"Tonio Kröger" is a novella written by Thomas Mann early in 1901, when he was 25. It was first published in 1903, in English in 1940. Made into a film in 1964.
I would like to start the analysis with Thomas Mann's own words from his Nobel speech"
When I was young, I wrote a story that young people still like: Tonio Kröger. It is about the South and the North and their mixture in one person, a problematic and productive mixture. The South in that story is the essence of sensual, intellectual adventure, of the cold passion of art. The North, on the other hand, stands for the heart, the bourgeois home, the deeply rooted emotion and intimate humanity. Now, this home of heart, the North, welcomes and embraces me in a splendid celebration.
Already in this speech, we can see that in the story we will find a series of dychotomies. One of them is symbolized in the protagonist's name: Tonio, reminiscent of his artistic, southern and aesthetic background (inherited from his mother); Kröger of his bourgeois, norther and social side (inherited from his father).
As major themes in this story (set as dychotomies), we can point out:
- artist - bourgeoisie
- art - life
- intellect - nature
- individual - society
- and not less important: Tonio Kröger also struggles between two worlds in his own sexuality: he experiments both homosexual desire for Hans and heterosexual desire for Ingeborg
Several of those themes Mann subsequently explored in his novels. For example in "Buddenbrocks" and "Doctor Faustus": the nature of artistic self-consciousness and the role of the artist in society.
Also in "Tonio Kröger" he focuses in the impossible task of being both fully human and fully artist (not to mention being a bourgeois artist). He himself said in his Nobel acceptance speech:
All writers belong to the class of non-orators
It was the French painter and sculptor Degas, who said that an artist must approach his work in the spirit of the criminal about to commit a crime
A reflection of this thought we can see in "Tonio Kröger". When the protagonists, already a recognised author, visits the city of his childhood, not only noone really knows who he is, but he is also mistaken for a criminal:
Beside him, at a little high desk fastened into the wall, stood a policeman in a helmet, his gloved right hand resting on a document in coloured inks; he turned towards Tonio Kröger with his honest, soldierly face as though he expected Tonio to sink into the earth at his glance.
Tonio Kröger looked at the two and confined himself to waiting.
"You came from Munich?" the policeman asked at length in a heavy, good-natured voice.
Tonio Kröger said he had.
"You are going to Copenhagen?"
"Yes, I am on the way to a Danish seashore resort."
"Seashore resort? Well, you must produce your papers," said the policeman. He uttered the last word with great satisfaction.
"Papers...?" He had no papers. He drew out his pocketbook and looked into it; but aside from notes there was nothing there but some proof-sheets of a story which he had taken along to finish reading. He hated relations with officials and had never got himself a passport..
"I am sorry," he said, "but I don't travel with papers."
"Ah!" said the policeman. "And what might be your name?"
"Is that a fact?" asked the policeman, suddenly erect, and expanding his nostrils as wide as he could....
"Yes, that is a fact," answered Tonio Kräger.
"And what are you, anyhow?"
Tonio Kröger gulped and gave the name of his trade in a firm voice. Herr Seehaase lifted his head and looked him curiously in the face.
"H'm," said the policeman. "And you give out that you are not identical with an individdle named"-he said "individdle" and then, referring to his document in coloured inks, spelled out an involved, fantastic name which mingled all the sounds of all the races-Tonio Kröger forgot it next minute-"of unknown parentage and unspecified means," he went on, "wanted by the Munich police for various shady transactions, and probably in flight towards Denmark?"
"Yes, I give out all that, and more," said Tonio Kröger, wriggling his shoulders. The gesture made a certain impression.
"What? Oh, yes, of course," said the policeman. "You say you can't show any papers-"
Herr Seehaase threw himself into the breach.
"It is only a formality," he said pacifically, "nothing else. You must bear in mind the official is only doing his duty. If you could only identify yourself somehow-some document..
Eventhough the situation is finally resolved, Tonio as a proof of his identity produces the notes for his novel, the policeman remains unconvinced.
Without any doubt "Tonio Kröger" is a spiritual autobiography, exploring art and discipline, but at the same time revealing a lot about the author's own life. The writer, same as his protagonist is at the same time disillusioned and in love with the humanity. We can point out many events that took place in Mann's own life: the death of the father, moving to Munich, struggling for recognition. Consuelo, Tonio's mother was inspired by Julia da Silva Bruhns. We shouldn't forget about the author's bisexuality, also reflected in Tonio.
It is also important, that "Tonio Kröger" forms a pair with the famous "Death in Venice", which is a specific continuation of the same topics. Both describe the life of an artist and express Thomas Mann's views on art. However, the second one is much more controversial because of the protagonist's passion for 14-year old Polish boy, Tadzio (who was inspired by the real Wladzio, who inspired the same feelings in Mann, but was much younger: only 10).
As Erich Heller (British essayist; studies in German-language philosophy and literature of the XIXth and XXth century) observed: Tonio Kröger'smain theme is that of the "artist as an exile from the reality" and we can see it clearly in Tonio's travel to North, where he exiles in a little village close to the shore and avoids his current life.
Again, in the Nobel speech presentation it was noted that:
Reflection, self-observation, psychological refinement, philosophical profundity and aesthetic sensibility appear to the young Thomas Mann destructive and desintegrating forces; in one of his most exquisite stories, Tonio Kröger (1903), he has found moving words for his love of human life in all its simplicity.
For Tonio Kröger, contrary to the Romantics, the artist is inhuman, someone inflicted with the bane of an irremediable, calculating distance, a constant rationalising gaze. We can see here another of Mann's favourite topics: double optic; both emotionally compelling and intellectually challenging.
By the end of the novella, Tonio Kröger has attained the valuable insight that life and intellect, bourgeois and artist are in fact related after all. This is already hinted when Tonio discovers that his childhood home has been turned into a public library. Public needs libraries, which means that writers provide public service.
Finally, I would like to mention rather interesting figures of Hans and Ingeborg - objects of Tonio's feelings. It is rather interesting how they are both blond haired and blue-eyed - complete opposites of Tonio's own looks, who inherited his mother's southern looks.
The main association with their features would be having common minds: "blue-eyed" (blauen Augen) is also a German expression for naive and credulous. The other connotation that is hard to avoid considering the times that Mann was writing his story, is for sure Nazism and racial discrimination: various times Tonio repeats that he's not a gypsy and that together with Hans and Ingeborg's description can show the influences of the scientific racism in German society. Just to clarify: scientific racism is not a German 'invention', it existed in Europe long before, enough to look at the Medieval history and Jewish ghettos for example in Spain and Italy, however during Thomas Mann's lifetime it was clearly most influential in Germany.
Although "Tonio Kröger" is praised by many and widely recognised as Thomas Mann's masterpiece among his short stories, it's impossible not to pay some attention to his critics. It was said to have an excessively sentimental tone. Without any doubt it's his most lyrical work and he himself called it "a prose ballad".
Others use a modern expression "drama queen" to describe the protagonist, who they believe to be self-, dramatizing and wining all the time.
What is your opinion? Is "Tonio Kröger" a real masterpiece or self-focused autobiographical story of a beginner?