Analysis of the novella “Tristan” by Thomas Mann


Tristan is a novella by Thomas Mann that is a highly ironic version of the traditional German myth, Tristan and Iseult, which has inspired countless different variations since the early twelfth century. The novella actually references one of these variations found in an opera by Richard Wagner. The novella juxtaposes the Wagner version’s heroic characters with flawed counterparts. It also delves heavily into the topic of psychology as most of the novella takes place in a sanatorium.


Thomas Mann was born to parents Thomas Johann Heinrich Mann and Julia da Silva Bruhns in Germany, 1875. He fell in love with literature at an early age and went to school to become a journalist in his early life. He studied history, economics, literature, and art history at two universities: Ludwig Maximillians University of Munich and Technical University of Munich. Despite knowing his dreams early on, he spent the beginning of his career working for an insurance company. Mann did not start his writing career into 1898 when he published his first short story in a magazine.

Over time Mann became a well known German writer due to his novellas and short stories— Tristan is actually not one of his more popular novellas, but it is excellent nonetheless. Some of his more notable works include Buddenbrooks, The Magic Mountain, and Joseph and his Brothers. In his novels and novellas, Mann was often symbolic and ironic while calling on modern versions of classic Biblical and German stories (as he did in Tristan.)

Mann was not the only writer in his family. His brother, Heinrich Mann, was also a well known throughout Germany as a radical writer. Half of his children (Klaus Mann, Erika Mann, and Golo Mann) also became prominent German writers.

Mann and his family were not shy with their opinions, so when Adolf Hitler took over, Mann escaped to Switzerland, then the United States when World War Two broke out, then, in1952, back to Switzerland. Mann actually became one of the better-known authors in a book written by a series of writers in exile during the Hitler Regime, called Exilliteratur. In time, Mann’s work influenced other future, writers including Orhan Pamuk and Joseph Yeller.


The novella takes place in Einfriend sanatorium, where many patients of all types and ages are being treated, one of which is an eccentric author. A new patient arrives to Einfriend with her husband. She is suffering from illness, making her very fragile and sensitive, so a doctor advised her to spend some time at the sanitarium. Her husband quickly leaves due to their child and business requirements, so the new patient and the author end up spending a lot of time together, and the author falls visibly in love. Gabriele Kloterjahn (the new patient) ends up reflecting on her life and the choices she made as she begins to find herself falling for the author.

All of the patients and the director end up leaving for a party, and the author and Gabriele are left alone. Gabriele ends up playing the piano (the song Tristan and Isolde by Richard Wagner.) By the end, they both end up in a daze because of the passionate love story portrayed in the song.

As Gabriele gets increasingly sick, her doctor recommends she reunites with her husband and his son. Upon their arrival, the author is upset. He writes a letter to his love’s husband expressing the hate he feels towards him and his son for “ruining” his love. Needless to say, the husband gets angry and confronts the author. During this confrontation, a maid informs Mr. Kloterjahn that his wife is coughing up blood. The husband rushes to see her, but the author goes for a walk where he is confronted by a vision of Gabriele leaning over her son in a crib. The child yells and cries as if to scare him away, but he is able to collect himself and walk away calmly, despite feeling like he is running on the inside.


Gabriele Kloterjahn

This is the wife of Anton Kloterjahn and the mother of Anton Kloterjahn Junior. She becomes ill and is sent to Einfriend to heal where she meets a patient (Spinell) who immediately takes an interest in her. Over the course of the story, Spinell helps Gabriele get in touch with her creative side as he falls in love with her.


This character is a patient at Einfried before Gabriele even shows up. He is an odd man who spends lots of time writing letters and is rarely granted any type of response. Despite his love of writing, he only wrote one book. When a new patient comes to Einfried, he quickly takes an interest in her. Throughout the story, he spends lots of time trying to free her from the clutches of common life.

Anton Kloterjahn

This is the husband of Gabriele and is a very rough businessman leading a business about to fall apart. It is clear he is not the most faithful man and has no problem flirting with women other than his wife, but at the end of Gabriele’s life, he proves to have authentic concern and fear for her, despite the way Spinell portrayed him.


Thomas Mann is an amazing author, and this novella is defiantly worth reading. The romantic tragedy of Gabriele and Spinell is enthralling and heartbreaking and a great look into the inside of sanitariums at the time. Mann’s take on the classic myth is bound to be entertaining no matter how many versions you have read, but before reading you may want to get a general understanding of the original myth and particularly Richard Wagner’s version, Without this understanding, you will not be able to fully appreciate all the ironic expressions of the story. Whether you are reading this for a school project or just for fun, take a step back and enjoy the novella for what it is— a beautiful work of art written by one of German’s best writers.

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