The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann is largely regarded as a masterpiece of German fiction.
The intimidatingly long novel — originally published in two installments — follows engineer Hans Castorp as he finds himself losing time in a Swiss sanatorium.
An isolated community in the Swiss Alps serves as a backdrop for a novel that explores human nature and morality. Distanced from the rest of the world, Castorp finds himself in a place where time can so easily slip away.
Surrounded by a cast of unusual characters and dizzying miles of snow, Castorp and the reader are caught between reality and ambiguity.
The Magic Mountain is one of those books (see also: That Old Cape Magic Book Review)that we’re often told we have to read. However, at over 700 pages, it’s not a project you can undertake lightly.
But The Magic Mountain really is as good as everyone says it is — you just have to be willing to commit to a novel that will shake your own perception of time.
The Magic Mountain: Synopsis
It’s 1912, and Hans Castorp is about to embark on his career as a shipbuilder. An orphan, he was raised first by his grandfather, and then by his uncle.
Before starting work, Castorp decides to take a trip to visit his cousin, Joachim Ziemssen. Ziemssen is living in a Swiss Alp sanatorium, where he’s receiving treatment for tuberculosis.
Leaving behind his family and obligations in “the flatlands”, Castorp journeys to the introspective world of the sanatorium. Here he finds fresh air, fresh thinking, and the types of people he’s never met before.
Castorp’s attempts to leave the sanatorium are delayed by his ill health. A slight infection soon reveals itself as a potential sign of tuberculosis. Castorp is persuaded to stay in the mountains until his health gets better.
Over the next seven years of treatment, Castorp finds himself exposed to a series of unusual characters.
From the Italian humanist to the Jesuit totalitarianism, Castorp is surrounded by the types of people he never met as a child of Hamburg merchants.
But for all that the fresh mountain air might invigorate Castorp’s mind, the threat of tuberculosis prevents life in the Alps from ever becoming idyllic.
And it’s impossible to ignore the looming presence of war that casts a shadow over even the most remote corners of Europe.
The Magic Mountain: History And Background
Before you dive into The Magic Mountain, it’s worth understanding the time and place the novel was written in. The Magic Mountain is deeply informed by the surroundings of its creation.
The Writing Process
Published in 1924, Mann began writing The Magic Mountain in 1912 as a comedic novella that played on aspects of his earlier novel, Death In Venice.
The writing of the novel was interrupted by the outbreak of World War I. German Mann was supportive of his nation-state — at first. He even published essays celebrating the German Empire.
However, when WWI finally came to an end in 1918, Mann was a different person. He no longer supported the German Empire, had grown critical of European bourgeois society, and was probing deeper into his own long-held points of view.
In 1919 Mann returned to writing The Magic Mountain, surrounded by a very different Germany, and a very different mindset, to the one he started with. The novel was eventually published in 1924.
The Magic Mountain takes place primarily in a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps. Our protagonist, Castorp, heads to the mountain at the end of the first chapter, and he doesn’t head back down until the very end of the novel.
Life in the sanatorium is full of contrasts. The residents are a diverse group of people, coming from across Europe. Their primary connection is their illness — those who live in the sanatorium are trapped there by illness.
Each character represents a different attitude of the pre-war years. The Magic Mountain is set in the years leading up to WWI, and the specter of war plays an undeniable role in the unfolding procedures.
Not quite a classic Bildungsroman, The Magic Mountain depicts Hans Castorp as he journeys from youth into adulthood.
But while the Magic Mountain has many of the expected beats and themes of a Bildungsroman, it never sits entirely comfortably in the genre.
Castorp learns about art, morality, love, and death during his time on the mountain. He hears from different viewpoints, learns about different ways of living, and is ready to leave the sanatorium as a mature member of society.
However, when Hans Castorp finally reaches adulthood as expected in a Bildungsroman, polite society isn’t around to appreciate it. Instead, Europe is at war, and Castorp’s new fate consigns him to life as a faceless soldier.
