The narrative follows the course of a man's life from his schoolboy days to his adulthood. The son of a north German merchant and a "Southern" mother (Consuelo) with artistic talents, Tonio inherited qualities from both sides of his family. As a child, he experiences conflicting feelings for the bourgeois people around him. He feels both superior to them in his insights and envious of their innocent vitality. This conflict continues into Tonio's adulthood, when he becomes a famous writer living in southern Germany. "To be an artist," he comes to believe, "one has to die to everyday life." These issues are only partially resolved when Tonio travels north to visit his hometown. While there, Tonio is mistaken for an escaped criminal, thereby reinforcing his inner suspicion that the artist must be an outsider relative to "respectable" society. As Erich Heller –who knew Thomas Mann personally– observed, Tonio Kröger's theme is that of the "artist as an exile from reality" (with Goethe's Torquato Tasso (1790) and Grillparzer's Sappho (1818) for company). Yet it was also Erich Heller who, earlier, in his own youth, had diagnosed the main theme of Tonio Kröger to be the infatuation and entanglements of a passionate heart, destined to give shape to, intellectualize, its feelings in artistic terms.
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