I am thoroughly enjoying Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family, and I gave some initial thoughts on the work about a month ago, here.
I was only about a third of the way when I wrote that post, and today I’m nearly 60% (430 of 731) complete. The father of the family, Johann Buddenbrooks (JB3), has long passed away, and the children have reached middle age and manifested their dysfunctionalities. Tom, the oldest, vain and consumed by profit, has taken over the Buddenbrooks business, Christian has developed into a hypochondriac and fails at every endeavor he’s put to, Tony has married and divorced twice to horrible choices for husbands, and despite her saying she is now a mature woman is actually quite childlike in her naiveté, and Clara, the most religious of the children, has married a poor pastor and decided to live a simple and humble Christian life.
As I mentioned in that July post the key I think to understanding this novel is to arrive at a reason for the family decline. It’s there in the subtitle, “The Decline of a Family.” I gave a list of possible reasons for that decline in that July post, and one of them was the “breakdown of the family.” It is true that the children’s families are not anywhere as strong as their parent’s. Tom marries the reclusive Gerda, whose sole passion in life is to play the violin; Christian has not married so far but has had affairs with loose, theater women, even a married woman, and even fathered a child. Tony has been divorced twice, first to a scheming swindler and second to a lazy philanderer. Clara has married far below her station, but in accordance to her faith and heart. Perhaps her name, “Clara” which means “clear, bright” is a hint toward the theme of the novel—the name also famously belongs to St. Claire of Assisi, who is often depicted as holding a light— and let us remember that Clara is the child who we see Johann the father bless her at birth, as I quoted in the Part 1 post.
But Clara the character is a relatively minor character, and if Thomas Mann were trying to bring this point to the fore he would have integrated her more into the narrative. She is not dysfunctional as the other three; she is not as attractive as the other three, and her personality is introverted and muted. Those are all contrasts to the other three, and that is something to take note of. Still the dysfunctionality of the children does not really get to the heart of the question. Sure the dysfunctionality somewhat leads to decline, but why are they dysfunctional to begin with? Why would the children of JB3 and Elizabeth, from a wealthy and loving family, be lesser people from their parents? While I’ve added to the list of possible causes, I’ve yet to feel I’ve come to the theme.
I want to conclude this post with an extended quote from a scene between the two brothers, Tom and Christian, where Christian is pushed out of the Buddenbrooks business because of his incompetence and the embarrassment he has caused the firm while joking at the town Club the night before. Here we see Tom the hard businessman and Christian the irresponsible fool. Christian as usual has come in late to work the next morning.
He [Christian] was smoking—he had just finished breakfast and a quick game at the Club. His hat was cocked a little low and he was swinging his yellow walking stick, the one from “out there,” with the carved ebony bust of a nun on the knob. He was obviously in good health and the best of moods. He was humming some melody or other as he came into the office, said, “Morning, gentlemen,” although it was a lovely spring afternoon, and added as he strode to his seat, “Have to get bit of work done.”
But the counsel [Tom] stood up and as he walked past he said, without looking at Christian, “Ah—a couple of words with you, my friend.”
Christian followed him. They walked rather rapidly through the outer room. Thomas had crossed his hands behind his back, and involuntarily Christian did the same and turned his head toward his brother, so that his large nose, its bony hook set squarely between his hollow cheeks, jutted out above his drooping reddish-blond English mustache. As they moved across the courtyard, Thomas said, “I’ll ask you to accompany me while I take some air in the garden, my friend.”
Let me just break in here and tell you that for quite some time, Thomas has been repulsed and frustrated with his brother. They are complete opposite in nature, Tom the disciplined businessman, Christian the devil-may-care bohemian. Tom is seething within, and yet he is controlled and calls his brother, “my friend,” which he is clearly not. Let me resume.
“Fine,” Christian replied. And then came a long silence, during which they followed the outside path, passing the rococo façade of the “Portal” and skirting the garden, which was just coming into bloom.
Finally the counsel took a quick breath and said in a loud voice, “I am terribly angry—on your account.”
“Yes. Someone at the Harmony told me about a remark you made yesterday at the Club—a remark so out of place, so indescribably tactless that I cannot find words for it. And the fiasco was soon complete—you were given the most dreadful dressing-down on the spot. Do you care to recall the incident?”
“Oh, now I know what you mean. Who told you all this?”
“What does it matter? Döhlmann. And, of course he told me in a voice so loud that people who perhaps hadn’t heard about it yet could gloat over it, too”
“Yes, Tom, I must tell you, I felt quite embarrassed for Hagenström.”
