Little Herr Friedemann

by Heather Rhoda

Little Herr Friedemann (Der kleine Herr Friedemann) (1898) was one of Thomas Mann’s first novellas, and an early example of Mann’s tendency to delve into the life of an outsider, a common theme in many of his later works. The main character in the novella, Johannes Friedemann, must navigate the complexities of social isolation stemming from a physical handicap acquired when he was an infant. Throughout the story, he gradually immerses himself in literature, nature, and the arts in order to compensate for voids in his life such as the lack of intimacy or profound friendship. Ultimately this approach fails him and the story culminates in his suicide.

Friedemann’s Childhood

The story begins abruptly, as the family’s alcoholic nurse drops one month old Johannes Friedemann from the changing table while the mother and three daughters are away. This accident causes him to become hunchbacked, condemning him to a life in which others maintain “a self-conscious restraint toward him.”[1] Growing up in an upper-class decadent culture, he is unable to participate in physical activities with other children and develops no meaningful friendships. The one person with whom Johannes has any meaningful contact is his mother, his father having died before he was born. While other children gather to talk about their latest crushes, “these matters, as he told himself, (…) were among the things he was not cut out for, like gymnastics or throwing a ball” (25). Reading books, playing the violin, and enjoying nature become substitutes for his lack of companionship, a basic human need.

Friedemann consciously denies his basic nature, convincing himself that he does not need friendship, and initiating his journey into asceticism. Friedrich Nietzsche, of whom Mann was a great admirer and who influenced much of Mann’s writings, wrote an extended treatise on the meaning of the “Ascetic Ideal.” The reader can start to see traces of Nietzsche’s asceticism being woven into Johannes’ constitution, for a natural “instinct for protection and salvation in a degenerating life” emerges in him at this point of the story.[2]

The Final Plunge into Asceticism

At age 16, Johannes, however, does develop an interest in “an exuberantly cheerful blond” girl, only to later see her kissing another “tall, red-haired” boy. (26) Here, Mann is contrasting the “normal”, that is the descriptions of the girl and the boy, with the main character who is “not beautiful” but is rather anomalous to the common order of his society, an underlying theme in some of Mann’s other works such as Tonio Kröger and Gladius Dei.[3] Overcome with an “urgent pain”, he renounces love, and consequently intimacy, forever. This abstention from sexuality is, according to Schopenhauer, “an important step in the process of the denial of the will to live.”[4] In other words, Johannes now has given up one central motivator for living. Accordingly, per Nietzsche, he must find something else to make his life worth living. To compensate for this void in his life, Johannes delves even deeper into music and books.

At age 17, Johannes studies to become a businessman at the local lumberyard while his three older sisters take care of their mother. The next four years go fairly smoothly for him until his mother dies. Immediately, this is a turning point for him. In deep anguish, he finds that he enjoys the grief and pain, “[yielding] to it as one does to a great happiness.” He gathers in memory all of his painful childhood and “[wallows] in it as his first powerful experience,” relishing each sensation including his “yearnings” (26-27). The German word, “Sehnsucht,” which Mann uses here means “an addiction to longing.” This one word, though it does not have a true English counterpart, summarizes Johannes’ life for approximately the next nine years. Blurring the line between narrator and Johannes’ thoughts, Mann summarizes the meaning of “Sehnsucht” with the rhetorical question: “Aren’t the sweet, vague, painful yearning and hoping of quiet spring evenings a richer joy than any fulfillments that the summer might bring?” (27).

Asides such as this one are typical of Mann’s style at points where he may be inserting his own musings into the story. In a letter to his friend Otto Grautoff, Mann stated, “Since Little Herr Friedemann, I’ve been immediately able to find discrete forms and masks in which I can input my experiences in these characters…. my love, hate, sympathy, caution, pride, scorn, and accusations.”[5] For Johannes, literature, theater, nature, and music become his sole lifelines. Living almost as a modern-day Epicurus, Johannes Friedemann searches for happiness in spite of his deficiencies and he learns to “enjoy the delights … accessible to him” such as in literature and theater (27).

