What’s at Stake in Buddenbrooks?

As previously discussed, Buddenbrooks' subtitle makes clear that this is a book about the decline of a great family. So, an important question: Why should we care?

Now of course, there's something inherently empathetic to watching anything that was once great shrivel up and die (especially when that death is painfully protracted out over 700 pages). True, but I still think that Mann has an obligation to make us care. Why, after all, should we mourn the decline of a stuffy upper-crust family in the north of Germany, especially when many of said family's members seem, to put it plainly, undeserving of our sympathy?

On one level, we care because this isn't just about the Buddenbrook family: through a rich (one might at times say too rich) soup of imagery and weighted moments, Mann makes it clear that the Buddenbrooks represent a way of life, in fact, even the rise and decline of a certain strand of Germanic culture in the 19th century.

Historic virtuosity and symbolism is all well and good, but this is a novel after all, so we need a little more than that. For me, the moment when I really started to see the Buddenbrooks as something that would be tragic when it passed, as something that it was painful to watch die, came on page 154.

A little set-up. There are four Buddenbrook children: two boys, two girls. Antoine (nicknamed Tony) is the eldest daughter–she's got quite a lot of beauty in addition to the Buddenbrook name, so it's no surprise when a certain insufferably ass-kissing social climber starts to woo her. Of course Tony wants nothing of this suffocating man with the muttonchops, but he's got money and a promising business, so Mr. and Mrs. Buddenbrook make the decision to join them.

It's not hard to see where this is headed. Needless to say, after the concerted urging of practically everyone Tony comes into contact with, and after a couple of not-too-subtle threats, Tony's defenses have been sufficiently weakened to make the following moment believable. She's in her father's study when she sees the family notebook:

Right next to the inkwell lay the familiar lare gilt-edged notebook with its embossed cover and pages of various kinds of paper. . . .

She picked it up, started paging through, and soon found herself absorbed in the reading. The entries she read were mostly simple matters that she knew well; yet each writer had picked up where his predecessor had left off, instinctively adopting the same stately, unexaggerated chronicle style, which in its very discretion spoke all the more nobly of a family's respect for itself, its traditions and history. This was nothing new to Tony; she had been allowed to study these pages several times before. But the contents had never made an impression her the way they did this morning. The reverent importance given to even the most modest events pertaining to the family's history was inspiring. Propping her elbows on the secretary, she read with growing enthusiasm, with pride and high seriousness.

No event had been omitted form even her own brief past: her birth, her childhood illnesses, her first day of school. . . . And what else might be recorded here after her own name, given to her in honor of her grandmother Antionette? Future members of the family would bring to the task the same piety with which she now followed past events.

Now this is an important moment. It is here that we begin to really feel that the Buddenbrooks are more than just a family. That Johann Buddenbrook would have such regard for the minor matters of his everyday life, that it all would be written down in the family book like the most important twists and turns from a story that can never be ended . . . that's not common. That's the beginning of a myth, and call it pompous if you want, but Johann Buddenbrook is a man that has true respect for himself, his family, and his business, which is to say his life.

And this moment is when Tony really begins to understand that she is a Buddenbrook. She sees herself all in the pages of her family's journal, she recalls that she is named for her grandmother, she realizes that she too one day will record family events in this journal. The Buddenbrook name cannot be escaped. It is her life. It must be lived up to.

As we read along with Tony, we begin to understand the duty inherent to being a Buddenbrook. We begin to understand the great responsibility and obligation that comes with such a name and such a place in the world. We begin to see that being a member of such a family requires certain sacrifices, that it requires the elevation of oneself to a higher calling, and so we are not at all surprised when Tony, in a moment of inspiration, suddenly writes her and her suitor's names together into the family notebook:

Tony gazed for a long time at her own name and the open space after it. And then, suddenly, she flinched and swallowed hard, her whole face a play of nervous, eager movement, her lips quickly touching for just a moment–and now she grabbed the pen, plunged rather than dipped it into the inkwell, and, crooking her index finger and laying her flushed head on her shoulder, wrote in her own clumsy hand, slanting upward from the left to right: "Engaged on 22 September 1845 to Herr Bendix Grunlich, merchant from Hamburg."

Watch as Tony plunges her pen, see her flushed face, watch as she alters the very fabric of reality by simply writing a few words. What a moment! These words can never be erased–they follow records that have been kept for hundreds of years. They can never even be scribbed out. As if the Buddenbrook family notebook would admit such a scar upon its pages. She's as good as married.

Tony–and us, I think–now understand what it is to be a Buddenbrook. This is perhaps the family's high point: a prosperous business, a new mansion that is the town's crowning jewel, four healthy children just beginning to step out into the world, a brilliant match between a lovely daughter and an up-and-coming businessman. We can stop a moment and admire the view from this rare peak–it will get no better than this–and then after catching our breath we begin our descent.

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