“Buddenbrooks” is a 1901 novel by the German author Thomas Mann. The novel was Mann’s first and was published when he was only 26 years old. The novel was a success and was directly referenced as part of the reason that Mann won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1929.
Mann reported that his chief goal in writing the novel was to represent the clash between the world of business and the world of art in the form of a family saga.
“Buddenbrooks” centers around a wealthy German family of the same name. The novel takes place over the course of around 40 years, spanning the family’s trails between 1835, when they move into a lavish new house to 1877 when, with most of the family dead from various illnesses and old age, the eldest daughter is left alone with her adult daughter and granddaughter. The novel tells the story, primarily of the difference between the business mind of the eldest son, Thomas and the free-spirited, artistic mind of his brother Christian.
The novel has been adapted several times, including a silent film version in 1923 and a 10-hour TV-version in 1979.
The year is 1835 and the wealthy and well respected Buddenbrooks family host a party for friends and relatives at their home in Lubeck, Germany. The Buddenbrooks are a family of grain merchants. The father of the family, Johann Jr. has a wife named Antoinette and one son named Johann III. Johann III is an adult and has a wife of his own named Elizabeth and three young children named Thomas, Christian and Antonie. The family also has several servants.
The first few chapters consist of the party, which is a housewarming party for the family’s new home. “Some adults seated themselves on the chairs, some on the sofa, and they chatted now with the children, commented on the unseasonable cold, on the house. Herr Hoffstede was admiring the splendid inkwell… that graced the secretary. Dr. Grabow, however, a man about the same age as the consul (Johann Jr.) with the long, kind and gentle smiling face framed in whiskers, was inspecting the cakes, raisin bread and various saltcellars set out for display on the table. This was the “salt and bread” sent by various relatives and friends to mark the move to a new house. But as evidence that these were gifts from persons of some substance, the bread came in the form of sweet, spicy, heavy pastries and the salt in the sturdy gold containers.”
It is while they are enjoying the party and engaging with their guests that a letter comes from Johann Jr’s estranged son, Gotthold. Johann Jr had a falling out with his son over life choices that he disapproves of many years ago and the two have barely spoken since. The book does not, at this point, explore what the life choices were but it does say that Gotthold’s letter concerns his demand for compensation for his share in the house. Gotthold is the half-brother of Johann III. Johann Jr. ignores the letter and goes back to the party, trying his best to forget about the interruption. After the conclusion of this party, the narrative speeds forward a few years. Johann III and Elizabeth have another daughter who they name Clara.
Johann III begins working on a family tree and it is from this that we learn more about the Buddenbrooks’ history. It is revealed that his father, Johann Jr. was married once before he wed Antoinette. This woman was the mother of Johann Jr’s son, Gotthold. Johann Jr. disliked Gotthold from a very early time.
“Johann Buddenbrook appeared to have felt and honest and bitter hatred of this new creature from the moment his first brash movements began to cause his mother such terrible pain—to have hated him when he came into this world, healthy and lively, whereas Josephine had died, her bloodless head buried in her pillows, and never to have forgiven this unscrupulous intruder, growing up so robust and carefree, for the murder of his mother.” He admits that he would have transferred his love of Josephine to their son but found that he could not as he had seen his eldest son “only as the person who wickedly destroyed his happiness.”
Later, Johann Jr. met and married Antoinette. But although he loves her, he never felt the same passion for her that he did for his first wife. Johann III finds the family tree, a diagram that was made by his his grandfather, the first Johann Buddenbrook. From there, it is revealed that the Buddenbrooks line dates back to the sixteenth century when the oldest known Buddenbrook lived in Parchim. Later, another Buddenbrook, a merchant tailor had married a woman from Rostock and “done very well”, siring a remarkable number of children.
Many years later, the first Johann found the grain business that the Buddenbrooks now own. The first Johann added many personal notes to the family genealogy, including notes about his own illness and accidents at work. In the end, he added advice for his descendants. “My son, show zeal for each day’s affairs of business, but only for such that make for a peaceful night’s sleep.” Johann realizes that this family bible should have rightfully been passed down to Gotthold, as he is the eldest son.
