Criticism marks the origin of progress and enlightenment • The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann - Breaking With Tradition • 1900–1945

The Literature Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained - James Canton 2016

Criticism marks the origin of progress and enlightenment • The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann
Breaking With Tradition • 1900–1945






1795—96 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe publishes Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, often called the first Bildungsroman.

1798 German author Ludwig Tieck publishes Franz Sternbald’s Wanderings, a Romantic novel with hallmarks of the Bildungsroman.

1849—50 Charles Dickens’ partly autobiographical book David Copperfield is published.

1855 Swiss author Gottfried Keller publishes Green Henry, a crucial Bildungsroman, and also partly autobiographical.

1916 A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce, shows that the Bildungsroman has a place in Modernist literature.

Widely considered to be Thomas Mann’s masterpiece, The Magic Mountain has many claims to greatness: it is regarded as one of the best German novels of all time; one of the finest works of the 20th century; a sublime dark comedy and rumination on death and disease; and a key work of Modernism. It is also a fine example of a Bildungsroman (“novel of formation”), a genre that had its roots in 18th-century Germany, and is still going strong today.

Although earlier examples are sometimes cited, many studies place the birth of the genre at the publication of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship in 1795—96. It contains all of the key ingredients, being the story of a young artist’s formation, or Bildung: his struggle to find expression and happiness, and his eventual acceptance of his place in society. Over the succeeding decades and then centuries, many other great writers felt a desire to tell a story roughly similar to their own: in France, Gustave Flaubert published A Sentimental Education; in England, Charles Dickens wrote David Copperfield; and the Irish writer James Joyce offered A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The genre’s influence spread across Europe and then the world.


The “magic mountain” on which the Berghof is located is a symbol of the sanatorium’s metaphorical distance from the rest of the world: a secluded place where even time flows differently.

Inspired by sickness

The Magic Mountain had its beginnings in Thomas Mann’s visit to a high-altitude sanatorium in Davos, Switzerland, in 1912, where his wife was recovering from a lung infection. It was at first intended to be a slim volume to accompany the novella Death in Venice, which he had published that year. However, it expanded in the telling, as, with the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Mann became very aware that the world he was describing was coming to a sudden and violent end. His views on both nationalism and bourgeois society were greatly changed by the conflict, in which he saw the values of so-called civilization driving society blindly towards mass death and destruction. The novel had thus taken on greater significance, and continued to grow in size. After the war Mann revised the text for many years, eventually publishing the novel in 1924, when it was hailed as a masterpiece.

The Magic Mountain tells the story of a young man called Hans Castorp, who goes to the Swiss Alps to visit his cousin Joachim in a sanatorium (a hospital dedicated to the treatment of people who have a chronic illness, often tuberculosis) called the Berghof. Hans has good prospects, and is about to take up a job in the shipbuilding industry.

With its clear air, spectacular surroundings, few visitors, and quiet, peaceful atmosphere, the hospital exists in its own small, enclosed world. Once he is there, Castorp himself begins to display symptoms of tuberculosis, and is persuaded to stay until he has recovered. He ends up remaining in the sanatorium for seven years. The plot of the novel revolves around the various patients whom he meets, and the relationships that he develops with them.


"All interest in disease and death is only really another expression of interest in life."

The Magic Mountain

An education in life

It is from the other patients in the sanatorium that Hans Castorp receives the education — in art, politics, love, and the human condition — that all Bildungsroman heroes must gain. Mann uses the characters as representatives of the different ideas and belief systems of pre-World War I Europe. We meet Leo Naphta, a Jew-turned-Marxist Jesuit; Ludovico Settembrini, an Italian secular humanist; and Mynheer Peeperkorn, a hedonistic Dutchman with a tropical disease. Each of these characters attempts to sway Castorp towards his own way of thinking, meaning that a great part of the book is taken up with philosophical debates. There is a woman, too, called Clawdia Chauchat, with whom Castorp falls in love, thereby receiving his necessary education in romance and erotic temptation.

Where most Bildungsromans involve a physical as well as an emotional journey, The Magic Mountain makes a point of staying geographically in one place — the Berghof; and the journey it offers is through Western (and to some extent Eastern) ideologies. It is almost as if the height of the mountain itself provides the young Castorp with a view across all of Europe at this crucial juncture.

