The Great Lament | „Doctor Faustus“ by Thomas Mann

[This is the translation of my original post in German.]

In the more than seventy years since its publication, surely everything has been said about this novel, but nevertheless, here is a brief point about it. First, the general overview: „Doctor Faustus“ is the life story of the composer Adrian Leverkühn, narrated by his friend Serenus Zeitblom. The latter is a high school teacher of ancient languages and expresses himself in an archaic manner, which Thomas Mann exaggerates to surpass his own style and turn the novel into a linguistically elegant, extravagant work of art.

The designation of Adrian Leverkühn as a „tone-setter“ in the subtitle of the novel already hints at his eccentric style and perhaps serves as a foreshadowing of a central point in the plot. Leverkühn believes that he doesn’t actually compose his works himself, but rather puts the tones of another on paper—inspirations dictated to him by the devil personally. In his early years, he made a contract with the Devil that states the following: the devil will receive Adrian Leverkühn’s soul, in which he has had great interest since Leverkühn’s birth, and one day take it to hell to make it endure eternal, unimaginable torment. All of this is impressively and ominously described by the devil himself, who appears personally in his study in various forms and engages in a detailed dialogue with him. There are no hidden clauses in this contract; the composer knows what he is getting into. In exchange for his soul, the devil gives him twenty-four years to write fantastic music. For Leverkühn, who considers the music of his time to be stagnant, this offer appears particularly enticing because he sees the devil’s support as the only way to create something truly unprecedented. Leverkühn by the way has learned the craft and theory of composition, and, alas, he has of course also studied theology.

The Contract with the Devil

Another clause in the contract is to Leverkühn’s disadvantage—a strict prohibition on love. All the people who mean something to him are taken away. And so it actually happens. Leverkühn composes groundbreaking music for twenty-four years and lives in seclusion as the price for it. Two people whom he allows to get close to him die shortly thereafter. One is the concert violinist Rudi Schwertfeger, with whom Leverkühn shares a close, vaguely erotic friendship, and who, when Leverkühn no longer keeps him at a distance, is shot by a jealous lover. The other is Leverkühn’s five-year-old nephew.

Here, there is a striking parallel to Thomas Mann’s first novel, „Buddenbrooks“—and if you still want to be surprised by it, you shouldn’t read any further. In both novels, a child dies from a fatal illness towards the end. In „Buddenbrooks,“ it is Hanno, whose death marks the end of the dynasty of Lübeck merchants. We have just seen him sitting in school, observing the idiosyncrasies of his teachers, when suddenly, in the famous penultimate chapter, „It is as follows with typhoid…,“ everything changes abruptly. It is a medically sober description of the typical course of the disease, and although it is not even mentioned that Hanno was affected by it, at the end of the chapter, one understands that he died from it. The shock is expressed in the contrast between the unspoken and the distanced account, and the death of the child remains the unspeakable for the remaining characters until the end of the novel.

Telling Diseases

In „Doctor Faustus,“ it is the five-year-old Nepomuk Schneidewein, Adrian Leverkühn’s nephew, who dies from meningitis. However, in this case, the terrible event is not left to the reader’s imaginative interpretation, but it is described in cruel detail. One must witness how the lovable child increasingly withdraws, exhausts himself, and seeks sleep, how he can no longer tolerate loud voices, complains of severe headaches, is plagued by convulsive vomiting, and ultimately loses control over his body. The horrific is shown here up close. This aligns with the dark undertone of „Doctor Faustus,“ which was not present in „Buddenbrooks“, but I believe it serves an additional specific purpose here.

First, another similarity: In both cases, the fatal illness represents a higher principle. The physical suffering is an expression of a purely spiritual cause. In Hanno Buddenbrook’s case, it is the „denial of the will to live,“ which Thomas Mann refers to Arthur Schopenhauer’s „The World as Will and Representation,“ previously quoted in the novel. It is implied that Hanno could have survived typhus if he had not lacked a strong will to live. In Nepomuk Schneidewein’s case, on the other hand, the symptoms of meningitis resemble the madness of someone possessed by a demon, in this case, the devil himself. This interpretation of the illness is intentional, but the narrator does not adopt it personally; instead, it is left to Adrian Leverkühn. For Leverkühn, it is clear that he allowed the beloved nephew to come too close to him and now bears the guilt that the devil tears him from life, as was contractually agreed upon.