Over the years, the children begin to grow and their personalities begin to develop before the family’s eyes. Thomas becomes the more focused and diligent one, seems set to inherit the family’s grain business. Christian is more spontaneous and easily distracted. The girl, Antonie (whom they call Tony) has only grown more full of herself. She is proposed to by a young man from a similarly positioned family to the Buddenbrooks and refuses the offer. The boy, Herman Hagenstrom takes the rejection in stride but Tony develops a hatred of him that lasts for the rest of her life.
Soon, Antoinette passes away. Johann III joins the family grain business at the age of sixteen and he sets to work with “total devotion”. Shortly after his wife dies, Johann Jr passes away as well. Johann III takes over the family business and offers Gotthold a share of the inheritance. Gotthold takes it, but still dislikes Johann Jr. as do his three adult daughters.
A business man named Benedict Grunlich makes an acquaintance with the family and Tony immediately dislikes him. Elizabeth calls him “a man with perfect manners” and most in the family consider him a respectable gentleman and a good Christian. Tony takes a vacation in a Baltic resort in order to avoid him. Eventually, however, her father being pressuring her to marry Grunlich. She relents and marries the man although she still dislikes him.
The married couple are unhappy but eventually they have a daughter named Erika. However, later it is revealed that Grunlich had been embezzling from his business in order to pay a debt. He only married Tony because he had hopes that Johann would pay this debt for him.
When Johann hears of the debt, he refuses to pay it. He brings Tony and Erika back to his house with him. Tony moves into the third floor of the house that her parents had lived in when Johann Jr and Antoinette were alive. She is disappointed when she is told that her father will not hire another maid for her and even more so when he tells her that, although she is not to blame for the circumstances surrounding her divorce, she must stay out of society for a while as her position as a divorced woman is very precarious.
“But Tony had the lovely knack of being able to adapt readily to any situation in life simply by tackling it’s new possibilities. She was soon enjoying her role of ‘innocent woman afflicted by tragedy.” Grunlich goes bankrupt and he and Tony obtain a divorce only four years after they married.
Elsewhere, Christian begins traveling the world, going all the way to Chile. Thomas, who had been studying in Amsterdam, returns home and begins working at the grain business. The business experiences a worker’s strike in 1848. The strike begins very suddenly while Elizabeth and Clara are sitting in their home. “Suddenly they heard the noise of shouts and screams, some kind of insolent yowling, plus whistles and the stamping of a great many feet on pavement – coming closer now and growing.”
Clara innocently questions what the noise is and Elizabeth panics when she looks outside, saying “It’s the revolution! It’s the masses.” Johann must leave the house as he has a meeting with the board of the company. He manages to sneak out the back of the house but finds when he gets to the meeting that the strikers are also heading that way. The rest of the council panics while Johann tries to calm them down, saying that the mob will leave soon. He decides to go out and talk to the mob though the others try to hold him back, fearing that he will be hurt or even killed by the angry and unruly strikers.
When he emerges outside, he finds that the crowd is not very large and most are young workers and even some schoolchildren. Picking out a worker that he knows from the crowd, Johann asks the man, Smolt what he is doing. The man, embarrassed tells him that “things have come to a pass” and they are having a revolution.
Johann demands that the workers head home. But they refuse. Johann asks the crowd, through Smolt what it is they really want. They tell him they want a republic (or a union). Johann reminds them that they already have one. Smolt tells him they want another one. For some reason, this causes the crowd to break out into laughter, easing the tension. Johann suggests again that they go home. The unintelligent Smolt is so dumbfounded by the effect that his words had on the crowd that he tells Johann they will let their concerns rest for now and thanks him, telling him they will see him later on. “In the best of moods now, the crowd began to disperse.” Before he can leave, Johann order Smolt to go and fetch the carriage of one of the board members and Smolt does so without hesitation. Johann and Elizabeth begin to become closer to their religion in their old age.
