is a German novel by Thomas Mann. First published in 1903 and most recently in the Bristol Classical Press German Texts
series, the book explores a man’s life from childhood to adulthood and the role art plays in shaping our souls. The narrative analyses the nature and personalities of artists and intellectuals through the lens of one boy. Mann won the 1929 Nobel Prize for Literature and is best known for his ionic and symbolic novels. All his writing focuses on the psychology of artists and the development of the creative soul.
Tonio is a young boy when the novel begins. He feels different from other children because he’s especially sensitive and very intelligent. He doesn’t have many friends because he can’t find other young people who understand him. He’s also gangly and awkward, and so he’s not very good at sport. Other young boys always overlook him, particularly in school.
His parents are very different from each other, which Tonio finds fascinating. His father, Consul Kröger, is a northern merchant who believes in hard work, discipline, and order. He wants his son to excel in everything. His mother, Consuelo, has an artist’s temperament and is more free-spirited. She just wants Tonio to be happy in life and find what he’s good at. Tonio spends much of his childhood trying to please both parents, which is very difficult.
Highly observant, Tonio spends a lot of time studying people. At school, he is fascinated by a student called Hans Hansen. Hans looks nothing like Tonio. He’s very handsome with blue eyes, blonde hair, and an athletic physique. Hans reminds Tonio of his own father. Tonio, on the other hand, has the dark and strong features of his southern mother. He wonders why he looks nothing like his father, particularly as it makes it harder for him to fit in with boys like Hans.
Tonio watches Hans all the time because he admires him. He wants to be friends, but Hans has so many friends that he barely notices Tonio. He’s never nasty to Tonio and includes him in group things at school, but they’ll never be close friends. They’re too different. This upsets Tonio, but he doesn’t change to fit in. He wants people to like him for who he is.
Although Hans excels at sports and making friends, Tonio prefers reading complex books and learning about things. For example, Hans is the type who will ride horses, whereas Tonio prefers to read about them and admire them from afar. For his age, Tonio is incredibly self-aware—and he’s highly critical of anyone he thinks is below him.
At school, Tonio is skeptical of teachers. He doesn’t like their hypocrisy and he thinks that they know a lot less than they pretend to. Because of this, Tonio stops going to school and gets poor grades in all his classes. The school alerts his parents to his poor attendance record, and the Consul disciplines Tonio severely. Consuelo, on the other hand, doesn’t see what the problem is if he doesn’t feel like school teaches him anything.
Once Tonio leaves school, he forgets about Hans. However, it’s not long before he finds a new infatuation—a girl called Ingeborg Holm. He spots her in a dance class and, although he’s known her for years, he sees how pretty she is now she’s a young woman. She looks very like Hans, and all the feelings he once had come rushing back.
Tonio knows he has an artist’s soul, and that’s why he feels things so deeply and is obsessive about things he loves. Although he wants to fit in with disciplined and popular people like Hans and Ingeborg, who represent the bourgeois “norm,” he knows this can never happen because he’s simply too unusual. It’s not because he’ll never look like them—rather, it’s because he has a wildly different nature.
Soon, these differences become a badge of pride for Tonio. He wants to become a writer and fulfill his lifelong ambitions; he stops obsessing so much over people who represent the “norm” he’ll never be a part of. However, he wants to be the best writer possible; this kind of achievement is not without sacrifice.
To perfect his craft, Tonio must sacrifice some of his own personal happiness and satisfaction. It also means producing work that others respond to, as opposed to simply writing for himself. This frustrates Tonio as much as it frustrated Mann, who struggled with these issues throughout his entire career.
Ultimately, Tonio believes artists can never fit into society and must always live on the fringes of respectability. This is confirmed when, as an adult, he visits another town. When he gets there, he’s mistaken for an escaped criminal because of his southern looks. He accepts that his life will never mimic that of the ordinary individual, and he focuses on honing his artistic talents and embracing his differences.