The Magic Mountain By Thomas Mann Summary and Analysis Chapter 5

If we stop to take a look at the course Hans Castorp's life has taken so far, we will see that it has zigzagged between the two poles of Settembrini and Clavdia Chauchat. Torn between their extreme positions, Castorp has either reverted to the values he cherished at the outset or has resorted to Joachim's simpler views — which amounts to almost the same thing. Yet our hero has also shown more and more unmistakable signs of a tendency to eschew Settembrini's cautioning influence and to succumb to the spell of Madame Chauchat. Hans has now reached the point where he is drawn to her ever more violently, the violence reinforcing the pace at which this happens and vice versa. The Italian's warning that "Lilith" — the name he gives Clavdia Chauchat during the carnival night — was a Hebrew night demon devouring men does not help, nor does his attempt to keep Castorp from Clavdia's lures by switching on the light. On the contrary, Hans tells his mentor to leave him alone and confides to her that words, thought, and light are pitifully "republican" notions. Eventually, Hans Castorp's sensuality reaches a point where it turns into self-debasement. Thus, Chapter 5 contains the juncture at which Castorp's course of life merges with that of Madame Chauchat. From here on, the two will move apart again, he to new intellectual and moral insights and she to another sensual adventure. It is not by accident that in the two-volume edition, Mann let the first volume end here.

Mann has been criticized for having created relatively lifeless, almost stylized characters, and this objection has its point. With the exception of Castorp, the seeker of his identity and ideal, most central figures tend to reiterate certain ready-made ideas on how to master life. There is no character development or change in outlook in any of them. While this static quality may become rather boring to the reader when it dominates a scene (such as the major dialogues between Settembrini and Naphta, whose dialectic technique and content one could almost copy from an encyclopedia), it is also true that this quality emphasizes the aspect of time which Castorp keeps calling the "dimensionless present." Besides, carriers of fixed ideas facilitate the success of their respective educational function. This, needless to add, is extremely important in a bildungsroman.

This static quality is most obvious in Settembrini, whom Hans calls "a mere representative without name." Innumerable times Settembrini assures Hans that anybody living "up here" is doomed and that he should leave. His intricate monologue on the unity of life and death is the clearest manifestation of his monism yet. There is no new or even different angle to his arguments, and if anything at all strikes Castorp or the reader as different, it is his growing haughtiness.

Our "delicate child of life," on the other hand, is susceptible to the diverse influences and assaults upon him. Joachim, Settembrini, Clavdia, and Naphta are not only outside forces acting on him; they are also components of his own personality, pulling him in several directions and thereby enabling him to learn. He is Castor and a bit of Pollux, the twin stars of Gemini, as his name suggests. (If nothing proves that Mann consciously derived Castorp's name this way, the twin-star image is nevertheless highly appropriate.) Hans continuously undergoes changes, and he always moves. His new, defiant reaction has never been so evident as when Settembrini condemns the perversely lavish concept of time of "those Parthians and Scythians" (Slavs). To convince Hans of his view, Settembrini divulges his membership in an organization propagating the self-perfection of man on the basis of "objective" data. He continues that the organization has asked him to compile a volume on the therapeutic values of world literature to be printed in an encyclopedia entitled The Sociology of Suffering. He even invites Hans to join, but Hans declines.

And, indeed, how can the fanatical Settembrini, risking anything as long as his cause is advanced, be so dedicated to "international" organizations and "world" literature? How can he refuse to acknowledge the reality of disease when his own disease keeps him from traveling to a professional meeting? Mann picks sociology as his target here, pointing to its unfortunately widespread mania of treating social phenomena as though they obeyed the laws of the natural sciences. The mere title of Settembrini's encyclopedia is symptomatic of the cast of mind which confuses quantity with quality. In short, Castorp is infuriated, and he means to let his teacher know. He points up the grave inconsistencies in Settembrini's philosophy-which would not be so bad if Settembrini did not always pride himself on his "rational" and "intellectual" powers. Above all, Hans begins to supply his own correctives to Settembrini's thoughts, which he has accepted or at least listened to without contradicting so far. The upshot is that Hans is undergoing a decisive phase in his education. It is important to remember, though, that our hero's refusal to go on swallowing his educator's suggestions hook, line, and sinker is not merely the result of his rapidly growing infatuation with Clavdia Chauchat: His conviction that all these arrogant claims advanced by Settembrini are false is real and justified. It is for the first explicit indication we have that Castorp has come to see his road as leading somewhere between these extreme positions he encounters.

