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Existentialism on Contemporary Literature 101: Thomas Mann and the Journey of Knowledge


Despite the significant developments in science during the 19th century, the two devastating wars of the following century dismantled human faith in scientific and rational thinking. This negative outlook on society was first observed in Philosophy by authors, such as Jean-Paul Sartre. Twentieth-century literature is deeply influenced by existentialism that focuses on the character’s consciousness rather than following the traditional unfolding of the plot. In this way, contemporary literature makes the psychology of the individual its nucleus, yielding to the exploration of topics, such as absurdity, mortality or freedom. Therefore, this 101 series will analyze some of the most important existentialist works of literature from the 20th century to explore how the authors have intertwined their motivations with the widespread pessimism of the time.

This 101 series is divided into the following sections:

  1. Existentialism on Contemporary Literature 101: Existentialism in Twentieth-Century Literature

  2. Existentialism on Contemporary Literature 101: Thomas Mann and the Journey of Knowledge

  3. Existentialism on Contemporary Literature 101: The Steppenwolf: A Modern Ethical Tale

  4. Existentialism on Contemporary Literature 101: Albert Camus and the Alienation of The Stranger

  5. Existentialism on Contemporary Literature 101: Carmen Laforet’s Nada and the Emptiness of Experience

  6. Existentialism on Contemporary Literature 101: Paul Bowles’s Eastern Existentialism in The Sheltering Sky

Existentialism on Contemporary Literature 101: Thomas Mann and the Journey of Knowledge

Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (1927) explores the bizarre coming-of-age story of Hans Castorp, a young German engineer. Despite his intellectual growth, Castorp has a rather weak persona and has yet to face some hardships which do not allow him to become a fully-fledged individual. Castorp is never able to mature completely which prevents him from having a more active role in society. In this article, Mann’s portrayal of Hans Castorp will be analyzed to demonstrate how the young man never abandons his inner child.

Thomas Mann is one of the most acclaimed authors of the 20th century and his novel The Magic Mountain is one of the best of the century. The plot of the story is set in Davos sanatorium in Switzerland where the main character, Hans Castorp, is invited to visit his cousin, Joachim Ziemssen. Hans is a young man coming from a bourgeois German family and decides to travel to the Swiss Alps before starting his career as an engineer. However, he cannot leave the sanatorium because he is diagnosed with lung problems and tuberculosis just like his cousin. Thus, his interactions with the rest of the patients from the sanatorium become the nucleus of the novel: Clavdia Chauchat, his love interest, and Settembrini and Naphta, two scholars who always argue philosophical questions with him (Gesler, 2000).

Mann adopts a clear strategy when it comes to portraying Castorp’s journey of knowledge: focusing on life-changing experiences such as falling in love or facing death. This, indeed, is the humanist outlook on this matter according to which one must take an active part in life to gain knowledge. However, the individual must develop a critical vision and not be misled by false truths or ideologies. In this way, the novel has been widely considered to be a pedagogical story. In Hans’ case, it may seem as if he has chosen to withdraw from the world by staying in the sanatorium, but his exposure to death leads him to see the world from a new perspective (Gesler, 2000). Castorp has always been surrounded by death since his parents and grandfather died. Therefore, for him, “to grow up, to become adult, is to die.” (Rebelsky, 1961, p. 414). Death is often present in the sanatorium, and it is symbolized by the open door of the room that is being fumigated (Lewis, 2021).

Figure 1. First German edition. 1924.

At Davos, Castorp allows himself to develop his immature and childish behavior to get rid of real responsibilities. Therefore, he returns to a child-like state while being cared for, nurtured, and fed. Despite being a young adult, Castorp’s coming-of-age in the sanatorium resembles that of a child, since he must enter adulthood from a state of dependence and without responsibilities. Discussions with the sanatorium patients become deeper and deeper as their emotions become more complex. For example, he develops an affectionate relationship with Mrs. Chauchat, a Russian patient that engages in different affairs at the sanatorium while her husband is away (Rebelsky, 1961). In this way, Castorp is exposed to diverse kinds of experiences like “asexual intellectualism” and “sensuality” (DiMassa, 2013, p. 324).

