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Buddenbrooks

Thomas Mann

Plot Summary

Buddenbrooks

Thomas Mann

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1901

Plot Summary
Buddenbrooks is the first novel published by German author and philosopher Thomas Mann. The book was published in 1901 to great acclaim. Buddenbrooks is regarded as Mann’s greatest work and was cited as the primary reason for Mann being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1929. The novel details the lives of the bourgeois German family, the Buddenbrooks, over multiple generations, from 1835 to 1877, during the Revolutions of 1848, the Austro-Prussian War, the Unification of Germany, and the establishment of the German Empire in 1871. The book was the subject of some controversy upon its initial release because it was such a realistic portrait of 19th-century Lübeck society that it was perceived as a roman à clef, or a “key novel” (a story representing real people and events under different names, under the guise of fiction).

At the beginning of the novel, in 1835, readers are introduced to the Buddenbecks, an affluent family of grain merchants, as they host a dinner party in their new home. Johann Jr. and his wife, Antoinette, have one adult son, Johann III, whom they call Jean. Jean is married to Elizabeth, and the couple have three children: their sons, Thomas and Christian, and a daughter, Antonie, or Tony. As the novel progresses, Jean and Elizabeth will have another daughter named Clara. The children are cared for by one of the family’s servants, Ida Jungmann. During the dinner, Johann Jr. receives a letter from his estranged son, Gotthold, which he ignores. Johann expresses his disapproval for Gotthold’s lifestyle and choices.

As she grows up, Tony becomes arrogant and rejects the advances of Herman HagenstÓ§m, who is the son of another middle-class family. She then leaves for boarding school. While Christian develops a more hedonistic personality, Thomas is responsible and hard-working, and travels to Amsterdam to pursue his education. When Johann and Antoinette die, Jean inherits the family business and offers his half-brother Gotthold his share of the inheritance. In spite of this gesture, the brothers never truly reconnect, leading to resentment of Jean’s side of the family on the part of Gotthold’s daughters over the years.



Tony is pressured by her father to marry Bendix Grünlich, whom she detests, in 1846. The two produce a daughter named Erika. However, Tony’s initial assessment of Bendix proves correct when he reveals that he is in extreme debt and married Tony in the hopes that her father would help him pay them off. Jean refuses to do this and takes Tony and Erika back home to live with him. When Bendix goes bankrupt in 1850, Tony takes the opportunity to divorce him. The family is able to stave off angry mobs and protect their business through the democratic Revolutions of 1848. Jean dies in 1855, leaving Thomas the business. Initially, Christian takes a job working with his brother, but Thomas is forced to let him go due not only to his failings as a businessman, but also to his reputation in the community as a pleasure-seeking fool. Thomas marries a musician, Gerda Arnoldsen, from Amsterdam.

Klara marries, but dies soon after without children. Tony divorces a second husband whom she caught trying to rape one of their maids. He writes her a letter announcing that he will not contest the divorce and returns her dowry as an apology for his behavior. Thomas begins facing numerous setbacks including trouble with the business, financial strain related to his new mansion, and disappointment with his sensitive, unintellectual son, Johann IV, called Hanno. A now grown-up Erika marries an insurance agent who is sent to prison for fraud, leaving her alone with their young daughter, Elizabeth. Even after he is released from prison, he is never seen again. After the death of Erika’s grandmother, the elder Elizabeth, Tony and Erika are forced to sell their family home to the now successful Herman HagenstÓ§m.

Thomas dies in 1875 and rather than leaving his assets to his son, his will indicates that they should all be sold off. The house is sold, and all of the servants are let go. With Thomas gone, Christian is given control of his share of the family’s wealth and marries Aline, a woman with three illegitimate children whom Thomas had previously forbade him from wedding. However, Christian is soon committed to an insane asylum leaving Aline with control of their finances. Hanno is a sickly boy with an aptitude for music and only one friend in the community, an eccentric count, and it is implied that he is a homosexual. He dies in 1877 of typhoid and his mother, Gerda, returns to Amsterdam. Tony, Erika, and her daughter Elizabeth are all that’s left of the Buddenbrook line and are left destitute. At the close of the novel the women’s only comfort is the possibility that the family might be reunited in heaven.



Reoccurring themes in Buddenbrooks include the use of color to indicate the fate of various characters. Rotting teeth are also referenced to indicate decay caused by an overly decadent lifestyle. The conflict between an artistic temperament and a desire to live a more conventional life is also repeated throughout the novel. The definitive English translation of the book was written by American translator and PEN prize winner John E. Woods.

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