Connection to Death in Venice
According to the author, he originally planned The Magic Mountain as a novella; a humorous, ironic, satirical (and satyric) follow-up to Death in Venice, which he had completed in 1912. The atmosphere was to derive from the "mixture of death and amusement" that Mann had encountered whilst visiting his wife in a Swiss sanatorium. This fascination with death, the triumph of ecstatic disorder over a life devoted to order, which he had explored in Death in Venice was supposed to be transferred to a comedic plane.
Thus, The Magic Mountain contains many contrasts and parallels with the earlier novel. The established author Gustav von Aschenbach is matched to a young, callow engineer at the start of a humdrum career. The erotic allure of the beautiful Polish boy Tadzio corresponds to the Asiatic-flabby ("asiatisch-schlaff") Russian Madame Chauchat. The setting itself has shifted both geographically and symbolically; switching from the flooded and diseased Italian coastlands to an alpine resort famed for its health-giving properties, with the threat of a fatal cholera infection in Venice becoming the sanatorium's promise of a respite from, or a cure for, tuberculosis.
Illness and death
The Berghof patients suffer from some form of tuberculosis, which rules the daily routines, thoughts, and conversations of the "Half-a-lung club". The disease ends fatally for many of the patients, such as the Catholic girl Barbara Hujus whose fear of death is heightened in a harrowing Viaticum scene, and cousin Ziemssen who leaves this world like an ancient hero. The dialogues between Settembrini and Naphta discuss the theme of life and death from a metaphysical perspective. Besides the deaths from fatal illness, two characters commit suicide, and finally Castorp goes off to fight in World War I, and it is implied that he will be killed on the battlefield.
In the above-mentioned comment Mann writes:
- "What Castorp learns to fathom is that all higher health must have passed through illness and death. [...]. As Hans Castorp once says to Madame Chauchat, there are two ways to life: One is the common, direct, and brave. The other is bad, leading through death, and that is the genius way. This concept of illness and death, as a necessary passage to knowledge, health, and life, makes The Magic Mountain into a novel of initiation."
Closely connected to the themes of life and death is the subjective nature of time, a leitmotif that recurs throughout the book—here the influence of Henri Bergson is evident. Thus Chapter VII, entitled "By the Ocean of Time", opens with the narrator asking rhetorically, "Can one tell – that is to say, narrate – time, time itself, as such, for its own sake?" Mann's authorial (and ironic) response to the question posed is, "That would surely be an absurd undertaking...", before going on to compare storytelling to the act of music making, with both described as being alike in that they can," ...only present themselves as a flowing, as a succession in time, as one thing after another..." .
The Magic Mountain, in essence, embodies the author's meditations on the tempo of experience.
The narrative is ordered chronologically but it accelerates throughout the novel, so that the first five chapters relate only the first of Castorp’s seven years at the sanatorium in great detail; the remaining six years, marked by monotony and routine, are described in the last two chapters. This asymmetry corresponds to Castorp’s own skewed perception of the passage of time.
This structure reflects the protagonists’ thoughts. Throughout the book, they discuss the philosophy of time, and debate whether "interest and novelty dispel or shorten the content of time, while monotony and emptiness hinder its passage". The characters also reflect on the problems of narration and time, about the correspondence between the length of a narrative and the duration of the events it describes.
Mann also meditates upon the interrelationship between the experience of time and space; of time seeming to pass more slowly when one doesn't move in space. This aspect of the novel mirrors contemporary philosophical and scientific debates which are embodied in Heidegger's writings and Einstein's theory of relativity, in which space and time are inseparable. In essence, Castorp's subtly transformed perspective on the "flat-lands" corresponds to a movement in time.
Magic and mountains
The titular reference to mountain reappears in many layers. The Berghof sanatorium lies on a mountain not only geographically, but also figuratively, a reclusive, separate world. The mountain also represents the opposite of Castorp's home, the sober, business-like and (for Joachim Ziemssen) mortal "flatland."
The first part of the novel culminates and ends in the sanatorium's Carnival feast. There, in a grotesque scene named after Walpurgis Night, the setting is transformed into the Blocksberg, where according to German tradition witches and wizards meet in obscene revelry; also described in Goethe's Faust I. At this event, Castorp finally woos Madame Chauchat; their subtle conversation is carried on almost wholly in French.
Another topos of German literature is the Venus Mountain (Venusberg) that also appears in Richard Wagner's opera Tannhäuser. This mountain is a "hellish paradise," a place of lust and abandon, where Time flows differently: the visitor loses all sense of time, and though he thinks his stay only lasts a few hours, when he finally leaves the mountain, seven years have passed. Also Castorp, who originally planned to stay for three weeks, leaves the Berghof only after seven years.
