Tonio Kröger

by Brad Rathe

Tonio Kröger is a novella written by Thomas Mann in his early period and published in 1903. In it, Mann addresses the theme of the separation of the world of art from that of everyday life, as well as where the artist stands between the two. The largely autobiographical story traces key events in Tonio Kröger’s life, and his struggles with the balance between art and life, culminating in a tentative resolution after a return to his home city.

The Young Tonio

The novella begins with a fourteen-year-old Tonio and his relationship with Hans Hansen, a friend who is almost completely Tonio’s opposite. Hans is blond, athletically built, and blue-eyed; Tonio is described as dark, with a “southern face.”[1] The interests of the two boys differ as well. Tonio writes poems, whereas Hans has absolutely no interest in such activity.

Tonio’s father, the German Consul Kröger, disapproves of his poetry, while his mother, from “overseas” (a striking similarity with Thomas Mann, whose father was from Lübeck and mother from Brazil), supports it (170). Tonio, however, quietly agrees with his father, finding his own tendency to write “wanton and … inappropriate” (166). Critics have called this mixing of Tonio’s blood and character and his consequential view of art the most biographical part of the story.[2] He already shows signs of his struggle between art and what he perceives as normal life. Adding to his differences with Hans, Tonio mentions that he has become engrossed in Schiller’s Don Carlos, and is especially attracted to the emotional content. Hans, on the other hand, is more enamored with his horse books with their fabulous pictures. Showing an early manifestation of his admiration for normal life, however, Tonio expresses horror at the idea of Hans writing poems like him, thinking that Hans “was to remain as he was, clear and strong” (172). Through this scene, Mann conveys that Tonio feels separate from and, at the same time, fervently admires the rest of his society.

The next episode portrayed in the story begins with Tonio at age 16 and in love with Ingeborg Holm. His love with Inge culminates at a dance class for the children of rich families. Inge is blonde with blue eyes and a perfect picture of northern stock, a telling similarity with Hans, Tonio’s other love. Inge does not pay Tonio any notice during the class, but Tonio is not without admirers. Another girl named Magdalena Vermehren is more like Tonio and admires his poems. Tonio, however, would rather love Inge, “who most certainly reviled him for writing poetic stuff” (176). He does not fully find comfort with his gravitation toward the arts, here represented by Magdalena. Once again, Tonio is attracted to that “dignified and respectable” quality he sees in his father (167). While dancing the quadrille, Tonio becomes part of Inge’s group. Her presence makes it difficult for him to focus, and he unthinkingly dances the female part. He leaves the group amidst the laughter and scorn of all present and goes to contemplate his existence, torn between literature and life. He again expresses admiration for people like Inge who have no interest in literature. When Inge does not come to fetch him out of his embarrassment, Tonio moves past his love, falling deep into literature.

Tonio eventually loses his connection to his small town in the north (very likely Thomas Mann’s own hometown of Lübeck, given the story’s autobiographical nature) and develops a talent for writing and moves south to Munich (again, like Mann). Here, the experiences of his youth lead to what he feels must be the way of the world: in art, “the person who lives does not work and… an artist must virtually die in order to be fully creative” (183). This remains his philosophy through most of the novella.

Tonio’s Conflict; The “Lost Burgher”

The next episode of Tonio Kröger’s life takes place when he is just over thirty and having some trouble with writing because of the nice spring weather. Beginning with Tonio’s anecdote of running into a fellow writer who says “God damn the spring!” because he is unable to write, “harassed by a swarm of inappropriate sensations” (185), Tonio and a painter friend, Lisaveta Ivanovna, begin talking about the relationship between art and life. Tonio expresses his opinion that “only a botcher believes that a creative person is allowed to feel” (186). Such distance from human experience, he maintains, is required in order to adequately depict it in any kind of art.

However, in the same conversation, he talks about being “slightly ashamed…of being an artist” and says that he is “touched by the warm and awkward human feelings that [his] art has evoked” in his readers (187). He confesses that he loves life, despite its incongruity with art. He loves the “health and innocence” that he equates with people who “prefer books about horses, illustrated with high-speed photos” (194). This obvious allusion to Hans shows that such a love has always existed for Tonio. Despite this love, however, Tonio shows that he still wishes for a separation between art and life through his anecdote of a lieutenant who writes and recites poetry at a gathering to everyone’s discomfort. Tonio maintains that such an indecent mixing only embarrasses everyone present, that art and life can only combine uncomfortably. At the end of this conversation, Lisaveta conveniently summarizes Tonio’s condition by calling him, quite simply, a “lost burgher” or member of the bourgeoisie (196); in other words, he is still a member of that from which he has always felt so separate. Later in that year, seemingly as a result of the conversation, Tonio decides to take a trip: not to the south, which is normally associated with art, but north to Denmark, and through his hometown, or “point of departure” (197). He takes a trip back to the roots that he always secretly admired.