“You felt…That’s really too much. Now, listen to me!” the counsel shouted, stretching both his hands before him, palms up, and he tilted his head to one side, giving it a demonstrative and excited shake. “There you are surrounded by both business and professional men, where everyone can hear you, and you say, ‘Seen in the light of day, actually, every businessman is a swindler’—you who are a businessman yourself, a part of the firm that strives with might and main, for absolute integrity, for a spotless reputation.”
“Good heavens, Thomas, it was a joke. Although, actually…” Christian started to add, wrinkling his nose and thrusting his head forward at a little angle. And, holding this pose, he walked a few more steps.
“A joke! A joke!” the counsel shouted. “I think I can take a joke—but you saw for yourself how your joke was taken. ‘Well, I for one think very highly of my profession.’ That was Hermann Hagenström’s answer. And there you sat—a man who has wasted his life away, who has no respect for his own profession.”
“Yes, Tom, but what does one say then? I assure you that the whole mood was shot to hell. People were laughing as if they agreed with me. And there sits Hagenström, all dreadfully serious, and says, “Well, I for one…’ What a stupid fellow. I was truly embarrassed for him. I thought long and hard about it lying in bed last night, and it gave me such a strange feeling. I don’t know whether you know it, it’s…”
“Stop babbling, I beg you, stop babbling,” the counsel interrupted. His whole body trembled with anger. “I will admit, yes, I will admit that his answer perhaps did not fit the mood, that it was in bad taste. But one seeks out the proper audience for saying something like that—if it really must be said. But you don’t lay yourself open to such an insolent dressing-down. Hagenström used the opportunity to get back, not at you, but at us, us. Surely you realize what he meant with his ‘I for one,’ don’t you? He meant: ‘Apparently you come by such notions in your brother’s office, Herr Buddenbrook.’ That’s what he meant, you ass!”
“Well, ‘ass’ is a bit…” Christian said with a chagrined, anxious look on his face.
“In the final analysis, you don’t belong just to yourself alone,” the counsel continued. “But I assure you it is a matter of total indifference to me if you personally make a ridiculous fool of yourself. And when don’t you make a fool of yourself?” he shouted. He was white, and blue veins were clearly visible on his narrow temples, from which his hair fell back in two waves. He had lifted one pale eyebrow, and even the stiffened, long ends of his mustache showed his anger; and as he spoke he flung his words with dismissive gestures on the gravel path at Christian’s feet. “And you are making a fool of yourself with your little love affairs, with your buffoonery, with your sicknesses, with your remedies for your sicknesses.”
Tom claims an important point, which highlights the internal tension within the family: “In the final analysis, you don’t belong just to yourself alone.” Each of the family members belongs to the firm, and so have an internal tension between their individuality and the family identity. We saw this earlier when Tony felt it impossible to marry man she first loved because he was outside the business world.
“Oh, Thomas,” Christian said, shaking his head very seriously and lifting an index finger rather ungracefully, “as far as that goes, that’s something you can’t really understand. The thing is—a man has to come to terms with his own conscience, so to speak. I don’t know if you know the feeling. [Dr.] Grabow prescribed a salve for the muscles here on my neck. Fine. And if I don’t use it, forget to use it, I feel quite lost and helpless and get all nervous and anxious and unsure of myself, and when I’m in that state I can’t swallow. But if I use it, then I feel I’ve done my duty and that everything is in order; my conscience is clear, and I feel calm and content, and swallowing is absolutely effortless. I don’t think the salve itself does it, you see. But the main thing, you understand, is that one idea can only be canceled by an opposing idea. I don’t know if you know the feeling…”
Oh yes, yes! the counsel shouted and held his head in both hands for a moment. “Go ahead and do it! Do what you must, but don’t talk about it. Don’t babble on about it. Leave other people in peace with your disgusting sensibilities. You make a fool of yourself from morning till night with your indecent babblings. But let me tell you this, I’ll repeat once more: I could not care less if you personally make a fool of yourself; but I forbid you, do you hear me, I forbid you ever to compromise the firm in the manner in which you did yesterday evening.”
Christian offered no response to this, except that he slowly ran his hand through his thinning reddish-blond hair and his face turned serious and anxious, his eyes drifting about absent-mindedly, seeing nothing. He was doubtless still preoccupied with what he himself had last said. There was a long pause.
Let me break in here again. Both characters dysfunctions are apparent here. Yes, Christian by making that “All businessmen are swindlers” comment was degrading to the firm, and Hagenström is a company rival who will try to make hay from it, but in the end it was just a joke, and nothing does come of it. Christian is seen as an unserious dilettante, but Thomas is overly effected by a joke. He’s over reacting, because his character is vain and can’t accept a smudge to his persona. Plus he has come to hate his brother. Let me continue because this reaches to a very important point.
