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Buddenbrooks is the most famous novel by German author Thomas Mann. Based on the experiences of his own family (not the only one of his works which did this), it tells about the downfall of a merchant family in the northern German city of Lübeck (the city's name is never stated, but clearly implied). A good example of a Roman à Clef.

Let's start with a description of the characters. You'll need it.

  • Johann Buddenbrook sr. Didn't found the family business, but made it big (during the wars against Napoleon Bonaparte, but that happens before the novel starts). An enlightened man who likes to play the flute. Father of Gotthold and Johann jr.
  • Johann "Jean" Buddenbrook jr. Younger son of Johann sr. Inherits the family business. Has four children: Thomas, Christian, Antonie and Klara. His fortunes are going sometimes up, sometimes down. Dies relatively young, in his fifties.
  • Elisabeth "Bethsy" Buddenbrook, née Kröger. Wife of Jean. Spends a lot of time doing charity work for the (Protestant) church.
  • Gotthold Buddenbrook. Older son of Johann sr. Only received the smaller part of his father's fortune after marrying the daughter of a shopkeeper. Has three daughters, who stay unmarried and childless through their lives, are full with envy of the other Buddenbrooks and enjoy their failures.
  • Thomas Buddenbrook. After the early death of his father, he becomes head of the business in his twenties. A bit of a dandy, likes expensive clothing. Was in genuine love with a girl selling flowers, but decided that she was of too low rank for a man in his position. Married Gerda then instead and fathered Hanno, who isn't really the son he wished for. Finds that he has trouble to relate to his wife. Struggles hard to keep the fortune of the family together. Is elected senator of Lübeck, but dies soon afterwards - even younger than his father.
  • Gerda Buddenbrook née Arnoldsen, who becomes Thomas' wife. Daughter of a great Dutch merchant, who's also a great violinist. Very beautiful, very rich and musically talented. A big fan of Richard Wagner. Not so much into business, and also influences her son in this way, to Thomas' chagrin. Has a relationship with the also musically talented lieutenant Rene von Trotha, with whom she can relate better than with her husband. (It's hard to describe — calling him a lover wouldn't really explain it. Soul mate would be more accurate.) She leaves the city after her husband and son have died, as if "her work was done".
  • Christian Buddenbrook. Also learns the business of a merchant, but clearly isn't into it. He prefers telling stories and entertainment. With time, he also becomes more and more concerned with his neuroses and hypochondria. Falls in love with the actress Aline Puvogel (at this time, this was considered a scandal), has a child with her and marries her after his mother's death. Then, she sends him to an insane asylum and doesn't let him out, even when he begs her.
  • Antonie "Tony" Buddenbrook. Starts as the "little princess" of the family. Is then sent to a Boarding School, where she meets Gerda Arnoldsen, her later sister-in-law. Then enters an Arranged Marriage with Gold Digger Grünlich, which ends in a divorce. Later tries again, this time with the Bavarian Permaneder. Also doesn't end well. Being very proud of her family, she suffers pretty much from their downfall.
  • Klara Buddenbrook. Marries the reverend Tiburtius from Riga (Latvia) and dies early.
  • Erika Grünlich. Tony's daughter with Grünlich. Later marries the insurance agent Weinschenk, which also doesn't end well when he has to go to prison for having committed re-insurance fraud. Then he leaves the country, never to return.
  • Justus Johann "Hanno" Kaspar Buddenbrook. A sickly, very sensitive boy who's mostly interested in music, as his mother. Has no friends but Kai. Dies of typhus in his teens, although it is implied that he doesn't want to live anymore.

Tropes:

  • Ambiguously Jewish: It's not mentioned directly, but you can find pointed out the one or other time that Hermann Hagenström's nose is hooked — a typical Jewish stereotype.
  • Angst: Hanno, of course.
  • Arranged Marriage: For Jean. Also, Tony's first marriage.
  • Atomic F-Bomb: When Tony catches her second husband in the act with their (female) cook, a row ensues, which culminates in Permaneder insulting her, "Go to hell, you dirty swinish slut!" Divorce ensues.
  • Beard of Evil: Grünlich has mutton chops. (The version without moustache and goatee.)
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: Subverted in the school chapter. In Hanno's class there's the student Wasservogel who's described as very ugly, but all the teachers treat him very generously to prove to themselves and the world that they don't fall victim to this trope.
  • Big Fancy House: Thomas builds one, but later feels exhausted and regrets building such an expensive home. Even the house the family moves in later (after their downfall has become obvious) would probably qualify.
  • Black Sheep: Christian.
  • Book Ends: At the beginning of the book, the family talks about another merchant who was ruined recently. Guess what happens to the family Buddenbrook at the end.
  • Bunny Ears Lawyer: Many of the teachers, who have peculiar ways of talking and such. Also, some other characters like Thomas' compagnon Marcuse.
  • Cain and Abel: Thomas and Christian. Thomas is the strict businessman (although sometimes, it becomes too much for him), Christian a playboy and a neurotic. At one point, Thomas threatens Christian to put him under tutelage. Thomas also tells him, "I became what I am because I didn't want to become like you!"
