Doctor Faustus

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by William Stewart

Thomas Mann’s final novel, Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn, as Told by A Friend (1947), is a magnum opus as complex as it is symbolic. Built from layer upon layer of detail, the book is both a critique of modern bourgeois life in Germany and an allegory for the rise of the Nazi party. Mann’s use of the Faust legend—the archetypal German literary symbol of pride, power, and progress—explores the relationship between the nation’s ideals and its position in history around 1945: did the development of German culture and tradition across the previous five hundred years necessitate the rise of the Third Reich and the nation’s own doom? Mann considered the book to be on par with Joyce’s Ulysses, with respect to its depth and richness, as well as its ability to redefine the genre of the novel itself. With a plot that spans forty years and involves scores of characters, the work explores far more than the socio-political conditions leading up to World War II. Doctor Faustus is the masterwork of a writer who embodied German culture in the first half of the 20th century and a dauntingly complex novel whose execution is a testament to the author’s ability, both with words and ideas.


The novel recounts the story of Adrian Leverkühn, a brilliant composer whose art is aesthetically groundbreaking yet intellectually cold. The events of Leverkühn’s life are told by his childhood friend, the philologist Serenus Zeitblom, who juxtaposes the narrative of the composer with news of Germany’s involvement in World War II, news that grows dimmer through the course of the novel. Zeitblom begins at their childhood in the small village of Kaisersaschern, and follows their progression through primary and secondary education into the University. Although Leverkühn studies theology, his passion is for music, and he demonstrates an intuitive genius for composition from a young age.

Leverkühn ultimately abandons theology for music and its mystical rationalism. In a scene key to his development as an artist, the composer becomes involved with a prostitute and contracts syphilis. This event serves as the source for Leverkühn’s musical inspiration, compulsion, genius, sickness, and ultimate downfall and death. While working on music based on Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, Leverkühn receives a visit from a shadowy, satanic figure who promises him twenty four years of musical genius in exchange for his rejection of love. The Faust legend is echoed here, the visitor functioning as a Mephistopheles to the composer. As evidenced here, Mann creates a feeling of depth and complexity through his constant deployment of inter- and intra-textual allusions. 

Mann devotes a large portion of the novel to the discussion of the society that springs up around Leverkühn during his period of artistic brilliance. By the end of the novel, Leverkühn has surrounded himself with an array of intellectuals who represent a series of bourgeois stereotypes and all of whom come under ironic scrutiny from Mann. As the novel moves to its close, the composer spirals deeper into sickness and madness. Leverkühn exhibits strong impulses towards love, but they only appear to verify the terms of his Faustian pact. His attempts to take a wife are disastrous: he is not only rejected, but his proposal begins a bizarre chain of events that culminates in the death of one of Adrian’s closest friends, Rudi Schwerdtfeger.

The awful possibility of the satanic pact’s validity continues to haunt Leverkühn until the very end of the narrative. Soon after the death of Schwerdtfeger, Leverkühn’s nephew, Nepomuk, comes to live with the composer. His innocence charms Leverkühn, but tragically, the child falls ill with meningitis and dies a slow, excruciating death. The composer blames himself for the fate of the child, believing that the love he demonstrated toward Nepomuk violated his satanic agreement and brought about the child’s demise.

In the novel’s final scene, Leverkühn assembles his friends and colleagues for a performance of his masterwork, The Lamentation of Dr. Faustus. Prefacing the performance with a few remarks about its composition and meaning, Leverkühn speaks of the satanic contract, visits from demonic children, and supernatural inspiration. The extent of his insanity, most likely a result of the syphilis he contracted early on, unsettles the members of the salon, and they all leave except Zeitblom and a few others. Leverkühn is unable to perform the piece, instead collapsing with a groan over the piano as he attempts to strike the first chord. The composer’s mental condition degrades steadily into total incapacitation over the next ten years, during which time he is cared for by his mother and occasionally visited by Zeitblom.