The book serves as both a major example of a Bildungsroman and a parody of the genre. The essential elements of the Bildungsroman are all present: a young, impressionable hero who is setting out in life; an education process that is often difficult, but which he comes through in one piece; and at last, a venturing forth. Castorp must go through the experience of sickness and recovery to arrive at a true appreciation of life. Therefore the book unquestionably belongs to the genre. Yet Mann parodies or challenges it on almost every level.

"I, for one, have never come across a perfectly healthy human being."

The Magic Mountain

Layers of parody

On one level, there are the various lessons that Castorp receives. Different characters offer views of the world that contradict each other, and it is not clear whether Mann approves of any of them. In earlier Bildungsromans, the lessons learned and the values gained by the central character are intended to be approved of, or agreed with, by the reader. So, for example, David Copperfield in Dickens’ novel might learn not to take people at face value. The Magic Mountain rejects this formula. As a Modern novel it is aware that there are many ways of looking at the world, and none of them is necessarily the right one. Considering this as Mann’s viewpoint, the whole purpose of the book as a novel of education is revealed to be parody.

Deep down, the Bildungsroman genre had always been an earnest enterprise and it is this that Mann is poking fun at. For example, the narrator maintains an aloof attitude towards Castorp himself, thereby reminding the reader that he is a mediocre young man. And whereas the Bildungsroman hero should be fully formed by the end of the book, in fact Castorp emerges with no real sense that he has learned anything from the lessons in life and philosophy he has received over the course of seven years.

"It is love, not reason, that is stronger than death."

The Magic Mountain

Adrift in time

Mann undercuts the purpose of the Bildungsroman in other ways, in particular as regards the theme of time and its relation to narrative progression. The passage of time is a crucial matter to those who are sick and dying, and yet in the hermetically sealed environment of the sanatorium time is something that is very hard to keep track of. The patients calculate the amount of time that has passed only in units of one month. Any past event, however long ago, is said to have happened “just the other day” — a habit Castorp himself eventually adopts. It is important to our idea of a Bildungsroman that an education should be an ongoing process, a story told in sequence. Yet Mann deprives Castorp (and the reader) of this structure, or perspective on events. Incidents are loose in time, and we cannot pin them down: each successive chapter covers an increasing amount of time, from one day to six years.

The Magic Mountain is thus deeply disparaging towards its own genre. It contains all the contents of a Bildungsroman while showing them (in the cold light of Modernist thought) to be a sham, or that their benefits are at best impossible to calculate. It is not surprising, then, that the book has inspired relatively few imitators; it is too much like the last word in the genre, and perhaps too grand and brilliant in scope and sweep, for anyone to want to follow in its footsteps.

Writers have nonetheless continued to find new uses for the genre, exploring themes that range from postcolonialism and modern history (as in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children) to sensual and sensory awakenings (Perfume by Patrick Süskind).


Chronically ill patients at high- altitude sanatoria in the Swiss Alps lived in a rarefied atmosphere, with events in the world “down there” barely impinging on their lives.



Thomas Mann was born to a wealthy family in Lübeck, northern Germany, in 1875. He first came to attention with his early masterpiece Buddenbrooks, published when he was just 26, a novel about the decline of a wealthy family much like Mann’s own. In 1905 he married Katia Pringsheim, the daughter of a wealthy Jewish industrialist; they had six children, three of whom became writers. In 1929, Mann was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

In 1933, Mann left Germany for Switzerland, and on the eve of World War II he moved to the USA, where he taught at Princeton University before settling in California and becoming an American citizen. During the war he made a number of anti-Nazi speeches recorded in the USA and broadcast from Britain to Germany. After the war he returned to Europe; he died in Switzerland in 1955, aged 80.

Other key works

1901 Buddenbrooks

1912 Death in Venice

1933—43 Joseph and His Brothers

1947 Doctor Faustus

See also: Jane EyreDavid CopperfieldLittle WomenA Sentimental EducationDeath in VeniceA Portrait of the Artist as a Young ManTo Kill a MockingbirdMidnight’s Children