Very much the same static quality marks Behrens' behavior. His leading role on the magic mountain is becoming more apparent now, thus justifying everything that Settembrini has observed and that Castorp has surmised about him. Especially Behrens' sensuality is disclosed, both through his hobby, oil painting, and his addiction to the body, which has nothing to do with medical concerns. Interestingly enough, it is again Castorp who begins to react differently. His desire for Clavdia Chauchat makes it extremely hard for him to bear the mere thought that Behrens should have enjoyed her nearness to this degree while he painted her. Waiting in line to have his X-ray taken, he meets her as she comes swirling into Behrens' waiting room, and the thought that the doctor should be able to look into her, as well as at her, sets Hans wild. Taking advantage of an accidental encounter with the doctor, Castorp invites himself to Behrens' house because he wants to see the painting. Appropriately, the desires of both men are naked to each other and they meet in front of the nude painting of Clavdia. Castorp tells his host that he (Hans) should have become a doctor because he loves the human body. Asking Behrens to tell him something about the functions of the skin and the glands, he eagerly listens to the doctor explaining the intricate processes to him during which physical or psychological stimuli arouse certain external changes. Behrens winds up his lecture stating that both life and death are but two forms of oxidation. "Living consists in dying," he says, revealing his utter disinterest in life by denying its uniqueness. This exaggerated delight in particularly the skin and glands is symptomatic of a pathological condition which craves the body, especially the sick body. This is what Behrens and Castorp have in common. In the latter, this desire is so strong that it drives him to rave about it to Clavdia, which gives him some sort of surrogate satisfaction.

Eventually Castorp responds to Behrens as he does to Settembrini. Just as he now contradicts his Italian mentor, he also uncovers Behrens' vices. He takes the initiative: He has convinced himself of Behrens' carnality, so he pries at the doctor to hear more about the science of the body. In terms of the educational process Hans is undergoing, this scene is significant because it shows his growing self-awareness. The particular stretch of road he is traveling now leads him straight to his downfall, but it is only by crossing through darkness that he can emerge wiser. There can be no cure without the danger of death, no purification without fire, and no mercy without previous sin. This is Mann speaking, the great admirer and expert on medieval philosophy.

Behrens presides during Walpurgis Night, pouring punch and conducting diabolic games in reddish semidarkness. According to legend, witches met the devil during Walpurgis Night (April 30-May 1) for a night of revelry on the Brocken Mountain. (Mann took much of this scene from Goethe's Faust). The symbolism of Behrens' drooping posture dominating the magic mountain revelry is obvious. Mann resorts to an old literary tradition, namely that of seeing the world of clowns and jesters as the only real one. Castorp experiences this night as he might experience a dream. Dreams, too, have stood for windows into a higher reality throughout literature — not only here but in other Mann stories (Death in Venice). Thus Mann uses two specific means here of stressing the scene's character of revelation. That disease is the catalyst of any comprehension of reality goes without special mention; it is one of the major themes of the novel.