For Mann, Hans’ withdrawal from the world can be compared to the hero’s journey to the underworld in an Ancient epic poem. Mann articulates a modern myth with a twentieth-century perspective of the world. For the author, the sanatorium is not the underworld, but rather a substitute for life (Scaff, 2009). Mann explores throughout the novel the indirect interaction between the real world and the sanatorium, that is, he asks both himself and the reader what is real and what is not. In this absence of reality, the author shapes a portrait of pre-World War I European society. The protagonist taking refuge in a closed space is paradoxical because, on the one hand, it is a place far from the hustle and bustle of the world, but, on the other hand, it presents the same tensions as a normal society (Gesler, 2000).

Figure 2. Johannes Stradanus. Ulysses at the entrance of the Hades. 1600.

Hans Castorp feels unable to abandon the sanatorium once he has arrived. The young man was a promising engineer with a great career ahead of him, but the apparently harmless life in the sanatorium makes him fear the outer world. Castorp develops his sensibilities and opinions during his stay, thus becoming more mature. However, the false security provided by the sanatorium is too tempting for him to return to real life (Gesler, 2000). One of the most symbolic moments of the novel takes place in a snowstorm where the young man rests in a hut where he stopped the first time he came to the mountains. There, he falls asleep, and his dreams contain elements of the conflict and his childhood. The dream sequence opens with an idyllic park where a mother is holding a baby. The scene is depicted brilliantly by the author featuring all the elements of the park. However, the first scene quickly turns into a nightmare when two women appear and start dismembering the child (Zinberg and Zinberg, 1963).

The child represents Castorp who is torn by his emotional instability whereas the two women symbolize his closest friends in the sanatorium: Naphta and Settembrini. The scholars try to transmit their outlook on life to the young man, but he is unable to identify with either of them. Castorp experiences an identity crisis because he has yet to create a mature persona. Even when he is completely cured, Hans feels unable to leave Davos which reinforces his anxiety because he can no longer justify his stay. In the end, Castorp leaves to take part in the First World War, but this is not his own decision since he is pushed by external forces. Consequently, his will is again put aside and misled by society’s opinions (Zinberg and Zinberg, 1963).

Figure 3. Edvard Munch. In the Night Wanderer. 1923.

In conclusion, The Magic Mountain features the existence of a promising man who, having faced death, fears the real world. Indeed, he longs to mature and create a solid persona, but never reaches his full potential. His journey of knowledge can only take place in a safe place away from the world where he can never be damaged or punished by his decisions. In this way, he is only able to open himself in the sanatorium where he makes solid relationships and explores his sexuality. In the end, he cannot abandon his inner child and escape the perpetual war he was forced into.

Bibliographical References

DiMassa, D. (2013). Stefan George, Thomas Mann, and the Politics of Homoeroticism. The German Quarterly, 86(3), 311–333.

Gesler, W. (2000). Hans Castorp’s journey-to-knowledge of disease and health in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. Health & Place, 6(2), 125–134.

Lewis, P. (2021). THE BURIAL OF THE DEAD IN MANN'S THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN. Renascence, 73(1), 43-56,78. Retrieved from

Rebelsky, F. G. (1961). Coming of age in davos. American Imago; a Psychoanalytic Journal for the Arts and Sciences, 18(4), 413. Retrieved from

Scaff, S. (2009). The Meaning of Myth in Ulysses and The Magic Mountain. CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture, 11(2).

Zinberg, D. S., & Zinberg, N. E. (1963). Hans castorp: Identity crisis without resolution. American Imago; a Psychoanalytic Journal for the Arts and Sciences, 20(4), 393. Retrieved from

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Ana Isabel Bugeda Díaz

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