Critical Essays Technique and Style in The Magic Mountain


On the highest level, The Magic Mountain tries to convey the experience of time by narrating it. This determines its technique and style. The plot does not move from beginning to end in the conventional and reportorial sense because it is the correlative, not of the hero's story, but of his experience. This accounts for the intercalary sections which unravel the past and tie it to the future ("Of the Christening Basin," "At Tienappels," or "Hippe"). Mann destroys the notion of past and future by merging them into one continuous Now ("Excursus" or "By the Ocean of Time").

Only a relatively limited stretch of the hero's life is singled out for close observation: Castorp has lived to be twenty-three years old before he sets foot on the magic mountain, and his life continues after the outbreak of the war. This explains why he is being literally plunged in medias res at the beginning and why he leaves the sanatorium just as quickly.

Reality, according to Mann, reveals itself in antithetical ideas and situations. There is no view or position whose counterview or counterposition is not also part of truth. The novel is therefore an attempt to view the complexities of experience from all possible vantage points. This is why characters do not so much live by themselves as in confrontation with each other. Castorp and Ziemssen, Castorp and Settembrini, Settembrini and Naphta, Behrens and Krokowski, and so on are examples of Mann's idea of confrontation.

As a result of this, everybody claims to represent the whole truth and nothing but the truth — and the situation sometimes becomes slightly ridiculous. To demonstrate the futility and irrationality of holding such one-sided views, Mann employs irony. All simplifications, especially the many instances of a forced dialectic between spirit and life, rationalism and romanticism, or health and disease, become logical targets of this irony.

As if they had been part and parcel of the charmed mountain world from all eternity, the characters of The Magic Mountain lead lives hermetically sealed off from the outside. As a result, they barely age, have no real goals, and are rarely exposed to change of any kind. They are reduced to mannerisms, appearances, actions, or figures of speech. In order to emphasize this quality of changelessness in them, Mann uses the technique of leitmotifs. (Developed by Richard Wagner in his operas, a leitmotif is a short musical phrase representing and recurring with a given character, situation, or emotion.) Sometimes a leitmotif acquires a semi-independent existence and persons are alluded to only by mention of their leitmotifs: Settembrini's mustache, Clavdia's Asiatic features, or Frau Stöhr's gaucheries, for instance. The technique is of course ideally suited to stress the eternally recurring present in this particular novel.

The "transposed" leitmotif is a slight variation of even greater significance. Its most perfect example in The Magic Mountain is the recurring combination of the motifs of the slanted eyes with that of the borrowed pencil. There is no need to go through the various dreams and the carnival scene where it figures so prominently. The point to remember is that it is transposed twice between Clavdia Chauchat and Hippe.

There are several other "transposed" leitmotifs: When Castorp turns on the light in disgust during the seance at the end, for instance, he does so for the same reason that Settembrini turned on the light to keep Castorp from losing his senses over Clavdia. The song the hero sings on the battlefield is the reiteration of an experience which he had when the same song came over the record player at the Berghof. What these examples have in common is the repetition of the same motif for the sake of linking the past with the future and vice versa. They serve to weave the many-faceted novel into an organic whole by pointing to the fundamental presentness of time in the world of the sanatorium. Mann referred to himself as a "musician among writers." There is no better proof of the affinity he felt with music than his use of the leitmotif technique.

Mann himself admitted the excessive length of the book. He said that "it is possible for a work to have its own will and purpose, perhaps a far more ambitious one than its author's — and it is good that this should be so." In this book, he seems to be concerned with the description of surface details to the point of meticulousness. We are perhaps even inclined to agree with his brother Heinrich that he was too involved with the analysis of reality. To Thomas, of course, reality was something altogether different than to his expressionist brother Heinrich. This is why The Magic Mountain is long, complex, and full of seemingly endless flights of fancy. This is why its chapters are not tightly knit, but flow and ebb and overflow with little apparent logical consistency. But the point is this: The construction of these chapters is perfectly attuned to Castorp's surging and receding consciousness.

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