In 1855, Johann dies while the family is gathered in the house. Everyone is downstairs when suddenly the atmosphere changes. “Suddenly something happened – a soundless, terrifying something. It felt as if the humidity had doubled; in less than a second the atmospheric pressure rose rapidly, alarmingly, oppressing heart and brain and making breathing difficult. A swallow fluttered so low over the street that its wings seemed to brush the cobblestones. And this knot of pressure, this tension, this growing constriction of the body would have been unbearable if it had lasted a split second longer, if the shift, the release had not followed, a break that liberated them, an inaudible crack somewhere – though they all thought they heard it. An at that same moment, the rain was falling in sheets, almost as if not a single drop had preceded it, and water gushed and foamed in the gutters, lapping over the sidewalks.”
Christian, who is more accustomed to noting the changes in his nerves because of a strange illness, looks around the room and wonders if anyone else felt the change. He thinks that perhaps his mother sensed it but no one else seemed to have noticed a thing.
After Johann’s funeral, Thomas takes over the business, as predicted. Christian returns from traveling and goes to work for his brother at first but soon finds that he hates the day-to-day of running a business. Christian regularly complains of his strange illness and gains a reputation in the town for being a drunk, a liar and a womanizer. Thomas sends Christian away to protect the reputation of the business and his own reputation as well. Thomas later marries a woman named Gerda who is a musician. The youngest Buddenbrooks child, Clara marries a pastor but she soon dies of tuberculosis before having any children with the man. Tony marries again to a man called Alois Permaneder, a hops merchant from Munich.
Once Permaneder receives the dowry from the marriage, he retires from his job and begins living off of Tony’s money while drinking away his days in the local bar. Tony gives birth to another baby but the child unfortunately dies and Tony is left devastated by the loss. Tony discovers Permaneder drunkenly sexually assaulting their maid and leaves him to return with Erika to Lubeck. Permaneder apologizes to her in a letter and agrees not to contest the divorce. He also returns her dowry.
Thomas becomes both a father and a senator. He builds a large, beautiful house but soon regrets it as the upkeep is a waste of his time and money. Johann Jr. house begins to fall into disrepair as it is now too small for the family. Thomas struggles to keep the business afloat through the 1860’s. His hard work and diligence are all that keep the business going during this time. In 1868, Thomas throws a party to celebrate the centennial of the business. But during the party he receives more news about another big loss. Erika is now grown and marries a man named Hugo Weinschenk who manages an art insurance company. Erika soon has a daughter that she names Elizabeth. Hugo gets arrested for insurance fraud and is sent to prison.
Thomas’s son, Johann IV is born sickly and stays this way as he grows up. He is withdrawn and melancholic and gets bullied by other children. His only friend is a boy named Kai Molln. Kai is a count and he and his eccentric father are both remnants of an old aristocracy. Johann IV discovers that, like his mother he has a strong aptitude for music and this helps him bond with Christian. Thomas is generally very disappointed in the boys frivolity and illness. Herman Hagenstrom becomes a successful business man and buys the Buddenbrooks old house after Elizabeth dies of pneumonia in 1871. Tony, Erika and the younger Elizabeth have to move out of the house.
Christian falls for a woman named Aline, who has questionable morals and several illegitimate children, one of whom may even be Christian’s. Thomas forbids their marriage and, as he controls the inheritance, his word is law. Thomas sends Johann IV to another town to hopefully improve his health. Johann enjoys the resort, but returns in the same poor health that he was in before. Hugo is released from prison but he is no disgraced and broken. He leaves Germany and never comes back.
Thomas grows older and more and more wearied by the demands of the failing business. He begins suspecting that his wife is cheating on him. In 1874, he goes on a vacation with Christian and a few old friends to a resort. When he returns he shortly collapses and dies. In his will, he advises that the business be liquidated for profit, showing his complete lack of faith in Johann IV.
All of the family’s assets, including the mansion that Thomas built are sold at a loss. Christian gains control of his inheritance from his father and finally marries Aline. But soon, his illness returns and because of his often strange behavior he is admitted to an insane asylum. His money is left to Aline who spends it on herself. Johann remains sickly and hates school, managing to pass his class only through cheating. Everyone in society dislikes him except for his family and his friend, Kai. In 1877, he dies of typhoid fever.
His mother returns to Amsterdam. Only Tony, Erika and little Elizabeth are left of the once thriving Buddenbrook family. The women now face complete bankruptcy and at the end of the novel, they only have the hope that they will be reunited in the afterlife with their family to give them solace.