  • Can't Get Away with Nuthin': We learn that the re-insurance fraud Weinschenk committed apparently is common in his line of work, but he's especially unlucky to suffer for it.
  • Child Prodigy: Subverted. Hanno is good at doing some little fantasies on the piano, but nothing more. Only Tony thinks he is this.
  • The Clan / Big Screwed-Up Family / Dysfunctional Family: The Buddenbrooks. The Hagenströms are also The Clan, but definitely not so much of the other tropes.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Hanno. It's not funny.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Hanno and Kai, who "nickname" their teachers not "the spider" or "the cockatoo" as their classmates do, but rather "Herr X". Also, Hanno's geography teacher, who's a big fan of satirist Heinrich Heine, tries to be this.
  • Depraved Dentist: Subverted with the dentist Brecht. When he has to pull out teeth (at this time, there were no anesthetics!), he gets pretty nervous and suffers with his patients.
    • Also Bilingual Bonus, as Brecht is almost identical to the German word for break or crush.
  • Disappeared Dad: Erika, Grünlich's daughter, suffers from this.
  • The Ditz: Tony is impressed by smart people (like Morten Schwarzkopf — a doctor-to-be with whom she falls in love, but can't marry him because of the Grünlich thing), but is neither book smart nor street smart herself, and calls herself "a silly goose" sometimes. However, her poor relative Klothilde is even more so, and gets picked on by everybody.
  • The Dog Bites Back: Once, Kai avenges Hanno by biting Hagenström jr.
  • {{Doorstopper}
  • Downer Ending: The firm is dissolved, and more importantly, Hanno dies. In the last chapter Tony, the Misses Buddenbrook, and Sesemi Weichbrodt discuss whether or not there is such a thing as God, or even hope. Depending on how you interpret this conversation, it can make the ending more bittersweet or an even bigger downer.
  • Dramatic Irony: Quite a lot. Prominent example: If Sesemi wishes people good luck or happiness, they always tend to become unlucky and unhappy in their lives.
  • Family Business: The novel depicts how it goes down.
  • The Film of the Book: Three so far (and a tv series)
  • Foil: Kai to Hanno. Kai is wild, Hanno is shy and timid; Kai lives on a farm, Hanno in the city; Kai lives with his father, after Hanno's father's death and the conviction of his uncle all his other family members are female.
  • Follow in My Footsteps: What Thomas wants to enforce in his son Hanno, who's not qualified for this.
  • Food Porn
  • Foreshadowing: Little Hanno reads the family chronicles and also finds the family tree, including his name. Then, he takes a ruler and draws a line under this. When his father gets upset and demands an explanation, Hanno answers "I thought, nothing would follow."
  • Generational Saga
  • German Dialects: Mostly the northern ones, but also Bavarian (Permaneder) and West Prussian (Ida Jungmann, the nanny)
  • Gold Digger: Grünlich, a male example. Tiburtius may also qualify.
  • Good Shepherd: Lampshaded in the story, as there is a pastor [clergyman] and Latin teacher named Hirte who likes to point out that both his name and title translate as this.
  • Gratuitous French: This was common in the German higher classes at this time. Besides, there is also Gratuitous English, Gratuitous Spanish, Gratuitous Latin and Gratuitous Platt.
  • Heroes Want Redheads: Gerda has long, beautiful red hair.
  • Holier Than Thou: Johann Buddenbrook jr. was somewhat pietist (other than his enlightened father). His wife becomes this completely, especially as a widow.
  • Honor Before Reason: Hanno unexpectedly gets help (that is, cheating in class) by a classmate who wants to become an officer and believes in cameraderie so much that he even helps Hanno, despite not liking him personally.
  • Ho Yay: Between Hanno and Kai. Author Thomas Mann (who was a closeted gay) stated that the two boys stood for different aspects of his own personality.
  • Imperial Germany: The later parts of the novel are set in this time.
  • Impoverished Patrician / Land Poor: Kai's father, who's a Graf (Count).
  • Inadequate Inheritor: Hanno
  • It Got Worse: Probably the main theme of the novel. When Johann sr dies and leaves a strong and successful business to his large family, everything starts to go downhill with nothing of either remaining two generations later.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: After Tony's second divorce, Permaneder gives back her dowry (50,000 marks) without complaining.
  • Jerk Jock: The sons of Hermann Hagenström, who use to pick on poor Hanno.
  • Kindly Housekeeper: Ida Jungmann, who serves the family several decades. At the end, she is even too kindly - spoiling Hanno and teaching him that all other kids aren't worthy, compared to him.
  • Large Ham: The eccentric businessman Gosch (who also translates Lope de Vega in his spare time) who likes to act like a typical stage villain, although really being a good man in every way.
  • Leitmotif: Characters have their typical figures of speech, typical descriptions and so on, which are repeated throughout the book.
  • Lighter and Softer: The movie from The Fifties manages to become this trope, although being relatively close to the book.
  • Lonely Rich Kid: Hanno
  • Loners Are Freaks: Hanno and Kai, at least for their classmates.