Thomas stalked away in quiet desperation. “All businessmen are swindlers, you say,” he began again. “Fine. Are you tired of your job? Do you regret having become a businessman? You once convinced Father to allow you to…”
“Yes, Tom,” Christian said pensively, “but I would have much preferred to study. It must be very nice at a university, you know. You go to classes when you feel like it, quite voluntarily, you sit down and listen just like in a theater.”
“Just like in a theater. Oh, you belong in a café chantant, as the comedian. I’m not joking, I’m in dead earnest. I am quite convinced that that’s your secret goal in life,” the counsel asserted. And Christian certainly did not contradict him—just looked wistfully about.
“And you have the audacity to make such a remark, when haven’t the vaguest, not the vaguest idea of what work is. Because you fill up your days with the theater and strolling about and buffooneries, creating a whole series of feelings and sensitivities and conditions to keep yourself occupied, to observe and nurse them, so that you can shamelessly babble on about them.”
“Yes, Tom,” Christian said, a little morosely, running his hand across his head again. “That’s true; you’ve put it quite accurately. That’s the difference between us, you see. You enjoy watching a play, too, and you once told me, just between us, that you had your little affairs, and there was a time when you preferred reading novels and poems and such. But you’ve always known how to reconcile that with regular work and a purpose in life. That’s what I lack, you see. I get totally used up by the other things, all the junk, you see, and have nothing left for the respectable part of life. I don’t know if you know the feeling, but…”
Perhaps Christian has articulated another reason for the family’s decline: Christian lacks a purpose in life, and perhaps while the business world might satisfy some people, the children of the owner of the Buddenbrook’s firm may not have the inherent disposition to carry on his business, and therefore their directed purpose is in opposition to their natural inclinations. Still, while we might see this with Christian, and perhaps Tony to a lesser extent, but Tom is clearly in a life that is congruent with his natural inclinations, and so is Clara’s.
“So, then, you do understand!” Thomas shouted stopping in his tracks and crossing his arms on his chest. “You admit it to your own shame, and yet you go on in the same old way. Are you a dog, Christian? Good God in heaven, a man has his pride! One doesn’t go on living a life that one wouldn’t even think of defending. But that’s what you do. That’s who you are. It’s enough for you just to perceive something and understand it and describe it. No, my patience is at an end, Christian.” And the counsel took a step backward, lifting his arms violently so that they stood straight out at his sides. “It’s at an end, I tell you. You draw your salary and never come to the office—although that’s not what exasperates me. Go ahead and piddle your life away, just as you’ve done so far. But you compromise us, no matter where you are, where you go. You’re an abcess, an unhealthy growth on the body of your family. You’re a scandal to the whole town, and if this house were mine I would turn you out, I would show you the door!” he shouted, gesturing wildly across the garden, the courtyard, the large entryway. He could no longer contain himself—it was an explosion of all the rage he had stored up inside him.
“What is the matter with you, Thomas!” Christian said, now seized by a fit of anger himself—which looked rather odd on him. He stood there in a pose not unusual for bowlegged people, bent in a kind of question mark, his head, belly and knees shoved forward, and his round, deep-set eyes, as large now as he could make them, had a flush around the edges that spread down to his cheekbones—just like his father when he was angry. “How dare you speak like that to me,” he said. “What have I ever done to you? I’ll go, all on my own, you don’t need to throw me out. Shame, shame!” he added as a heartfelt reproach and accompanied the words with a quick snapping movement of one hand, as if he were catching a fly.
Strangely enough, Thomas did not react with a more violent outburst, but silently lowered his head and started slowly back on the path around the garden. It seemed to have satisfied him, to have actually done him good, finally to have made his brother angry, to have at last enabled him to react vigorously and raise some protest.
Tom has reached a point where the conversation is gravitating to where he wanted to go, that is, finding a way to push Christian out of the firm. His anger and repulsion now transitions to Machiavellian reasoning.
“Believe me,” he said quietly, his hands crossed behind his back again, “when I say this conversation has been painful for me, Christian, but it had to happen sometime. There is something awful about such scenes within a family, but we had to have it out once and for all. And now we can discuss these matters quite calmly, my boy. You’re not happy at your present position, I see, right?”
“No, I’m not, Tom. You’re right there. You see, at the start I was really quite content, and I do have things better here than I would in a strange office. But I lack independence, I think. I always envy you when I see sitting there and working, and it isn’t really work for you. You don’t work because you have to—you’re in charge, you’re the boss, and you let others do your work for you. You make your calculations and supervise things and are quite free. That’s something very different.” (p. 312-17)
I won’t quote any more. It goes on to where Christian is pushed out of the Buddenbrooks firm and set up as a partner in another firm in Hamburg. Later, we find out he’s a failure there too.
Fantastic scene. This is one of those passages I wished I had written.