This novel, published in 1924 after twelve years of intermittent labor, is the story of the self-development of a "simple, young man." Its hero is the hero of a bildungsroman. The characteristic of such a novel is that it focuses not so much on the hero himself but on the course of his education.
Even if read only on this level, the novel soon makes it clear that Mann did not intend for his readers to take the hero's "simplicity" at face value. Almost nobody is really simple or remains so for long if intelligently observed. The simplifications of reality as Hans Castorp encounters them throughout the book are the object of Mann's irony. Reality as it reveals itself to us is antithetical, and he who wants to begin to comprehend it must risk running the gamut from facet to facet of its nature.
The Magic Mountain is also a novel about disease, not merely of individuals, but also of a whole age. Where disease appears as the prerequisite of spiritual growth, Mann plays his favorite theme of the polarity between spirit and life; the transcendence of this polarity in the name of humanism is central to the novel. Where disease stands as the symptom of the moral deterioration of the capitalist and bourgeois order, Mann is the modern writer who must concern himself with the issues of his time. To attempt "to see the real in the spiritual and the spiritual in the real" was a fundamental maxim of his.
On a still higher level, The Magic Mountain poses questions about the nature of time. Time is both the medium and the subject of the novel. In fact, as the narrator points out, ". . . in bringing up the question as to whether time can be narrated or not, we have done so only to confess that we had something like that in view in the present work." Since the book is essentially concerned with Hans Castorp's wide range of experience, time is conceived solely as a correlative of his experience.
What makes The Magic Mountain so difficult to read is Mann's insistence that the reader become part of it. This is already implied in the Foreword, where the question is posed "whether a narrative can ever seem too long or too short by reason of the actual time or space it takes up." The reader's role is that of responding to the many associations and allusions, some subtly implied and others explicitly stated, which Mann employs to achieve coherence. By participating in the hero's real and imagined experiences, the reader becomes the true center of the novel. In him the world of the magic mountain, already filtered through Hans Castorp's vision, blends with his own recollections and dreams to yield a new experience.