In general, the inhabitants of the Berghof spend their days in a mythical, distant atmosphere, full of references to fairy tales and sagas: The x-ray laboratory in the cellar represents the Hades of Greek mythology, where Medical Director Behrens acts as the judge and punisher Rhadamanthys and where Castorp is but a fleeting visitor, like Odysseus. Behrens compares the cousins to Castor and Pollux, Settembrini compares himself to Prometheus. Frau Stöhr mentions Sisyphus and Tantalus, albeit confusedly.
The culmination point of the second part of the novel is perhaps the – still "episodic" – chapter on Hans Castorp's blizzard dream (in the novel simply called "Snow"), where the protagonist gets into a sudden blizzard, beginning a death-bound sleep, dreaming at first of beautiful meadows with blossoms and of lovable young people at a southern seaside; then of a scene reminiscent mainly of a grotesque event in Goethe's Faust I ("the witches' kitchen", again in Goethe's "Blocksberg chapter"); and finally ending with a dream of extreme cruelty – the slaughtering of a child by two witches, priests of a classic temple. According to Thomas Mann's interpretation in the text, this represents the original, but deathly-destructive force of nature itself.
Of course, finally Hans Castorp awakens in due time, escapes from the blizzard, and returns to the "Berghof". But rethinking his dreams he concludes for the moment that "because of charity and love, man should never allow death to rule one's thoughts." Hans Castorp soon forgets this sentence, so for him the blizzard-event remains a pure interlude. But for Thomas Mann himself the sentence (which throughout the whole novel is the only one in italics) remains important, and so he states it, for personal consequences and for his readers.
References to Grimm's Fairy Tales abound. The opulent meals are compared to the magically self-laying table of Table, Donkey, and Stick, Frau Engelhardt's persevering quest to learn the first name of Madame Chauchat mirrors the queen in Rumpelstiltskin. Castorp shares his first name with Clever Hans, but perhaps also his naïveté. Although the ending is not explicit, it is possible that Castorp dies on the battlefield. However, Mann allows his fate to be unresolved.
As to the magical number seven: Castorp spends seven years at the Berghof, the central Walpurgis Night scene happens after seven months, both cousins have seven letters in their last name, the dining hall has seven tables, the digits of Castorp's room number (34) add up to seven, Settembrini's name includes seven in Italian, Joachim keeps a thermometer in his mouth for seven minutes, and Mynheer Peeperkorn announces his suicide in a group of seven. Joachim dies at seven o'clock. Even Castorp's parents die when he is seven.
- "Hans Castorp loved music from his heart; it worked upon him much the same way as did his breakfast porter, with deeply soothing, narcotic effect, tempting him to doze."
- "There is something suspicious about music, gentlemen. I insist that she is, by her nature, equivocal. I shall not be going too far in saying at once that she is politically suspect." (Herr Settembrini, ch. 4)
In fact, music plays a major role throughout Thomas Mann's work (as in many novels of the poet, already in the Buddenbrooks, but notably in Doktor Faustus): in The Magic Mountain, the recently perfected gramophone allows the Berghof people to listen to, e.g., Aida's final duet with Radames from Verdi's opera, and to Schubert's multivalent song "Der Lindenbaum" from the Winterreise, both full of mourning feelings in the view of death; the latter hints an invitation to suicide. Hans Castorp engages himself deeply in such performances. With the last-mentioned song of Franz Schubert on his lips, the protagonist is told to vanish on the battlefields of World War I . (This end of the novel is at the same time of parodistic character, concerning the romantic "love for death": e.g., see Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. It may also contain some amount of self-irony, since the song is sometimes considered as typical for prewar Germany, whereas the novel was published during the Weimar Republic, which Thomas Mann now strongly defended.) There are also some elements that suggest Debussy´s symphonic poem Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune as the orchestral piece in which Hans Castorp fantasizes about being a faun.
Mann uses the novel's main characters to introduce Castorp to the ideas and ideologies of his time. The author observed that the characters are all "exponents, representatives, and messengers of intellectual districts, principles, and worlds," hoping that he had not made them mere wandering allegories.
According to the author, the protagonist is a questing knight, the "pure fool" looking for the Holy Grail in the tradition of Parzival. However, he remains pale and mediocre, representing a German bourgeois that is torn between conflicting influences – capable of the highest humanistic ideals, yet at the same time prone to both stubborn philistinism and radical ideologies. As usual, Mann chooses his protagonist's name carefully: Hans is a generic German first name, almost anonymous, but also refers to the fairy tale figure of Hans im Glück and the apostle St. John (Johannes in German), the favourite disciple of Jesus, who beholds the Revelation (Offenbarung des Johannes in German). Castorp is the name of a prominent historic figure, Hinrich Castorp of Mann's hometown, Lübeck. The "torp" is Danish, not unexpected on the German north coast.