Johann Buddenbrook Jr. – at the start of the novel, Johann Jr. is the patriarch of the Buddenbrook family. He runs the grain business left to him by his father. Johann was married once before his current wife, Antoinette. Johann was married to a woman named Josephine whom he loved passionately. Unfortunately, Josephine died giving birth to their son, Gotthold. Because of this death, Johann Jr. spends his whole life hating Gotthold and neglecting him as a son.
Johann Jr. is the one who buys the spacious Buddenbrook house that the family live in for most of the rest of the novel. Over the years, the house falls into disrepair and eventually has to be sold when the family falls on hard times.
Johann Buddenbrook III – Johann III takes over running the grain business after his father and mother pass away. Johann III is a slightly different character to his father. Never having the initial heartbreak of losing his young wife, Johann III is very supportive and loving toward his children, despite the fact that he is somewhat of a hard man.
Johann is a good leader and quells the somewhat misguided strike from his workers easily, although he lets his anger get the best of him in the situation.
Antoine Buddenbrook – Antoine or “Tony” is the daughter of Johann III and Elizabeth. Antoine is perhaps the most outspoken and developed character in the novel and also the only original Buddenbrook to make it to the end of the book. Tony is somewhat spoiled. She is opinionated and occasionally harsh. She marries twice, first to Grunlich and then, after divorcing him, marries Permaneder a few years later, leaving him after he sexually assaults a maid.
Tony has a daughter named Erika whom she loves greatly. Tony spends the rest of her life caring for Erika even after the woman is grown and has a child of her own.
Thomas Buddenbrook – Johann III’s eldest son. Thomas is the more intelligent and business-minded of Johann’s sons. It is Thomas who inherits the grain business and manages it for his entire life. Though he sees some failings in the business and sometimes falls on hard times, he still keeps control of the company.
Unlike the other characters, Thomas does not inherently like his son. Johann IV is born very sickly, and Thomas finds him weak. It is not until his death that he admits to his son that he loves and forgives him.
Christian Buddenbrook – Johann III’s youngest son. Unlike his brother, Christian is more of a free spirit and a dreamer. He does not enjoy any aspect of running the business and leaves that over to Thomas very early on after their father’s death.
Christian complains his whole life of a strange, unidentified illness that many assume is in his mind. Eventually, he is admitted into an insane asylum because of his illness and his strange behavior. He dies there.
Thomas Mann Biography
Thomas Mann was born on June 6, 1875 in Lubeck, Germany. The son of a senator and a grain merchant, Mann was raised Lutheran despite the fact that his mother was Roman Catholic. In 1891, Mann’s father died and his business was foreclosed. As a result of this, Mann’s family moved to Munich. Mann begin attending Ludwig Maximillians University of Munich and the Technical University of Munich where he studied history, literature, and economics.
After university, Mann began working with the South German Fire Insurance Company with his brother, Heinrich. His career as a writer began in 1898 when man’s first short story, “Little Mr. Friedemann” was first published in Simplicissimus magazine.
In 1905, Man married Katia Pringsheim, the daughter of a wealthy Jewish industrialist. The couple went on to have six children. 1912 he and his wife moved to a sanatorium in Switzerland where he began writing one of his most famous novels “The Magic Mountain”. Part of his reasoning for moving to Switzerland was his discussed over the coming outbreak of World War I. Mann began publishing longer works at this time such as ‘Death in Venice’ (1912).
In 1929, Mann was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for his novel “Buddenbrooks” (1901). After being informed that he was not allowed to return to Germany, Mann later emigrated to the United States where he taught at Princeton University in 1939. In the early 1940s, Mann and his family moved to Los Angeles, California where they became prominent members of the literary community.
Throughout this time, Mann produced some of his best known novels, including the epic tale “Joseph and His Brothers” a series that took over 16 years to write. He also wrote “Doktor Faustus” (1947) during this time.
During World War II Man was heavily anti-Nazi and participated in offering anti-Nazi speeches to the German people via BBC radio. In 1952 Man and his family returned to Europe to live near Zürich, Switzerland. Though he was at this point allowed to return to Germany, he never again lived in his home country. In 1955 he died of atherosclerosis in Zürich and he was later buried in the cemetery in Kiltchburg.