The Magic Mountain can be read both as a classic example of the European Bildungsroman – a "novel of education" or "novel of formation" – and as a sly parody of this genre. Many formal elements of this type of fiction are present: like the protagonist of a typical Bildungsroman, the immature Castorp leaves his home and learns about art, culture, politics, human frailty and love. Also embedded within this vast novel are extended reflections on the experience of time, music, nationalism, sociological issues and changes in the natural world. Hans Castorp’s stay in the rarefied air of The Magic Mountain thus provides him with a panoramic view of pre-war European civilization and its discontents.
Thomas Mann’s description of the subjective experience of serious illness and the gradual process of medical institutionalization are of interest in themselves, as are his allusions to the irrational forces within the human psyche at a time when Freudian psychoanalysis was becoming prominent. These themes relate to the development of Castorp's character over the time span covered by the novel, a point that the author himself underlined. In his discussion of the work, written in English, published in the Atlantic in 1953 Mann states that "what [Hans] came to understand is that one must go through the deep experience of sickness and death to arrive at a higher sanity and health . . . ."
At the core of this complex work is an encyclopaedic survey of the ideas and debates associated with modernity. Mann acknowledged his debt to the skeptical insights of Friedrich Nietzsche concerning modern humanity and embodied this in the novel in the arguments between the characters. Throughout the book the author employs the discussion with and between Settembrini, Naphta and the medical staff to introduce the impressionable Castorp to a wide spectrum of competing ideologies about responses to the Age of Enlightenment. However, whereas the classical Bildungsroman would conclude by having "formed" Castorp into a mature member of society, with his own world view and greater self-knowledge, The Magic Mountain ends as it has to for "life's problem child" as a simultaneously anonymous and communal conscript, one of millions, under fire on some battlefield of World War I.