Arrest at Home and Resolution in Denmark

Tonio’s trip home turns out to be a strange one. He walks about, unrecognized, facing many of his old fears from childhood. He eventually comes upon his childhood home, which has, very significantly, become a public library. Just as he believes literature has replaced his life, so too have books literally filled the inside of his house, replacing all of the objects of his former life. As he decides to leave his hometown, he runs into trouble with the police, as they are looking for a confidence man who is known to be traveling from Munich to Denmark. Tonio proves his identity with papers of his that will be published, and, thus, his position as writer and artist gains him some respect within his old society. It is, however, still only a grudging respect, as the police officer is still not fully convinced. From that incident, Tonio sees that, while he is not fully separated from life, he still does not fully belong.

As Tonio begins his stormy voyage to Denmark, it cheers him greatly after his near arrest to watch cargo being loaded, an activity he loved as a child. While on the ship going to Denmark, Tonio meets another incarnation of art and life mixing in much the same way as the earlier lieutenant. He is a businessman from Hamburg who speaks pseudo-philosophically about the stars and human insignificance after a dinner of North German food that is “hard to digest” and that Tonio blames for “[making] you lazy and wistful” (211). Once again, Tonio feels separated from life, which he equates with the north. He readily rejoins it, however, when he sits through a storm on the ship; he very tellingly tries to start a poem but cannot finish it because “his heart was alive” (212).

As he moves out to the country in Aalsgaard, Tonio settles at an inn where, he learns, there are to be visitors for a ball. As he watches the guests arrive in his rediscovered state of love for people such as those who dance at balls, he suddenly sees “Hans Hansen and Ingeborg Holm [pass] through the room” (217). It is not really Hans and Inge, as the two he saw are younger and a brother and sister, but their similarity allows Tonio to revisit his childhood from a different perspective and rediscover his love for the “burghers.” He joyfully contemplates that, all that time, it was for them and those like them that he wrote, and “furtively peered around to see if [they], too, were clapping” (222). At the ball he sees a girl reminiscent of Magdalena, and helps here when she falls while dancing. Viewing the party in this way, though he is still excluded, he seems to rediscover his love for such people as he has just seen and goes to bed somewhat contented.

The novella ends with a letter from Tonio to Lisaveta about the fact that he has come to terms with his position in life as a “burgher who’s gone astray in art” and in which he connects his love of the bourgeois condition with that love of life, an idea that was often received as a welcome idea from Mann as a further development of his ideas about art and society.[3]. He laments the fact that he is at home in neither of these realms, nearly arrested at home and also not completely cold to life. Indeed, he expresses that he does not envy “proud, cold people who venture along the paths of great, demonic beauty and scorn ‘human beings’” (228). He says that he is able to be more than just a litterateur because of his position. He comes to terms with his isolation and love, calling it, in the end, “a very chaste bliss” (228).

Tonio in Context

Tonio’s final reconciliation represents a tendency of Mann himself; indeed, Tonio Kröger expresses much of Mann’s own ideas about his art. The very fact that the story (like so many of Mann’s stories) contains autobiographical elements, in this story represented by Tonio’s heritage and life trajectory in Tonio Kröger, shows that he also stands between art and life. The autobiographical content can be seen as Mann combining life and art in his own writing. Tonio Kröger, written so early in Thomas Mann’s career, serves as a fascinating glimpse into the thought behind his art.

  1. ↑ Mann, Thomas, “Tonio Kroeger,” Death in Venice and Other Tales, trans. Joachim Neugroschel (New York: Penguin Books, 1998), p. 164. All subsequent parenthetical references are to this edition.
  2. ↑ Hans Rudolf Vaget, Thomas Mann-Kommentar zu sämtlichen Erzählungen (München: Winkler, 1984), p. 119.
  3. ↑ Vaget, p. 117.