  • Malaproper: Kind of, we don't know the exact reason, though it's neither stupidity nor lack of schooling — hypercorrection, subdued Large Ham maybe? So or so, Sesemi Weichbrodt always manages to pronounce all vowels in the non-standard way.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Grünlich, Tiburtius, Weinschenk
  • Meaningful Name: The worker Grobleben -- his name means 'Roughlife'. Also Kistenmaker, lit. "box-maker". Now a coffin is a kind of box, and he is responsible for wasting quite some of the family's wealth.
  • The Mentally Disturbed: Christian, who ends up in an asylum.
  • Miniature Senior Citizens: Therese "Sesemi" Weichbrodt (who admittedly was very short even when younger), head of Tony's Boarding School.
  • Missing Mom: Kai's (she's dead). Also, Gerda's.
  • Multigenerational Household
  • Muse Abuse
  • Nightmare Fetishist: Christian surely is too fascinated by his own maladies, or his father dying (he wasn't there and wants to hear all the not-so-nice details). It's part of the all-over morbidity theme in the book.
  • Oktoberfest: Tony's second husband, Permaneder, is a Protestant Bavarian who likes drinking beer more than doing business.
  • One-Gender School: OK, that was standard at this time.
  • One-Hour Work Week: Christian tends to this, to the chagrin of his brother. Also, Justus Kröger, brother-in-law of Jean.
  • One Steve Limit: Averted, see the character list.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Antonie and Justus Johann Kaspar are almost always mentioned as / named "Tony" and "Hanno". Also, Therese Weichbrodt, who tells everyone to call her "Sesemi".
  • Only Sane Man: At the end, Thomas. And then he dies. Say goodbye to the firm.
  • The Prankster: Hanno's classmates. Not so much under the watch of the stern teachers and sadist teachers, but when the new, younger and nicer English teacher enters the classroom, the boys start to throw bang snaps, exchange pornographic drawings in class and openly claim that a classmate (who's sitting in the room!) was dead and thus can't recite the poem he had to learn.
  • Refuge in Audacity: After bowing to some teachers of the lower classes (and no, even in Imperial Germany students didn't have to do that - hmm, case of Stealth Insult?), Kai greets a pretty old and decrepit teacher: "Good morning, you corpse!" And then looks elsewhere as if nothing had happened.
  • The Rival: The family Hagenström. Note that for Thomas, it's just a competitor - but for Tony, it's Serious Business since she had a Cat Fight with Hermann's sister Julchen when they were kids.
  • The Scrooge: Kai's father, who had a sign at his house stating that he doesn't buy anything, doesn't need anything, and doesn't give anything.
  • Serious Business: Said business and the station of the family. While Thomas feels an obligation to keep the family line and the business strong and gets depressed from utterly failing at both, Tony constantly ruins her own life because she can never accept what happiness she finds because it's below her station of a patrician daughter.
  • Shaming the Mob: When the republican revolutionaries have the city hall surrounded, Jean Buddenbrook talks them down, and things end peaceful. Well, almost, when his father-in-law is hit by a stone shortly afterward and becomes so enraged that he has a fit and dies.
  • Sinister Minister: Tiburtius, who manipulates his wife (and indirectly, her mother) into giving her inheritance to him. Also, Trieschke who falls in love with Tony.
  • Spoiled Brat: Young Tony is like this
  • Stern Teacher to Sadist Teacher: Most of Hanno's, especially the very Prussian director Wulicke, whom Hanno and Kai nickname "the good God" (he is much like the Old Testament God — don't provoke his wrath). Many of these are also pretty eccentric.
  • Stuttering Into Eloquence: Typical behavior of Herr Ballerstedt, Hanno's religion teacher. (The other students call him "the cockatoo".)
  • Take Our Word for It: After Thomas has died, the family is busy writing cards for the funeral. Hanno is helping too, despite being a kid. Then, he happens to stumble upon a funny name and starts laughing out loud. (For the record, in The Series said name became "Schluckebier".)
  • The Unfavorite: Jean's older brother, Gotthold. Gotthold's mother whom their father had loved very much died at Gotthold's birth, which the father never forgave him. When Gotthold married the daughter of a shopkeeper, the split is complete.
  • Upperclass Twit: Christian. He may be less genuine stupid like other examples, but has a tendency to put his foot in the mouth. Like when he states in the club (where all the other businessmen are, including The Rival Hagenström): "Isn't every businessman basically a crook?"
  • The Vamp: Gerda. While she is more than a two-dimensional movie Vamp, she doesn't exactly have a good influence on the family, and leaves unscathed at the end of the story, with her husband and son dead, the family being without any influence left, and the firm dissolved.
  • With Friends Like These...: Thomas' friend Kistenmaker is responsible for executing the testament after Thomas' death, and causing great financial losses for the family.
  • Write What You Know
  • Write Who You Know: All the characters are based on Thomas Mann's family members. His uncle who supposedly was like Christian wasn't too happy about it. Also note the relationship between Thomas and Christian in the novel, and Thomas Mann's with his Real Life brother Heinrich...
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