Allegory of the Third Reich

The decoding of allegory is key to understanding the novel. Mann signals this allegory through parallel narratives: Adrian’s rise and fall coupled with Zeitblom’s account of the war. The emphasis on the Faust legend not only is a gesture to the progression of German culture, but its commentary on pride, greed, lust for greatness, and the loss of humanity are intended to apply to the state of Germany following World War II. The movement of Leverkühn away from spiritual studies of theology in favor of the pure rationality contained in the music of integral serialism reflects the shift in German intellectual culture: once dominated by the humanism of religion, it is now subject to the cold and efficient calculation of the Nazi party. Mann’s novel aims for an analysis of Germany generally through an investigation of the actions of her citizens, specifically. As T. J. Reed explains, “the novel rests on the idea that political and social phenomenon, in Germany at least, are psychological in origin."[1]

Critique of Bourgeois Society

The novel levies a stern critique against bourgeois society, specifically against the hypocrisy and complacency shown toward the advent of the Third Reich. Mann felt that the bourgeoisie claimed a level of cultivation and sophistication that should have resulted in informed and independent thinking, but instead left them blind and susceptible to being swept away by someone such as Hitler. “Zeitblom describes a corruption of civilization so encompassing that no one, including himself, has a clear understanding of right and wrong. The confusion of standards and values has led an entire nation to misjudge its leader and the exalted promises made to them for a rebirth."[2] The seduction of Zeitblom by Leverkühn symbolizes this, especially the former’s failure to notice the inconsistency between the intimate relationship he has with the composer and the actual coldness of Leverkühn’s life.

The German Character of Art and Novel

Other elements, such as the clear biographical references to Friedrich Nietzsche and Arnold Schönberg, underscore the novel's interest in the life of the artist. In the text, Mann examines many of his own aesthetic concerns, from representing his fears of creative sterility to investigating the role of suffering and isolation in the artist’s life (Reed, 361-363; von Rohr Schaff, 169). Music serves an important symbolic function in the novel as well, and Mann imposed onto the compositions of Leverkühn his own interpretation of Schönberg’s twelve-tone serialism as a representation of ideal democracy (Lörke, 216-218). “With this association between art and life Doctor Faustus extends a correlation present in all of Mann’s work, for Mann believed that the artist represents the human spirit in its essence and that the pattern of life is contained in the work of art” (von Rohr Scaff, 168-169). Above all, the novel is saturated with German symbolism and allusions that are used to comment on the state of the German people.

Critical Reception

Not surprisingly, the initial reception and criticism of the novel focused on the novel’s “German” identity. “Early German reviewers saw in Doctor Faustus a work of hatred and a besmirching of German culture. Non-German critics have sometimes seen the reverse—an incorrigible love of German culture and a tragic apologia for its consequences” (Reed, 392). “The convenient yet oversimplified axiom, Leverkühn=Germany,” contributed to these interpretations.[3] Georg Lukács described the work as exemplary of the “tragedy of modern art” and located the cause of the tragedy in the isolation of the bourgeois artist from the social whole (Fetzer, 3). Other critics took issue with Mann’s secularization of the Faust legend, which excluded the possibility of the Faust figure’s transcendence.[4]

More recent critics, however, aided by new biographical and contextual information that surfaced after Mann’s death, have emphasized the novel’s strong ambiguity and complexity (c. Fetzer 18f, 58f). Because Mann included so many symbols of German intellectual and artistic culture and because they are found in so many characters, many of whom seem quite opposed, no one single interpretation of the novel is possible. Neither Leverkühn nor Zeitblom nor any of the novel’s characters can be reduced to one single meaning or one clear comment. This ambiguity, while it prevents any clear reading of Mann’s intent, also imparts the text with an unfathomable depth. Despite these potential flaws, the genius of Mann displays itself in the incredible richness of the narrative and the symbols it contains, offering a seemingly endless possibility of ways to question and critique the German situation at the middle of the 20th century.

  1. T. J. Reed, Thomas Mann: The Uses of Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 399.
  2. Susan von Rohr Scaff, "Doctor Faustus," in The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Mann, ed. Ritchie Robertson (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 175.
  3. John F. Fetzer, Changing Perceptions of Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus: Criticism 1947-1992. (Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1996), 2.
  4. Hans Egon Holthusen, Die Welt ohne Transzendenz: eine Studie zu Thomas Manns "Dr. Faustus" und seinen Nebenschriften (Hamburg: H. Ellerman, 1954), 5.

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