Disorder and Early Sorrow

by Meaghan Rubsam

“Disorder and Early Sorrow,” a novella by Thomas Mann, was written in 1925, with characters that were structured after members of Mann’s own family.  This short story examines the life of the Cornelius family through the eyes of Abel Cornelius, a professor at the local university, whose once respected position has become virtually irrelevant.  In “Disorder and Early Sorrow,” Mann depicts the economic, cultural, and societal consequences of the German hyperinflation of the 1920’s.

Plot Summary

As the novella opens and characters are introduced, Mann places each person into one of four categories: the “ancient folk,” the “old folk,” the “big folk,” and the “little folk.”  Mann places these categories in an increasing order of importance: the younger a character is, the more important she is.  The ancients, who are the Professor’s parents, are mentioned only once.  Professor Abel and his wife are present throughout the story, but have lost their significance in society.  Mrs. Cornelius spends her days struggling to get by on her husband’s salary, while the Professor, although still in a distinguished position, experiences an identity crisis due to the changing times.  Attending the University and attaining higher knowledge are no longer important or emphasized goals, and, due to this change in societal priorities, Professor Abel constantly reflects on his feelings towards both the past and the present.  Ingrid and Bert, teenagers who are eighteen and seventeen respectfully, embrace the current situation, with neither having an interest in attending the University.  Both enjoy dancing and acting, and find various ways to be happy regardless of the current economic conditions.  The last group in Mann’s novel is comprised of the “little folk,” Ellie and Snapper.  These two children are doted on by their parents, with Ellie being her father’s favorite.  Both children are too innocent to recognize the situation in which they are growing up, and are also young enough to be shaped by their parents.   Ingrid and Bert move away from the educated, university life that the Professor respects and idealizes, but Abel still invests his hope in Ellie and Snapper and despises anything that works against this investment.

The story concentrates on a party that Ingrid and Bert give for their friends.  Throughout the story, as they plan this social function, Mann includes many digressions which reveal important actions and thoughts of the characters.  The first digression deals with the actions of Ingrid and Bert on a bus.  Bert and Ingrid pretend to be people from another part of the country and adopt exotic and offensive accents and mannerisms.  They talk loudly about various stories and events that never happened, offending one man so much that he reprimands them and then proceeds to leave the bus at the next stop.

As the household prepares for Ingrid and Bert’s party, the Professor withdraws to his study, where he reflects upon present conditions and upon his views of history, which he sums up in one sentence. “The past is immortalized; that is to say, it is dead; and death is the root of all godliness and all abiding significance” (187).  The Professor is a representation of the old culture which grew up before inflation, as shown by his love for order and tradition.  His children, especially the “big folks”, have embraced this new culture, whether it is through their dress, actions, or forms of entertainment.  While at the party, the Professor notices the dress and mannerisms of the young guests.  Signs of this new culture are everywhere, with one guest dressing in clothing which is not fitting for the middle class, while another man wears rouge.  Later in the evening, Max Hergesell, a young guest, dances with Ellie, whom the Professor views as someone who has not yet been corrupted by the present culture.  When Max stops dancing with Ellie to dance with a young woman his own age, Ellie becomes distraught.  She is brought to her room, weeping uncontrollably, and can only be calmed when Max comes upstairs to say goodnight.  As Bernd Widdig writes:

Ellie is as much a child of her times as she is an object of Cornelius’s desperate longing for a ‘holy’ and ‘eternal’ order…the dynamics of inflation may forcefully rip apart such bonds and indeed create in the end a heterogeneous, more egalitarian society, yet they intensify a seductive nostalgia for the seemingly timeless bonds of a ‘community.[1]

The novella ends with the Professor being thankful that Ellie has been calmed, and saying that tomorrow all will be well.

Major Themes

German society changed drastically as a result of hyperinflation.  In this short story, Mann addresses many themes which concerned Germany during the 1920’s.

