In the years preceding World War I, the son of a wealthy German merchant travels to a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps to visit his sick cousin, but after contracting tuberculosis himself, he becomes a long term patient among a diverse and philosophically allegorical cast of characters, each struggling to grasp the essential nature of death and existence. Hans Castorp, orphaned after his wealthy parents died while he was still a young boy, is now in his 20s and ready to embark on a promising career as a shipbuilder/architect. But first, he decides to visit his cousin, Joachim, whose tuberculosis has relegated him to the Berghof sanatorium in Switzerland. Hans, who refers to his Hamburg hometown and the surrounding areas as the "flatlands", is startled by how high and deep into the mountains the sanatorium is. It truly feels separated in a way that goes beyond mere geography.
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His cousin is happy to see him and doing relatively fine. In fact, Joachim's tuberculosis appears to be abating in the clean air and healthful atmosphere the Berghof staff works meticulously to sustain. After spending a few weeks visiting, Hans decides it's time to leave and return to the flatlands below, with all the bourgeois obligations that might entail (job, bills, wife, etc.) But Hans has developed some TB symptoms and the doctors persuade him to stay until he feels better, which Hans expects to be just a few short weeks.
There is a strong undercurrent of surreal, metaphysical distortions at the sanatorium. Hans' dreams seem to bleed into reality, and the crassly mundane life he left behind fades further from his thoughts. Aside from the physical and philosophical dislocations, time itself does not seem to flow the same way there as it does elsewhere. Without quite meaning to, Hans ends up staying for seven years.
During this time, he meets various other patients who represent the intellectual modes then reigning in Europe. There is Settembrini, the classical Humanist, who believes in the secular, life-affirming principles of the Enlightenment. There is Naptha, the radical Marxist, ready to tear down the existing social structures for something better -- anything better. And then there are Clawdia Chauchat, the seductress Hans becomes infatuated with, and her pleasure-seeking lover, Peeperkorn.
Throughout, Hans becomes increasingly obsessed with death and decay, a self-destructive morbidity that the other characters either share or attempt to dispel. This is especially true after his cousin succumbs at last to his illness. Hans' infatuation with Chauchat also grows. Despite coming close several times to returning his affections, she never quite does so, and this ambiguity tantalizes and unsettles Hans. She is only ever outwardly affectionate to Peeperkorn, a strong believer that there is nothing worthy in life but pleasure, and Chauchat indulges him in this. At first everyone, including Hans, is awed by the man's confidence and bombast. But Peeperkorn is revealed to be less than a worthy model when he commits suicide soon after arriving at Berghof.
The novel ends with Hans finally becoming healthy enough to leave. But as he is leaving, World War I breaks out. Hans, inspired by his now-dead cousin, who had been a dutiful soldier, volunteers for the army. He is soon shipped out to the front lines. And despite all he has gone through in Berghof, whatever insights about himself and life he may have gleaned, the last pages strongly imply that Hans goes off to die in the trenches.
Best part of story, including ending:
It's a tough read, but well worth the effort. This is a true philosophical epic.
Best scene in story:
There are few traditionally structured and narrated scenes, but the most effective has to be the scene where one of the female patients, a devout Catholic, is receiving her deathbed rites of prayer and communion. The intensity of her impending death is deeply powerful.
Opinion about the main character:
Hans is the perfect character for this kind of work. Curious but naive, reserved but not indifferent. He is supposed to be relatively submerged into the point of view of the reader, so that both, together, can go through the novel's educational journey.
Hans Castorp goes to visit his cousin in a TB sanatorium and ends up staying there a long, long time. He becomes embroiled in a struggle for his soul between several men who personify the intellectual currents in Europe before the First World War. He suffers unrequited love for a woman in the sanatorium but his sexuality remains ambiguous.
The review of this Book prepared by Florence Rose Delaney