This chapter is a flashback into Hans Castorp's (and Thomas Mann's) childhood and adolescence, using the approach employed in Buddenbrooks of trying to explain a man's thoughts and actions in terms of those of his ancestors. More than all other chapters of the novel, this one brings to mind Mann's observation that it is difficult and not at all desirable to talk about The Magic Mountain without being aware of its indebtedness to Buddenbrooks. The present chapter may not be as intellectually brilliant as subsequent ones, but when it comes to humor, wisdom, and perceptive observations on the species of the bourgeois, it certainly measures up to Mann's first success.
The autobiographical elements of this chapter are as numerous as they are obvious. The characterization of Hans' grandfather, Senator Castorp, as a man holding family traditions and old institutions in far higher esteem than the insane expansion of harbor facilities and the godless sophistication of modern big cities corresponds to the picture we have of the author's father, Senator Thomas Heinrich Mann of Lübeck. Hans decides to take up shipbuilding as a career, but from the outset he does not really care for his work. He merely respects it.
Here is a parallel to Mann's early experience as an employee in an insurance agency. Just as Mann quit the insurance business to lead the "useless" life of an artist, so Hans never gets beyond taking his textbook Ocean Steamships up to the Berghof, where he forgets about it. Hans abandons his studies because he thinks his "love of idle hours" will not permit him to work hard. Mann, wondering what a working mood really is, answered his own question in the form of a little essay in which he asserts that "the mood to work — that's having slept well, good books, fresh air, few people, and peace."
As the narrator points out, however, there is also a deeper reason for Hans Castorp's dissatisfaction with his envisioned profession, and it is not exaggerating to see as his credo throughout the novel: "A man lives not only his personal life, as an individual, but also, consciously or unconsciously, the life of his epoch and his contemporaries. . . . It is quite conceivable that he may be vaguely conscious of the deficiencies of his epoch and find them prejudicial to his own moral well-being." As the most perfect proof of this insight, Castorp will continue his ambivalence and indecision even after catching a glimpse of truth in the snow dream.
Thus this chapter becomes the true starting point of the educational journey of Hans. The close relationship between him and his grandfather, meticulously dealt with and culminating in the treatment of the family christening basin, reflects the tradition of conservative values in which Hans (and Thomas Mann) was reared. The detailed description of Hans' life with Joachim at the home of Consul Tienappel also reflects the conservative tradition; the atmosphere radiates gentility. Since Hans has embarked upon a journey of self-education and, eventually, meaningfulness, these descriptions serve to point to his indebtedness to the "normal world below," which he never really abandons. Hans, not at all "simple," can empathize with Joachim, his clear-cut opposite in so many ways. And Mann, despite his often-revised views and later engagement for the liberal cause, never ceased to think of himself as rooted in his conservative upbringing.
Castorp's reminiscences extend to his early and repeated experiences with death. Having lost his father, mother, and now his grandfather, he has had ample opportunity to find out that there is more to death than the mournfulness and solemnity of funerals There is also a physical aspect to it, almost ordinary and common in its raw materiality Dead bodies, he reasons, cannot be truly a sad affair because sadness only prevails where life is concerned. These reflections are on Castorp's mind as he stands by his dead grandfather, who appears to be a life size wax doll to him, nothing but lifeless material. Here Mann's favorite theme of the polarity of life and death comes in. The noble and ignoble aspects of death which little Hans experiences are the basis of the novel's progression by opposites and contrasts. Throughout the book, the discussion of these ennobling and dehumanizing aspects of disease and death will be continued. Castorp himself is aware of these dual aspects which predestine him for his intense sensual, intellectual, and moral adventures.
Of the many motifs Mann employs, that of the recurring number seven stands out. Before Hans' time, seven generations were initiated into Christian life by being sprinkled with water from the family basin, and seven years have elapsed since his own christening. Seven continues to play an important role until the end of the novel: the patients of the sanatorium are seated around seven tables, which is significant because of the function of food as the "time killer" in the boredom of the Berghof; the name of Castorp's great educator will be Settembrini, sette meaning seven in Italian; after seven weeks, Castorp ponders how quickly time has elapsed for him, and at the night of the carnival he will tell Clavdia Chauchat that sept mois under her eyes have made him fall in love with her; when the thunderbolt of the war awakens Hans from his seven-year spell on the Magic Mountain, the narrator refers to him as a Seven-Sleeper. (A literal translation of the German Siebenschlafer refers to a rodent known for its long hibernation period of seven months.) Plunged into the war, Hans will have to march for seven hours to reach the battle scene. Finally, the novel is divided into seven chapters.