A Social Critique on the Degeneration of Society

According to Rudiger Bolkolsky, “Mann captures not only the personal disorder and sorrow of a family and a child, but the national disorder and sorrow, the confusion of generations.”[2]   In “Disorder and Early Sorrow,” societal degeneration is brought about by World War I.  As Bolkolsky writes, “The war had brought Germans impoverishment, austerity, debt…and unbelievable inflation, malaise, cynicism, imbalance, loss of values, and a rejection of history” (221).  In Mann’s story, people are stripped of their individuality and thrust into a chaotic society, with the Cornelius family being representative of this chaos.  Food is extremely expensive and its availability uncertain.  The Professor maintains his position at the University but his salary will soon be consumed by rampant inflation.  The family must lie about how they are to be able to obtain enough eggs to eat.  These routines are representative of the broader issues common to Germans at the time.

Generational Conflict

Mann portrays generational conflict on the story’s first page, when the reader learns how Ingrid can influence her teachers, and soon after when the children are shown as lacking respect for their parents or ghostly grandparents.  The guests at the party dance while “strangely embraced; in the newest attitude, tummy advanced and shoulders high, waggling the hips.”[3]  The Professor frequently reflects on time and its changes, wishing that the present would end and saying that the past is dead.  He is most upset that his children lack respect for education and high society, which he once treasured.

Artists in Society

As the story unfolds, Professor Cornelius expresses his disapproval of many contemporary art forms and society’s new attitudes towards them.  Guests come to the party wearing make-up and modern clothing, and are committed to making theatrical impressions.  This artistic society is completely different than society in Wilhelmine Germany, and many of the older generation do not approve of this new way of life.

The Weimar Republic and Inflation

There was great political instability in the Weimar Republic following World War I, in part stemming from economic inequality, a precarious democracy, and a fluctuating economy.  Items that were given a 1 in the Wholesale Price Index in 1914 were given a 323.3 not even ten years later in 1922.  This drastic change occurred primarily in 1921, when prices in the United States and the United Kingdom declined 50%, prices in France declined 40%, and prices in Germany increased 2300%.  Germany underwent hyperinflation before its economy could recover from the war and successfully incorporate a new currency.

The term hyperinflation was applied to the German economy beginning in 1923.  Wholesale prices increased from a 57% change in May to a 29,586% change in October of the same year, while the exchange rate increased from a 95% change in May to a 25,957% change in October.  In November of 1923 the inflation rate rose at 20.9% per day.

German inflation had a major effect not only on the German economy, but also on German culture and everyday life.  It is reported that people would order two beers at a time because they believed that “the beer would grow warm and stale more slowly than the price was rising.  Taxis were preferred to streetcars because you paid at the end of the trip.”[4]  During Hitler’s rise to power, he worked on stopping inflation, stabilizing the economy, and creating jobs.  Thus, many historians believe that this inflation ultimately led to the rise of Fascism and to the onset of World War II.

Throughout “Disorder and Early Sorrow,” the effects of living in a changing and inflationary society are shown.  Mann often refers to this economic crisis through the eyes of the story’s protagonist, Professor Abel Cornelius. The state of society is constantly addressed, with Mann using quotes such as, “Born and brought up in these desolate and distracted times…” (185) and “The house is comfortable, even elegant, though sadly in need of repairs that cannot be made for lack of materials” (182).  Along with addressing the major cultural and societal influences which resulted from inflation, Mann includes scenarios, such as Mrs. Cornelius rushing into town to cash in her money before it lost its value, in order to illustrate to the reader that even the middle class was struggling to survive due to the state of the German economy.

  1. ↑ Bernd Widdig, “Culture and Inflation in Weimar Germany,” Central European History, 36.3, (2003): 477.
  2. ↑ Sidney Bolkolsky, “Thomas Mann’s ‘Disorder and Early Sorrow’: The Writer as Social Critic,” Contemporary Literature 22.2 (1981): 222. All subsequent references will be made in the body of the text.
  3. ↑ Thomas Mann, Death In Venice and Seven Other Stories, trans. H.T. Lowe-Porter (New York: Vintage Books: 1989), 204. All subsequent references will be made in the body of the text.
  4. ↑ Rudiger Dornbusch, “Stopping Hyperinflation: Lessons from the German Inflation Experience of the 1920s.” National Bureau of Economic Research Papers (1987), 11.