Perhaps the greatest bit of irony in the novel is Mann's characterization of Castorp as "simple." All the characters around Castorp are "simpler" in the sense that they are wholly committed to some cause or idea without experiencing the complexities of reality. True reality, Mann sets out to show us, manifests itself in opposites and contradictions. Throughout the novel, Castorp lets conflicting views act upon himself without committing himself to any one of them totally, not even to Settembrini's or even his own at the end of the snow dream. He remains hesitant, ambivalent in his feelings, and hampered by passivity. The question arises whether he can, or even wants to, make decisions and take clear stands. Perhaps he prefers to deliberately change from one position to its opposite and on to their synthesis; the more he does it, the more he realizes that this is what comprehending reality entails. The longer he keeps up his approach of non-commitment, the less capable he becomes of making a decision.
Thus Castorp is perhaps a questing hero, who, according to the critic Herman Weigand, "would never have overstepped so far the limits originally fixed for his stay if . . . any reasonably satisfying explanation of the meaning and purpose of man's life" had offered itself to him. As it was, he had to try to find meaning outside the "normal" world. He finds it in the ideal of the balance between extremes and, eventually, in the affirmation of goodness. That he cannot realize what he sees as a dream has perhaps justly been held against him. Yet the reader should also see that it was Mann's aim to show that ideals have a way of defying satisfactory realizations.
According to Mann himself, the novel is the sum total of his own experiences as told from his own — as Castorp — vantage point. Castorp has great difficulties making decisions and taking clear stands because he is — as Mann was — the battlefield between the "normal" world and its conventional standards and the "world above." Whoever gets caught between the two is in trouble. This is what happens to Castorp, the "lost bourgeois," an epithet Mann used to describe himself.
But Castorp is not only "life's delicate child." He is also the embodiment of civilization's precarious situation before World War I. He has lost his goal and is caught in self-destructive indifference toward, if not sympathy with, disaster. The outward symptom of this situation is his disease. At the same time, the development of Castorp's disease is the prerequisite for his growing selfawareness. Only above-average people like him can derive a more spiritualized existence from their disease, for it brings out latent, superior qualities. Clavdia is ill, too, but in her case disease merely enhances her purely physical traits.
Over all these aspects we should never forget Thomas Mann, the master of irony. Irony permits him to bridge the gaps between vantage points by professing doubts about all sides. He admonishes us to keep a skeptical distance toward the absolute.