The Magic Mountain: Review
The Magic Mountain is an intimidating read. Originally published as two volumes, the average length of the paperback is 720 pages.
But it isn’t the staggering length that makes The Magic Mountain such a difficult book to tackle — it’s the ambiguity.
The world of the mountain is both removed from everyday life and unable to escape its influences. With residents coming from across the continent, the sanatorium features a snapshot of life in Europe.
And as new styles of thought emerge from an old society, opposing attitudes begin to collide in a way that would soon prove violent.
But The Magic Mountain is also a step away from all that. While it’s hard at first to understand why Castorp is so willing to turn his three-week visit into a seven-year ordeal, over time, can’t we all sympathize with his staying?
Maybe it’s the rarefied air of the Alps or maybe it’s the opportunity to distance yourself from the struggles of the flatlands.
Not that life on the mountain is without its difficulties. Perhaps Mann’s greatest brilliance is his portrayal of sickness. Illness resonates not just through the bodies of the afflicted but through their minds.
When Castorp is diagnosed with tuberculosis and becomes one of the “horizontal”, he almost comes to relish the repetitive nature of the treatment.
Death itself is another figure that exists both in the foreground and the background. The invisibility of death plays heavy on the minds of mountain residents, while also becoming almost the elephant in the room.
Drawing from folk tales and mythology (If you like stories based on folk tales, also check out Coraline), The Magic Mountain is woven with ambiguity throughout.
The epic chapter “Snow” — following Castorp as he battles through a blizzard and his hallucinations — leans heavily into the sense of unreality. At the end of the book, it’s hard to pin down what any of it was really about.
But, of course, life on the mountain is riddled with magic and allegory. Surrounded by slippery white snow and the constant presence of death, it’s easy to lose touch with what’s real and what isn’t.
To the residents, time itself has become almost meaningless.
The story, much like life on the mountain, is meandering and time-consuming. By the end of it, Castorp has had some of the revelations and epiphanies you expect from a Bildungsroman.
It’s just taken a very long time to get there — too long, perhaps, as war consumes Europe and personal epiphanies are lost on faceless casualties.
Despite all that, The Magic Mountain is funny — even through the horror and despair. You might not find yourself laughing out loud, but Mann’s use of irony elevates the book above a simple tale of woe.
The Magic Mountain isn’t easy and it isn’t meant to be. For modern readers, the 1914 sanatorium setting feels incredibly distant from everyday life.
But even on publication, The Magic Mountain depicted a life that no longer was. The foibles and rhythms of pre-war Europe were long gone by 1924.
And while the exact setting might be purposefully removed, even modern readers can relate to the feeling that time continues to slip away. Who hasn’t lost weeks and months to the same old routine?
The Magic Mountain has been celebrated as one of the most influential novels of the twentieth century. As with many books in that category, it makes you work for your rewards.
This book remains a classic because of the commitment it asks of the reader. Like Castorp, you’ll leave the novel with a greater maturity and sense of being, even if you have no clear idea what it was all about.
Then again, is there any better reflection of life itself?
Since its first publication in 1924, The Magic Mountain has become a classic of German literature.
Sometimes frustrating, other times sublime, and often both at once, The Magic Mountain is an exceptional reflection on time, life, and what we do with them both.
Although not an easy read, The Magic Mountain is a rewarding one. To truly make the most of the novel, read it during those long winter nights when you can join Castorp as he watches time simply slip away.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is The Magic Mountain Worth Reading?
The Magic Mountain is both a literary masterpiece and a frustratingly complex read. Funny throughout despite repeated themes of death, loss, and leaving it too late to live your life, it remains remarkably relatable to modern readers.
It can take a while to get through, but it’s worth the effort.
What Is The Best English Translation Of The Magic Mountain?
Originally written in German by Thomas Mann, the best English translation is largely regarded to be by John E. Woods.