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Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks tracks the course of a patrician family in the late nineteenth century north Germany. The novel describes the decline of the Buddenbrooks family over four generations from the period of 1835 to 1877. The story is infused with social criticism of bourgeoisie society. This criticism is shown clearly in the characterizations of the third generation within the Buddenbrooks family: Antonie, Christian and Thomas. It is also clear in the overriding themes presented throughout the novel.
The character of Antonie Buddenbrook, a third generation daughter of Jean Buddenbrook, was a criticism of middle class expectations of women. From her childhood Antonie, or Tony as she was affectionately called, was expected to marry for the purpose of creating a business alliance rather than for love. Tony is persuaded by her parents to marry an up and coming entrepreneur, Herr Grulich. Her mother in trying to persuade Tony into this union said, "…this marriage is precisely the sort to which duty and destiny call you." (Mann 103) Tony then realized that it was her duty, according to nineteenth century bourgeoisie values to marry Herr Grunlich, a man many years her senior. Once engaged it is stated that Grunlich regards Tony "with little more than the air of a satisfied owner". (Mann 159) Eventually business losses cause Tony to be divorced from Grunlich to avoid having the Buddenbrook family name be associated with failure in the business world. After time she finds another suitable businessman to marry and proceeds to marry this man, Herr Permeander, from South Germany. This marriage is also dissolved because of Permeander's lack of faithfulness. This leaves Tony an embittered woman mired by scandal. The story of Antonie criticizes the duteous, subordinate role of women in 19th century Germany. Cultural norms dictated that women were to be domesticated. The middle class code was becoming ineffective and loyalty to this tradition contributed to the decline of this bourgeoisie family.
Christian Buddenbrook, the younger son of Jean was the embodiment of the fashionable decadence and excess present in the mid to late nineteenth century. Christian was far too imaginative and irresponsible for the business world He gallivants around the world drinking, gambling and aligning himself with sordid characters. Christian's character is showing how middle class refinery and extravagance will lead to its decline. Christian's flaws are merely exaggerated traits that can be seen throughout the family. Christian's decline mirrors the eventual decline of the family.
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The central figure of the novel was Thomas Buddenbrooks, eldest son of Jean. Thomas learns and continues the family business to carry his familial duty as eldest son. In the beginning of his life in the business world Thomas is energetic. But throughout the course of the novel the driving force behind his actions wanes. This driving force is the same force that drives Tony to marry Herr Grunlich, family pride and ultimate self-importance. Towards the end of his life Thomas realizes that in his quest for greatness he has lost his 'true self'. "The imagination elan and cheerful idealism of youth were gone" (Mann 593) This is a criticism of the oppressiveness of middle class society. These social values and norms of the bourgeoisie that he believed contributed to prestige were the same things that would lead to his loss of vitality and eventual demise. He comes to realize this in part because of his relationship to his son, Hanno. Hanno, the only male successor to the Buddenbrooks 'throne', was a sickly child with great musical capabilities. He realizes that he is not suited for the business world and clearly rejects the middle class norms that would require him to become a businessman. Thomas is infuriated by this and makes various gestures to force Hanno to be a proper heir until he comes to realize that he is placing the same middle class oppression that is destroying him on his son.
The themes that acted as a social critique of North German bourgeoisie society was that decline was not caused by external factors but by the standards that were the underpinning of middle class society and the refusal to stray from these standards. The attainment of the two things the family believes is necessary for survival: money and a male heir to carry the Buddenbrooks name is what cause the demise of the family. This is first illustrated in the extreme emphasis placed on material wealth. Mann describes in extraordinary detail the décor of the Buddenbrook home. In the description of the dining room Mann says, "The heavy red curtains at the windows had been closed, and in each corner of the room eight candles burned in tall, gold-plated candelabrum (Mann 16)". The family continued this display of wealth even when the business was going under and there was little money left. This is also shown in the refusal of Tony to rid herself of any of the servants. Also, as business practices evolved and became more modernized in the nineteenth century, the refusal to abandon traditional business practices by the Buddenbrooks family caused them to be left behind in the sweeping economy. At the end of the story (late-nineteenth century) the accumulation of wealth had become less concrete. Stock markets and joint stock companies began generating massive amounts of capital; effectively removing the economy from the hands of individual family managed firms.
Another overwhelming social criticism within Buddenbrooks is the presentation of extreme class-consciousness. This is presented clearly in several scenes of the novel. One such scene is in the description of the people waiting outside the meeting hall to discover the results of the elections to local Senate. The differences in the mere appearance between lower class sailors and servants and the middle class were striking. The lower classes being rougher and shabbily dressed, while the middle class, including the "…young well dressed merchants…" (Mann 406) appeared more refined. Lower class language is presented as almost simple in comparison to the refined tongue of the middle classes. This shows the difference in educational opportunities between the classes. The class-consciousness is also shown in the relationship between Tony and the character of Morton, a student of medicine and the son of a sea captain. Tony is very much in love with Morton. She says to him,"I am very fond of you, fonder than anyone I know" (Mann 140). Despite this affection Tony marries Herr Grunlich because he is of proper social status. Finally, this is also illustrated in the dealings with the landed aristocracy of crop sales and Tony's deep admiration for the decadence of the feudal classes.
In conclusion, Buddenbrooks is a social commentary of nineteenth century German life. In examining a single patrician family Thomas Mann illustrates the pitfalls associated with the middle class standards of refinery and extravagance. Although this novel is fiction, it mirrors reality with its examination of the self-awareness of the nineteenth century.