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Die Buddenbrooks
Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family

Thomas Mann

Average Review Rating Average Rating 10/10 (1 Review)
Book Details

Publisher : Everyman's Library

Published : 1901, 1994

Copyright : Thomas Mann 1901

ISBN-10 : HB 1-85715-107-0
ISBN-13 : HB 978-1-85715-107-7

Publisher's Write-Up

This is a study of decadence among the merchant families of Hamburg at the end of the 19th century. The novel is based on Mann's own experience as the son of a German merchant prince, but goes beyond his own experience in its sweep.

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Reader Reviews

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Review by Alex (310506) Rating (10/10)

Review by Alex
Rating 10/10
Remember the time when as a child you could turn round a book after finishing the last page, re-start it right away and enjoy it immensely again and again and again? I thought that was an ability only kids have until I read (and re-read and re-read and re-read and...) Thomas Mann’s Die Buddenbrooks.

It is the epic story of the decline of a merchant family in the North-German town of Lübeck in the 19th century. Opening in 1835 with a banquet celebrating the move of the family to the biggest and most glamorous house in town, the reader is thrown right away in the mentality of the time and social class. The bourgeois Buddenbrook family is at its height in grandness, social and economical prominence and future prospects. Their business is making profit, three generations are living under one roof, their influence in the political affairs of the town is growing stronger, and four children seem to secure future happiness and wealth for the family. Mann describes their world in detail, from the food that is served to the clothes they wear, the furniture that surrounds them and their daily routines. He masterly pictures the characters with all their hopes, fears and ambitions, and all this in a brilliantly flowing language.

Though Mann treats his characters lovingly he always keeps in an ironic distance and through that it soon becomes clear that the wealth and grandness of the Buddenbrook family is not as stable as it may seem to its members. The story mainly follows two of the children, Thomas and his sister Antonie. Thomas takes over the company. Like a crown prince he has been prepared for this task all his life. First he succeeds, business goes well and he becomes even Senator in Lübeck. But over the time he can hardly bear the pressure of his role, and it becomes a mere mask that is harder and harder to keep intact. He feels that he has to pay too high a price for the little extravagancies that he grants himself to be able to continue. His self-doubts start to eat him up, he loses his vigour and business instincts and puts little hope in his only son Hanno who to him seems nothing but weak.

If Thomas is the prince Antonie is the princess and she exactly behaves like one. Her task is to marry a prosperous merchant and keep up the grand lifestyle she is used to. At the age of nineteen she is talked into a marriage that seems to be a good match to her family. Though all her instincts and feelings speak against this marriage Antonie after some time and in an act of free will takes up the role she is supposed to play in the history of the family and agrees. Only though to be divorced a few years later as her husband turns out to be a not so wealthy and honest businessman who only married her to save his own financial neck. We follow Antonie through another marriage that doesn’t live up to her expectations either and also ends in a divorce. She herself has to admit at the age of 34 that she has run down her branch of the Buddenbrook family and that it is all up to Thomas now, that she herself is utterly useless.

These personal stories take place in front of the background of major social and economic changes in Germany on its way into 20th century modernity and uncertainty. And the Buddenbrooks family’s ways and more and more refined attitudes as a kind of bourgeois nobility prove to fail here and turn into an echo of a long gone world. With the artistic, but dreamy and introvert Hanno the Buddenbrook family dies. Nothing is left, another now prosperous, successful and pragmatic family rooting in the present has taken over the grand house, and the Buddenbrooks sink back into meaninglessness.

All the pains Thomas and Antonie take in their life cannot prevent what seems to be the fate of the Buddenbrooks. Whatever they touch to promote the family’s wealth and prosperity seems to go the opposite way. Like a natural cycle of ups and downs some families prosper while others decline and vice versa. Single decisions could probably have been altered but the bigger picture seems to be a fixed destiny.

Part of this destiny is the washing out of vital social abilities and attitudes over the generations: Antonie’s addiction to luxury and grandeur silences her otherwise natural instincts for happiness; Thomas’ disposition to philosophical questioning and hiding behind a mere mask of strength and vitality withdraw him from his pragmatic and life facing peers. Their brother and sister, a hypochondriac dandy and a dried-up religious fanatic fail from the beginning to contribute their share. In Thomas’ son Hanno nothing of the health and strength and vigour of his forefathers is left. He inherits his mother’s talent (she’s a musician, Thomas’ marriage to her he sees as one of his extravagancies) but he has no ability whatsoever to give his life focus and direction. He dies of typhus at the age of 15.

Thomas Mann wrote Die Buddenbrooks at the age of 24, describing the story of his own family in Lübeck. It is his masterpiece and sets the tone and many of the themes for his following works, one of them being the refined and sophisticated artistic attitude opposed to the simple, healthy and pragmatic life facing stand.

Needless to say that I love this book and could go on and on and on about it. I read it about 7 times in the last 15 years, and I’ll definitely read it again. The characters are vividly drawn, their relationships, motivations, thoughts and feelings are viewed lovingly and ironically at the same time, their lives give a deep insight in a changing time and society, and all this is done in an effortless and delicious language (in the German original). If you read just one German classic, this should be it.
Alex (31st May 2006)

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