is a 1903 short novel by Thomas Mann. Though it has a contemporary setting and characters, it is strongly influenced by the 12th century story of Tristan and Iseult. The original myth involves characters who are trapped in loveless marriages of convenience but begin an adulterous relationship when they fall in love with each other. Almost all versions of the story end badly for the young lovers, who can only be united in death.
Mann’s novel attempts to update the story for the early part of the 20th century. It begins with Anton Kloterjahn and his wife Gabriele arriving at a sanitarium run by Dr. Leander. The clinic was once used by tuberculosis patients, but now it is a resort where people suffering from a variety of chronic conditions can recover. The couple has come because Gabriele is suffering from a tracheal complaint, and her doctor has recommended rest and mountain air in order to recover. Gabriele is significantly younger than her husband and not particularly happy with their marriage. Her condition appeared after the difficult birth of her first child. The healthy baby further drains her energy and aggravates her illness.
There are a number of other residents at the clinic. One of them is Detlev Spinell, a young writer who has not produced anything of distinction. He comes from a wealthy family and some of the other residents consider him a dilettante who has only come to the clinic for an inexpensive vacation. After staying with his wife for a short while, Anton is forced to return to the city so he can manage his business. Once he is gone, Detlev takes an interest in Gabriele and begins to pursue her.
Gabriele likes Detlev’s conversation, finding him amusing and insightful. Detlev is frequently derogatory about Gabriele’s husband, and expresses interest in Gabriele’s youth before she was married. When he learns that Gabriele was once an accomplished musician, he laments the fact that she had to give her artistic pursuits up once she married. Gabriele is flattered by the attention even though she knows Detlev is being inappropriate.
Her physical condition has gotten steadily worse, and so Gabriele does not take part in a sledding party with the other patients. Detlev also stays behind, and the two take turns playing on the piano which takes Gabriele back to her childhood. They play Wagner’s opera Tristan and Iseult
, and both are overcome by emotion when they reach the second act where the two characters consummate their love.
Gabriele’s illness worsens considerably, and Anton is called to come see her. Detlev writes Anton a letter in which he vents all his hatred for Anton and blames him for Gabriele’s condition. He also insults Anton’s son because he is a part of Anton’s bloodline. When Anton receives the letter, he is annoyed but dismisses Anton as young and ridiculous. He doesn’t consider him a serious threat to his marriage.
Anton goes to Detlev’s room and demands that he explain the letter. The two men begin to insult each other, but before their fight can come to a head, they are interrupted by a nurse summoning Anton to Gabriele’s bedside. She has taken a turn for the worse and the doctors fear she may soon die. Anton leaves to be with his wife, and Detlev storms out.
While walking in the garden in an attempt to calm down, Detlev has a vision of Gabriele and her son. Gabriele is rocking the cradle with the baby in it and attempting to comfort him, but the baby abruptly begins to scream and cry. Detlev has the distinct feeling that the baby’s screams are directed at him in an effort to scare him away. Detlev turns around and begins to walk away, feeling the whole time as if he is running.
The inconclusive ending helps to highlight Mann’s interpretation of the source material. Though both the novel and the original myth are about illicit love affairs, Mann’s version of the story is significantly less romantic. Gabriele is sickly and nervous while Iseult was beautiful and charming; Detlev is ineffectual and ridiculous while Tristan was vigorous and noble. It is implied that Gabriele dies quietly, attended by her husband and that Detlev lacks the conviction to join her in death. The only time the couple exhibits any strong emotions is when they are stirred by the opera.
Detlov is a member of a generation in decline. Though he is the character that Mann specifically singles out for ridicule, he and Gabriele are both unable to recreate the great love affair of the past. Even Gabriele’s husband recognizes this when he refuses to take Detlov seriously as a threat to their union.