The first two sentences of the novel's foreword deserve special attention, for they contain the hero's characterization as "simple-minded." As the story progresses, we become increasingly aware that Hans Castorp is by no means a "simple-minded" young man in the derogatory sense of the term. Mann merely mentions Castorp's simplicity to emphasize his faculty of meeting the countless influences to which he is exposed and to resist the many temptations to commit himself permanently to any view or cause. This is, of course, the major theme of the novel: the lengthy, cumbersome, and perilous road of Hans Castorp's self-education.
The opening sentences also contain the novel's other major theme: the complexity and mystery of time. Throughout this book are countless, recurring variations on the theme of time. As a newcomer, Hans Castorp is exposed, first of all, to the thin air of the Berghof and the bizarre silhouettes of dense forests and snowcapped peaks surrounding it. Mann uses nature here to evoke new, unfamiliar feelings in Hans, feelings of vagueness and timelessness — feelings which will he intensified later on as he ventures higher into the regions of eternal snow and ice.
Besides using nature to introduce the newcomer to the sanatorium, Mann also uses Joachim Ziemssen, Castorp's cousin. Unknowingly Joachim has taken on some of the characteristics of the mode of life at the Berghof. And, one thing in particular which confuses Hans about Joachim is the latter's concept of time. It strikes Hans that Joachim's sense of time is very haphazard. In fact, their conversation soon dwells on the nature of time, so treasured in the "world below" and so meaningless "up here" where there is little to demand its observance except the routine of taking one's temperature. These reflections on time now focus on the static quality of duration; soon, however, Mann will be concerned with the linear and circular aspects of time in the course of Castorp's growing self-awareness.
Hans Castorp is both appalled and intrigued by Joachim's use of the collective "we" and his reference to life at the sanatorium as "life up here." Mann's objective in having Joachim express this sharp differentiation between the world "above" and that "below" is twofold: On a philosophical level, it underlines the deep gap between the artistic-intellectual realm and the "normal" realm of average people. Here we have the author's early romantic concept of the dichotomy between art on the one hand and life on the other. On a political level, the sharp differentiation of "above" and "below" points to the fact that the Berghof is a sanctuary of disease and death. It stands as the symbol of the sick, chauvinistic European society before World War I; its isolation from the "normal" world is symptomatic of the advanced stage of its disease.
In terms of technique, the continued use of "up here" as opposed to "down there" is interesting as an example of Mann's basic irony, which the reader should bear in mind regardless of how involved the political and philosophical battles will become as the story moves on. Irony is, of course, based on the insight that something is not necessarily and exclusively so, and that sometimes, or at the same time, it is very different. In other words, "up here" where the idle, sick, and decadent predominate, Hans Castorp, though sick himself, will be physically cured and morally uplifted in the end. "Down there" where "normal" people are supposedly healthy, carefree, and thoroughly bourgeois, disease and war abound.
Joachim, Hans' cousin, speaks in terms of "up here" and "down below," and, in matters of disease and death, he has acquired a nonchalance which is typical of the whole atmosphere. Here Mann lashes out at the decadence of society which, while taking death for granted, nevertheless does everything in its power to conceal it as shocking or thought-provoking. To Mann, life and death are two aspects of one perennially recurring process, a process which will figure prominently later on during the discussion between Settembrini and Naphta.
Dr. Krokowski is the first major figure of the mountain world whom Hans meets. He is characterized as the perfect personification of the Berghof, where the sympathy of those in charge is not with life but with disease and death. He has so morally deteriorated that he does not even believe that a person can be completely healthy. He laughs at Hans, who insists he came to pay a three-week visit and not for treatment. Krokowski stands as the apostle of doom in a world where physical, mental, and moral decay go hand in hand. As are many other scenes, the dialogue between Castorp and Dr. Krokowski is autobiographical in origin. During his three-week visit to a sanatorium, Thomas Mann actually contracted a serious cough and was advised by the assistant of the institution to join his wife in her rest cure. Certainly sensitive and possibly even susceptible to the lures of life at a tuberculosis sanatorium, he declined. "I preferred to compose The Magic Mountain instead," he declared, "for had I agreed to stay there, I may still be up there now."
It is not by accident that the political dimension of this novel, which will assume a central position in Hans Castorp's educational process, is introduced through an Austrian aristocrat. The Austro-Hungarian monarchy is regarded as the chief bulwark against democracy by Settembrini, perhaps Castorp's most influential mentor. The aristocrat's deep-seated cough, indicative of the advanced stage of his disease, irritates Hans considerably. The war at the end will irritate him even more because he will be forced to take up arms. Ironically, he will be killed in it — in a war which was caused, to a substantial degree, by the reactionary forces of the once glorious and now quickly deteriorating Hapsburg empire, of which the aristocrat is a symbol.
Throughout this chapter, Mann already employs the technique of the leitmotif (a short musical phrase representing and recurring with a given character, situation, or emotion). He uses it to point to similarities and changes in the conduct of the characters or to tie together elements of dreams and visions with others experienced in real life. Joachim, for instance, keeps shrugging his shoulders in a manner he never used to in the "world below," and Castorp unpacks the same brand of cigars that he used to enjoy at his great uncle's and that he will still smoke when the sanatorium will have taken to playing "seventeen-and-four" in Chapter 7. The face cream Hans applies on his sunburned cheeks reappears in his first dream at the Berghof. The image of Joachim also appears in Hans' dream; Joachim's face is as translucently pale as that of Dr. Krokowski. In Castorp's dream, Joachim and the Austrian aristocrat ride down the mountain side together on a bobsled. In this fashion, the other sanatorium carries its dead down the mountain. Thus, by means of the leitmotif, we get a forewarning of Joachim's death in the future. It is easy to spin the theme of their joint ride down the mountain a little further, charging it with political implication. They head toward death together: Joachim, the German soldier, willing to live and die for a cause, and the Austrian aristocrat, symbol of the crumbling monarchy. Yet we should always bear in mind that Joachim is not decadent and that Mann never condemns him. He is merely less complex than Castorp, and when the latter or Clavdia Chauchat teases him about his bourgeois values, they do so with a considerable amount of envy.
Joachim, in fact, is the only character in the entire novel who does not tempt our hero. And he is the only one who is not tempted by the various educators.
Here, as throughout the story, dreams and visions yield strangely fused images by drawing on Castorp's past experiences and presenting them in new contexts.