Leverkühn cannot live with this guilt anymore. The twenty-four years have passed, and on a final concert evening, to which he invites a part of the Munich high society to his rural residence, the disheveled and apparently insane artist confesses his pact with the devil in a dramatic speech to his highly bewildered audience. It is left to the reader’s interpretation whether it is the belief in such a pact and the burden of guilt for the death of the little nephew that drove him to madness or if the devil is indeed at work, taking his promised soul. After his confession, Leverkühn collapses at the piano and afterward, in the novel’s aftermath, where Serenus Zeitblom seemingly recounts his friend’s life to completion, he is no longer himself. He is mentally ill, progressively demented. The involuntary return of the great artist to his hometown as a dependent, against his will cared for by his mother, and the final encounters with the friend Zeitblom, whom he no longer recognizes, form the very dark conclusion of the novel. All beauty must perish because it is not meant to be—this desperate realization of Leverkühn’s after his nephew’s death seems to come true in his own life as well.


The entire life story of the great composer, and especially his decline at the end, is told by Zeitblom, who survives Leverkühn and writes the story during the waning days of World War II, as a parallel to the downfall of the „Third Reich.“ Just like Leverkühn, the German people are also possessed by the devil, who has already shown in Leverkühn’s study that he can assume different forms and apparently made his pact with the Germans in the person of Adolf Hitler. Thomas Mann, speaking through the voice of Zeitblom as a patriotic emigrant, painfully concludes that not only the devil was to blame. The predisposition to National Socialism and its horrors already existed in the „German soul,“ just as the coldness and inclination towards diabolical tendencies existed from the beginning in Adrian Leverkühn’s soul, and they only needed to be awakened and exaggerated to lead to madness. The novel itself has its own parallel, its mirror image, within the novel, in the form of Leverkühn’s final major composition, a piece called „Doktor Fausti Weheklag“ (Doctor Faustus‘ Lament). This composition is a hopelessly dark musical lament with the classical story of Doctor Faustus as its theme. Leverkühn expresses in it the despair over his own pact with the devil, while Thomas Mann’s novel „Doctor Faustus“ is a great lament about Germany possessed by and destroyed with National Socialism.

Despite all the despair, there is a beautifully described glimmer of hope. Leverkühn’s consistently dark composition ends with a long note, and only after it has faded away, according to Zeitblom’s description, because one still believes to hear the note in the silence, there arises a sense that despite all the despair, things can still go on and turn for the better. Just as Zeitblom interprets the end of his friend’s work here, Thomas Mann perhaps wants his novel, which also ends in despair, to be read and thus give it an implied hopeful ending.

Earlier, during Leverkühn’s monologue in which he confesses his alliance with the devil to the assembled Munich society, there is a moment in which Thomas Mann also shows how he does not want his novel to be understood. While Leverkühn, moved and struggling for the right words, confesses his terrible pact, and the majority of the audience is irritated and appalled by it, one of the invited Munich writers repeatedly interjects that he finds what has been said to be „beautiful“ and suggests that he perceives Leverkühn’s confession as part of a performance – as a work of art. This listener, solely focused on the aesthetic, is the most ridiculous figure in the entire novel. Obviously, he has not understood that what is being shown is no longer art but harsh reality. That is why the death of Nepomuk Schneidewein had to be depicted so drastically. Thomas Mann no longer seeks praise for his narrative and aesthetic tricks here, but aims to convey truth and genuine emotional impact.

A desperate lament and an unspoken glimmer of hope. That is the impression that remains in the end, and that is why „Doctor Faustus“ is a magnificent novel in my opinion.

About this webpage:

I write a blog about German and international literature. Based on these posts, I also produce a podcast and videos for my youtube channel, both in German. Further English translations are coming.