In a way, Hans Castorp can be seen as the incorporation of the young Weimar Republic: Both humanism and radicalism, represented by Settembrini and Naphta, try to win his favour, but Castorp is unable to decide. His body temperature is a subtle metaphor for his lack of clarity: Following Schiller’s theory of fever, Castorp’s temperature is 37.6°C, which is neither healthy nor ill, but an intermediate point. Furthermore the outside temperature in Castorp's residence is out of balance: it is either too warm or too cold and tends to extremes (e.g. snow in August), but never normal.
Settembrini represents the active and positive ideal of the Enlightenment, of Humanism, democracy, tolerance and human rights. He often finds Castorp literally in the dark and switches on the light before their conversations. He compares himself to Prometheus of Greek mythology, who brought of fire and enlightenment to Man. His own mentor Giosuè Carducci has even written a hymn to another lightbringer: to Lucifer, "la forza vindice della ragione." His ethics are those of bourgeois values and labor. He tries to counter Castorp's morbid fascination with death and disease, warns him against the ill Madame Chauchat, and tries to demonstrate a positive outlook on life.
His antagonist Naphta describes him as "Zivilisationsliterat". Mann originally constructed Settembrini as a caricature of the liberal-democratic novelist, represented for example by his own brother Heinrich Mann. However, while the novel was written, Mann himself became an outspoken supporter of the Weimar Republic, which may explain why Settembrini, especially in the later chapters, becomes the authorial voice.
Settembrini's physical characteristics are reminiscent of the Italian composer Ruggiero Leoncavallo.
Settembrini's antagonist Naphta was born a Jew but joined the Society of Jesuits and became a Hegelian Marxist. The character was a parody of the philosopher George Lukács, who "plainly has not recognized himself in Naphta", wrote Mann in a 1949 letter.
Chauchat: Love and temptation
Clawdia Chauchat represents erotic temptation, lust, and love, all in a degenerate, morbid, "Asiatic-flabby" form. She is one of the major reasons for Castorp's extended stay on the magic mountain. The female promise of sensual pleasure as hindrance to male zest for action imitates the themes from the Circe mythos and in the nymphs in Wagner's Venus Mountain. Chauchat's feline characteristics are noted often, her last name is derived from the French chaud chat (Eng., hot cat), and her first name includes the English claw. (Her name may also be a reference to the Chauchat machine gun, a French weapon that saw significant use by the French and American forces during World War I.)
Clavdia Chauchat leaves the Berghof for some time, but she returns with an impressive companion, Mynheer Peeperkorn, who suffers from a tropical disease.
Peeperkorn: The Dionysian principle
Mynheer Peeperkorn, Clavdia Chauchat's new lover, enters the Berghof scenery rather late; but he is certainly one of the most-dominating persons of the novel. His behavior and personality, with its flavour of importance, combined with obvious awkwardness and the strange inability ever to complete a statement, is reminiscent of certain figures in former novellas of the author (e.g., Herr Klöterjahn in Tristan) – figures, which are, on the one hand, admired because of their vital energy, and, on the other hand, condemned because of their naïveté. In total, this person represents the grotesqueness of a Dionysian character. The Greek god Dionysus is also important in Nietzschean philosophy, whose The Birth of Tragedy is the source of the title The Magic Mountain.
Peepercorn ends by suicide, also performed in a strange manner.
By Mynheer Peeperkorn the author of the novel simultaneously personalizes his rival, the influential German poet Gerhart Hauptmann, and even certain properties of Goethe (with whom Hauptmann often was compared).
Joachim Ziemssen, Hans Castorp's cousin, is described as a young person representing the ideals of loyalty and faithfulness as an officer. As already mentioned, Dr. Behrens alludes to the pair as "Castor(p) and Pollux", the twin brothers of the Greek mythology. And in fact, there is some affinity between the two cousins, both in their love to Russian women (Clavdia Chauchat in the case of Hans Castorp, the female co-patient "Marusja" in the case of Joachim Ziemssen), and also in their ideals. But, in contrast to Hans Castorp, who is an assertive person on the Berghof scene, Joachim Ziemssen is rather shy, known to stand somehow outside of the community. He tries to escape from what he, unspokenly, feels to be a morbid atmosphere. After long discussions with his cousin, and in spite of being warned by Dr. Behrens, he returns to the "flatlands", where he fulfills his military duties for some time. But after a while, forced by deterioration of his lungs, he returns to the Berghof. It is, however, too late for a successful treatment of his illness, and he dies in the sanitarium. His death is described in a moving chapter of the novel, with the title "As a soldier, and a good one" ["(Ich sterbe) als Soldat und brav"], again a well-known citation from Goethe's Faust.