The Walpurgis Night scene is central not only because it contains the climax of Castorp's irrationality but also because it elevates the novel's main leitmotif of the borrowed pencil from the world of vague reminiscences into that of the very real party game conducted by Behrens for his guests. Castorp experiences the entire evening "like a dream," but he wants to participate in the pig-drawing contest, so he approaches Clavdia Chauchat for a pencil. Confronted with her, he turns pale, realizing the parallel between this situation and the others he has lived through in dreams (and, in reality, during his school days). Clavdia lends him the pencil, using the very words Pribislav Hippe once used when he lent Hans a pencil for a drawing lesson at school. Essential questions are posed: Is Castorp experiencing the same thing over and over again, though under slightly different circumstances and in varying degrees of consciousness? Has he known Clavdia before, and if so, in this world or in another? Where do dreams end and where does reality begin — if, indeed, they may be pitted against each other as though they were mutually exclusive?

Psychologically speaking, this scene is a masterpiece, as is also proven by Mann's insistence on having his hero address Clavdia in French. He carries on a rather intimate conversation with her and eventually confesses his love to her, all en français. The reason is that he, like all of us, finds it easier to express something delicate or embarrassing in a language whose subtle nuances he cannot tell apart and for which he is therefore not responsible. The author picked French simply because at that time, French was the important language of international communication; in this connection, we remember that Castorp practiced it with Tous-les-Deux, the Mexican lady, long ago.

We have made the point that while Settembrini and Clavdia Chauchat (later on Naphta and Mynheer Peeperkorn) are relatively static characters because they are vehicles of different ideas, Castorp is the one character who, being confronted with opposing views, keeps moving by steering an in-between course. The thin mountain air merely brings out his disease, which in sensitive people like him becomes a yardstick of his growing self-awareness and, thus, his education. This is what Castorp means when he confides to his cousin that "down below," all the intriguing discussions with Settembrini, for instance, would not have meant anything to him.

Now one must consider some of the indications that Hans' condition has grown worse. First, Hans' fever curve has steadily gone up, typically enough and most conspicuously, whenever he either dreams of Clavdia or when he sees her. In fact, Hans has reached the point where he wants to be sick and triumphantly writes home that his rising temperature necessitates his prolonged stay at the sanatorium. If so far he has been largely unaware of the perils endangering him, he is now defending himself against Settembrini's warnings — in spite of the fact that he understands the Italian's concerns. Nothing does he dread more than the removal of the protective veil of his clouded senses, which affords him the destructive nearness of Clavdia Chauchat. As a result, Hans not only foregoes his own judgment but also begins to let himself go. Neglecting his posture at the table (where much of life at the Berghof goes on) and slamming doors behind him, he takes on the contempt of form and composure so characteristic of Clavdia. Illustrating moral deterioration through the dissolution of form, Mann makes the point that content and form are but two aspects of one and the same thing. This issue, already dealt with on an intellectual level in the discussion between Castorp and Behrens, is of course only a variation on the underlying theme of the dualistic view of life which Castorp seeks to overcome.

The quickly changing weather, which is employed throughout the novel as an indication of the different values governing the Berghof world, upsets our hero less and less. His response to the surface heat of an Indian summer concealing the coming winter frost sheds light on his diseased condition — one of "mingled frost and fire." Oblivious to the fact that it is October, he overcomes his confusion about the strong sun rather quickly and, more and more susceptible to sensual stimulation, thoroughly enjoys the heat. Now Hans is sick enough to accept the suspension of the natural sequence of time as "normal." Few things indicate the true condition of life on the magic mountain (in prewar Europe) — thus, why should the weather follow the calendar?

The scene in which Castorp and his cousin look at each other's skeletons in front of the X-ray screen also points to our hero's mounting confusion and awareness of his disease. Looking at his bones, he is startled by the memory of an old aunt of his who had the strange talent of seeing people who were about to die as skeletons.

Hans' growing self-awareness leads him to take up serious reading, which is the prerequisite for any new insights. He concentrates on books dealing with the origin and composition of life, which is described as neither exclusively matter nor spirit but as something resulting from an interaction between the two. The more Castorp reads about the human body, the more he appreciates life. He realizes that his old notions about death as an independent force are wrong; they would keep him from enjoying life to the fullest. Nevertheless, he still clings to the idea of death and disease as something noble and so sends flowers and messages of hope to patients about to die. Yet Hans' well-meaning consolations lead to offenses and unintended cruelties in several instances, proving Settembrini right in urging him "to let the dead bury their dead." Taking the balance between intellectual and physical life as the goal of his reading, Hans moves further ahead on the road whose end brings the transcendence of all the dichotomies invented by man (and Mann).

