16 June 2020

Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain: Setting As Craft Element

In Mann’s snowbound epic of early 20th century, “an ordinary young man”, Hans Castorp, leaves his familiar home and obligations and travels to a foreign place, the International Sanatorium Berghof high up in the Swiss Alps, to visit his sick cousin. Instead of his planned three weeks stay, he ends up staying for seven years. Lying leisurely in his lounge chair on the sanatorium’s balcony, a world away from the hustles and bustles of life on the “flatland” down below, Hans begins his journey of “getting used to not getting used to”. During his sojourn, he finds himself questioning the notions of honor and mortality and meditating on the meaning of nature, time, space, love, life, and death. It is a story of initiation and awakening; and its setting serves not only as the geographical reality, but also as one of the agents for change and transformation.

In the opening chapter titled “Arrival”, Hans, as a newcomer, is exposed to the “rarefied” air of the Berghof, the peculiar silhouettes of dense forests, and the surrounding snow-capped peaks. Nature induces unfamiliar feelings and dreams in Hans –  feelings of vagueness, timelessness and dreams which would intensify later on as he ventures higher into the misty region with “eternal snow”. On his fourth day up in the mountain, he takes a walk through the town and a forest of tall pines. After he emerges from the woods, “he was astonished by the splendid view opening up before him – an intimate, closed landscape, like some magnificent, peaceful painting.” (116) The ground is filled with blue bell flowers and gigantic spruces that “stood solitary and in small groups along the bottom of the gorge… One of them, rooted in the steep bank of the brook, jutted across the view at a bizarre angel.” (117) Here, Hans finds a bench by the water. While listening to “the murmur of isolation” reigning above this remote spot and with a nosebleed caused by the thin air, “he found himself transported to an earlier stage of life.” He turns inward and reminisces his pivotal coming-of-age moment in a dreamlike state of mind. In his trance, he starts to awake to his feelings. After he wakes up, he is confused, but he lies there a while longer, “pondering and remembering”, and “tears came to his eyes even as he smiled.” (121) Thus begins his adventure “up here”, together with a wide range of eccentric, comical, and fascinating patients and doctors.

Indeed, Berghof is another world. Apart from its daily sumptuous five meals and never-ending soup, ritualized thermometer readings, mandatory rest cures, lectures on “love-as-a-disease”, giddy flirtations and “feverish” rivalries even among the “moribund”, and a dark room with whirring X-ray machine, there is also the out-of-balance seasons. There are snowstorms in August, warm and brilliant sunshine in winter. In a chapter titled “Snow”, Hans, during his second year at the sanatorium, embarks on a near-fatal skiing expedition into the snowy wasteland. In the beginning the grand landscape “permitted him the solitude he sought, the profoundest solitude imaginable, touching his heart with a precarious savagery beyond human understanding.” (466) But soon he finds himself lost and trapped in the hellish blizzard and his adventure climaxes in a horrifying hallucination. The primal nature “with its fathomless silence did not receive a visitor hospitably.” As Hans senses the “menace of mute, elemental forces as they rose up around him”, he comes to the understanding that nature is not “hostile, but simply indifferent and deadly.” (467) Hans journey consists of not only blissful enlightenment, but also descending to the underworld and finding courage to understand the meaning of life and death.

The setting in Mann’s story is intricately bound up with its plot and themes. It is a space full of distant, dramatic, and mystical atmosphere. It ignites the “alchemistic” spark and transforms the ordinary hero of the story upward to a new height of consciousness and understanding of humanity. Its “eternal” snow and infinite vastness make time “slippery” and The Magic Mountain a timeless art of work. 

Work Cited

Mann, Thomas. The Magic Mountain. Ed. First Vintage International, translated by John E. Woods. New York: Vintage Books, 1996.