On his thirtieth birthday in June, Johannes, convincing himself that a quiet, peaceful life “devoid of great emotional surges” is preferable to the contrary, looks forward to the next ten or twenty years of his life. He continues to live with his three sisters who accept the fact that they too will remain unmarried (27).

An Abrupt Change

The next month a new district commander, Lieutenant Colonel von Rinnlingen and his somewhat unconventional wife, Frau Gerda von Rinnlingen, move into town. Nearly all who meet his wife do not much care for her because “her behavior is not only free and easy,” but also “lacking in natural grace” (30). But as soon as Johannes sees her, he is attracted to her. He realizes that it is best for him to stay away from her, but a few days later, he is seated next to Gerda at the City Theater for the performance of Wagner’s Lohengrin. Suffering from anxiety during the entire first act of the opera, he remains unable to move from his seat during intermission. Returning to her seat, Gerda glares at him (which later causes him to question his manhood) and accidentally drops her fan. They both reach to pick it up and he is “forced to inhale the warm fragrance of her bosom” (35). A few minutes later, he gets up and leaves, proceeding to have a full-fledged panic attack. He goes home and inhales the fragrance of a yellow rose, but realizes nature’s previous power to console him is no longer efficacious.

The next morning, Johannes’ sisters decide to pay a visit to the von Rinnlingens. Although Johannes passes up their request for him to join them and delights in his exercise of will-power, he soon becomes emotionally driven to go visit Gerda. Arriving with a pale face, plastered hair, and bloodshot eyes, he finds that his sisters have just left. He and Gerda chat a bit and he becomes increasingly attracted to her during their conversation. She confides in him that she gets sick, becomes nervous, and experiences “bizarre fits.” It is during these bizarre fits that her face displays a “barely perceptible cruel scorn” which is demonstrated throughout the story by her intermittent instances of glaring at others (41). She invites him and his sisters to a dinner party that she and her husband are to host the following week.

No Way Out

Following his visit, Johannes walks to a nearby river. Sitting on a bench, he ponders life, missing the happiness and contentment he enjoyed up to his thirtieth birthday. He realizes that these surges of emotion and the hatred welling up inside him are close to destroying him. Nothing he holds dear brings him any peace; instead, music, literature, and nature seem to rise up against him. At the party, Gerda asks him to take a walk with her after dinner. They end up going to the same place along the river. She becomes more personal, asking him about his handicap and whether he has been happy during the past 30 years. He replies, “No. It was all lies and self-delusion” (48). Overcome with emotion and anguish, he confesses his love for her, only to be pushed back and laughed at scornfully while she walks away.

Overcome by hatred and fury, he is filled with an intense desire for his own annihilation – a desire for Nietzsche’s Nothingness. At this point, he resonates with Nietzsche’s declaration: “It is better to desire the Nothingness than to desire nothing.”[6] When Johannes no longer has anything available to comfort him, or distract him from what he is truly missing in life, he is confronted with himself. He is confronted with the fact that he actually has been covering up his own self-loathing. His attraction to Gerda illuminates the total lack of any real satisfaction in his life and he realizes that he has nothing of true value, nothing to motivate him to keep living. Johannes becomes aware that only the deep, eternal, and quiet river, a symbol for the Nothingness used also in some of Mann’s other works such as Death in Venice, can quell the hatred that is raging inside of him and fill the emptiness that threatens to overtake him. On his belly, he crawls over to the river and drowns himself while life and laughter continue in the distance.

Though this work was not a huge success in its first publication, Little Herr Friedemann does serve as a good introduction to Mann’s subsequent works, for it lays the groundwork for many important themes to be further explored and developed such as the outsider-type (see Tonio Kröger), the meaning of art in a decadent world (see Gladius Dei), and asceticism and self-denial (see Death in Venice). By incorporating many of his own life experiences into his work, Mann brings to question the current social structures of his day and strives to reconcile the complex struggles between the common life and the uncommon life of the artist.