Yet our hero, "life's delicate child," also travels another path toward self-realization and self-awareness, which is the reason why in his reading he dwells on pathology. As has been indicated, Castor and Pollux make up Hans' soul. Nothing is really "simple" about him, and just as the several characters shaping his mind may be interpreted to be something akin to the different aspects of his (the average man's) consciousness, Castorp's own actions and reactions often seem to belong to different patterns of behavior. Indeed, the monolithic Castorp, cast out of one mold and consistent within himself, does not exist. He cannot exist because he is man depicted in the agonies of his lifelong battle toward self-realization. Hans' avid reading of books on pathology only seems to contradict his other reading. Castorp, the representative of us all, is fighting within himself, as when he says to Clavdia that "There are two paths to life: one is the regular one. . . . The other leads through death — that is the spiritual way." There are different approaches to life for different people, but there are also different souls within one and the same person.

In terms of the reading Castorp does, this means that his delving into problems of pathology corresponds to that part within him which emphasizes disease as something positive. In his sick state, our hero's principle is pure feeling, which he readily admits. And since there is nothing like disease to provide undiluted feeling, he craves disease as a form of lust. The cause and symptom of his disease is Clavdia Chauchat, and what he experiences when he sees her is an intense and undecided battle between pain and lust. As a direct result of all his abstract reading, Castorp falls asleep and lapses into a rather sensual dream of Clavdia's embrace and lingering kiss. As the undisputed painter of human psychology that he is, Mann admirably succeeds here in depicting man's different levels of consciousness as one large reservoir.

The treatment of human experience as essentially one reservoir, of which the various dreams and visions are but the most paramount expression, is closely tied up with the treatment of time. And time, as we have seen in connection with the carnival scene already, figures prominently in this chapter.

At the beginning of Chapter 5, the narrator reveals that the description of Castorp's life at the Berghof will not take up nearly as much time as it has so far. This does not contradict what was said above, for it means that, unlike Chapter 1, which dealt solely with the newcomer's experiences during his first day, all subsequent chapters are not commensurate with the span of time they describe. This is consistent with Castorp's often-expressed belief that time passes quickest whenever a change of place is involved, and that after a while longer, periods can easily be condensed into relatively little space because they are not experienced as the same long periods any more. The novel, let us not forget, attempts to convey the sense of time as Castorp experiences it.

The discussion of time now moves in the direction of what the author symbolically calls "soup everlasting." It appropriately describes the condition in which the sanatorium patients experience the fading away of past and future, their gradual blending into one indiscernible present. The soup they always get for lunch is the only reality for them because it comes regularly and divides up this uncertain something called "day." But nobody really knows whether it comes once a day, twice a day, or only every other day. Since this "eternal now" is increasingly hard for them to bear, they try to counteract it by various hobbies: Settembrini sticks to his reading and writing, Joachim has taken to studying Russian to survive, and Castorp reads copiously or keeps track of the days by arranging dates with Clavdia.

Then, during the night of the carnival, Castorp's enchantment widens his experience of time to include magic touches of fulfillment. They are fleeting touches, to be sure, which do not bring the fulfillment of his longing as such. Fulfillment would be the end of all longing and would hardly justify Castorp's further adventures toward self-awareness and his own way of life. Yet, stammering his confessions of love to Clavdia, he raves that sitting with her is like a dream. The present and eternity have ceased to be two opposite aspects of time. From now on, Hans Castorp experiences them as one long, vague mystery.

Back to Top

Take the Quiz

Characterizing a literary work as a Bildungsroman means that




Quiz