony visits Eva Ewers in Munich and meets Alois Permaneder, a hops merchant. Christian is becoming a buffoon, the laughing-stock of his friends, and is despised by Tom. Christian heads for Hamburg (1857). Permaneder visits and proposes to Tony, which she accepts despite his coarseness. After receiving the dowry, he immediately decides to retire and displays no ambition. He increases his drinking. She has a miscarriage. One night he arrives home drunk and attempts to molest the maid Babette (1859). Tony flees with her daughter back to her mother's home. Tom unsuccessfully tries to persuade her to return to Permaneder. Tony describes how out-of-place and unappreciated she felt in Munich. Permaneder surprisingly consents to divorce Tony and return the dowry.
Tom and Gerda's son Johann (the 4rth, "Hanno") is born 1861. Christian has an illegitimate daughter Gisela through the courtesan Aline in Hamburg. Tom defeats Hermann H. in the race for senator (1862). He and Gerda build an elegant new home 1863. Hanno is developing slowly. Clara dies of brain TB, Christian has rheumatic fever, and Tom becomes depressed. Tiburtius receives Clara's inheritance from her mother. Business is bad. In 1864, war breaks out between Denmark and Prussia and in 1866 with Austria.
Erika marries Hugo Weinschenk, a crude manager of an insurance company. Christian shares the mistress of his friend Andreas Giesenke. Tony's friend Armgard's husband Ralf von Maiboom has financial problems and Tom foolishly agrees to prebuy their crop (which is later destroyed by hail). Hanno has nightmares and seems overly sensitive. Tom is exhausted at 42 and is smoking too much, has a case of nerves. He reluctantly agrees to a celebration of the firm's centennial (1878). There he berates his wimpy son and receives the bad news about Armgard's crop damage from hail.
His wife Gerda makes music and with organist Edmund Pfühl. Hanno shows an interest in music and Gerda enlists Pfühl for lessons, about which Tom disapproves. Tom resents Gerda's cruel exclusion of him from her passion for music and sees it as a force separating him from his son. Hanno has poor health and dental problems. Hanno's friend Count Kai Mölln is a dirty but kind remnant of the aristocracy.
Hugo Weinschenk goes to jail for insurance fraud, prosecuted by Mortiz Hagenström, brother of Hermann-- the H.'s are having great success in town as the B.'s decline. Christian acts increasingly inappropriate. Hugo and Erika's belongings are sold off and she moves in with her mother & grandmother Elisabeth's in the Meng Strasse home.
Elisabeth dies a painful death of pneumonia (1871). The servants plunder her clothing. Christian announces he wants to marry Aline and adopt her children-- Tom forbids it and has control over his inheritance. Tom decides to sell the family home at Meng Strasse and Hermann H. buys it, turning part of it into profitable shops. The family's Christmas customs decline.
Tom becomes increasingly depressed and withdrawn, obsessed with his clothing and appearance. Raif von Maiboom, Armgard's husband, kills himself after his business failure. Hanno is bullied by the Hagenström kids and remains a sickly, anemic weakling. A summer vacation (1872) at the Travemünde seashore does not improve his health. Hugo gets out of prison early but is rejected by the family.
Gerda frequently receives a visitor, musically-inclined Lt. René von Throta, and Tom and the townsfolk wonder if she is having an affair. Tom's health is declining. He has a flash of inspiration and insight reading a metaphysical tome but lapses quickly back into conventional Christianity in all its incomprehensibility. He and Christian travel to Travemünde in fall 1874 for a rest. In 1875, he has an abscessed molar extracted and afterwards collapses, dying soon thereafter.
Christian moves to Hamburg and marries Aline but eventually ends up in a sanatarium (asylum). Gerda sells their elegant home and the firm disadvantageously and dismisses the long-faithful attendant Ida Jungmann. Hanno is 15 and is doing poorly in school. His friendship with Kai is thought to be "foul and hostile", perhaps with homosexual undertones. Hanno laments that Pastor Pringsheim says that he comes from a degenerate family and that he has lost all hope, will never amount to anything, and wants to die.
Hanno dies of typhoid or typhus (Feb. 1877 or 78) and Gerda resolves to sell all her possessions and abandon her Lübeck life and move back with her father in Amsterdam. Christian remains institutionalized. Sesame rejects Tony's skepticism about Christian beliefs and insists she will see Hanno in heaven.
Review: Like Goethe, to whom he devoted a novel ("The Beloved Returns") and several thoughtful essays, Thomas Mann published his first and most enduringly popular novel at the age of 25. Unlike "The Sorrows of Young Werther" (1774), Goethe's brief epistolary account of the frustrations of life and love leading to the troubled hero's suicide, Mann's "Buddenbrooks" (1901) chronicles four generations in the history of a prosperous North German bourgeois family.
"Buddenbrooks" was conceived as a novella not unlike "Werther," or Mann's own "Tonio Kroger." Initially fascinated by the figure of the sensitive young Hanno Buddenbrook, the music-loving scion with appalling teeth and miserable digestion whose death from typhoid marks the end of the family line, Mann planned to recount Hanno's story in a 250-page recit . Gradually the need for explanatory background drove Mann two generations back beyond Hanno's father, the fastidious Senator Thomas Buddenbrook. He appealed to his family for material: North German recipes, family gossip, the social history of Lubeck, medical details. As Mann composed the novel over the next two and a half years -- first in Rome and then in Munich, where he was working as an editor for the satirical weekly Simplicissimus -- it grew until, in the summer of 1900, he mailed off a huge manuscript written on both sides of lined foolscap.
The saga as first published in two volumes picks up the tale of the Buddenbrooks in 1835 at the peak of their financial prosperity and family stability. Old Johann Buddenbrook, son of the founder of the family firm, has just moved the family and the business into one of the most handsome houses in town. As the novel begins, he is holding his 8-year-old granddaughter Tony on his knee and testing her playfully on her Lutheran catechism. In the course of the short first chapter we meet his wife as well as his son and daughter-in-law, and we hear about his two grandsons, Thomas and Christian.
By the time the novel ends 42 years later, the aging yet still spirited Tony is almost the only surviving member of the family. Her parents and grandparents, as well as Thomas and a younger sister, have died. Christian is confined to an asylum, and the only male heir is dead. The house has been sold and the firm liquidated. In the course of hundreds of pages we have witnessed a succession of marriages, births, divorces and deaths punctuating the decline of the initially robust family -- a decline brought about (in Mann's Weltanschauung ) by the weakening of business acumen and ethics as the family succumbs to the enticements of wealth, with its inevitable concomitants of sickly religiosity, artistic inclinations and disease.
Opening Line: “And – and – what comes next?”
Closing Line: “She stood there, a victor in the good fight which all her life she had waged against the assaults of Reason: hump-backed, tiny, quivering with the strength of her convictions, a little prophetess, admonishing and inspired.”
Quotes: “Beauty can pierce one like pain.”