Acknowledgment: This work has been summarized using the Knopf/Vintage 1994 edition translated by John E. Woods. Quotations are for the most part taken from that work, as are paraphrases of its commentary.
Overall impression: This is a long and detailed story of a family undergoing a rather relentless decline which I found too pessimistic.
Notes from Encarta: Thomas Mann was a German novelist and critic, one of the most important figures in early 20th-century literature, whose novels explore the relationship between the exceptional individual and his or her environment, either the environment of family or of the world in general.
Buddenbrooks is set in Lübeck, near the Baltic coast, in N. Germany, straddling the border between Schleswig-Holstein and Mecklenburg. Old Johann B. [JB2] and his French wife Antoinette (née Duchamps) invite their family and friends to celebrate their move (Oct. 1835) into their new home & business offices on Meng Strasse. He is the son of the founder, Johann B. [JB1], who established the wheat and grain wholesale firm of Johann Buddenbrooks in 1768. Consul Johann B. (JB3) tells JB2 of the letter from his stepbrother Gotthold (JB2's son from his marriage, to Josephine) demanding his part of the inheritance. Gotthold has married beneath the family's standards to a shopowner (née Stüwing) and is snubbed by JB2, who blames Gotthold for the death during his childbirth of Josephine. Antonie (Tony, 8 y/o), Thomas (c. 10) , and Christian (7) are the children of JB3. The guests discuss Napoleon and the French monarchy currently under Louis Philipp. The poet Hoffstede celebrates with a romantic verse. Christian takes sick. They debate the proposed Customs Union with Mecklenburg and Schleswig-Holstein. JB3 advises his father against any further loss of capital to Gotthold.
JB3 and Elisabeth née Kröger have daughter Clara in 1838. Tony visits her wealthy grandparents (the Lebrecht Krögers) and repulses the crude advances of Hermann Hagenström, thereby losing her friendship with Julie H. In 1841, JB2 and later his wife Antoinette die and Gotthold receives a cash settlement. Consul JB3 takes over the business and constantly worries about the cash flow. Christian courts a theater woman regarded as a courtesan. Tony is sent to Therese ("Sesame") Weichbrodt's boarding school, where she befriends Armgard von Schilling (an aristocrat from Mecklenburg), Gerda Arnoldsen (who plays the violin and is from Amsterdam), and Eva Ewers (now from Munich).
The commercial agent Bendix (Benedict) Grünlich courts Tony with her father's strong encouragement despite Tony's intuitive repulsion and objections. He claims to be doing well in his business. Tony is sent to summer in Travemünde (a resort town at the seashore), where she meets and falls in love with the pro-democracy, anti-aristocracy medical student, Morton Schwarzkopf. But her father favors Bendix, who has threatened suicide, and in 1845 she reluctantly consents to marry Bendix and live with him on the outskirts of Hamburg. Tom says goodbye to his secret lover, a salesgirl.
The ill-conceived revolution by the "rabble" of October 1848 in Lübeck is suppressed by the paternalistic words of consul JB3 and the stress causes the death of Lebrecht Kröger.
Tony has money problems with Grünlich, there is no love in the marriage, the banker Kesselmeyer demands repayment of his loans, and Grünlich is unmasked as a fraud. Her father consul JB3 takes Tony and her daughter Erika back into their home and refuses to help Grünlich, who announces that he only married her for the money. They divorce in 1850. Tom also moves back into the home. Lebrecht Kröger's wife dies leaving an inheritance. Justus Kröger, brother of Elisabeth, disowns his younger son Jakob and favors only his other son, Justus. Christian goes to Chile. Elisabeth becomes increasingly religious and has various religious meetings and hangers-on in her house.
In 1855, consul JB3 dies. Finances are in good shape and Thomas vows to do great things with the firm. Christian returns and is acting strangely and inappropriately and complains of various symptoms. He is made head clerk at the firm but loses interest and spends excess time drinking, smoking, visiting the Club, telling stories, and womanizing.
Uncle Gotthold dies and his children are spiteful. Pastor Sievert Tiburtius of Riga proposes (1856) and marries Clara. Tom becomes engaged to Gerda Arnoldsen (1856) and marry. They have a lavish dinner party.
Tony visits Eva Ewers in Munich and meets Alois Permaneder, a hops merchant. Christian is becoming a buffoon, the laughing-stock of his friends, and is despised by Tom. Christian heads for Hamburg (1857). Permaneder visits and proposes to Tony, which she accepts despite his coarseness. After receiving the dowry, he immediately decides to retire and displays no ambition. He increases his drinking. She has a miscarriage. One night he arrives home drunk and attempts to molest the maid Babette (1859). Tony flees with her daughter back to her mother's home. Tom unsuccessfully tries to persuade her to return to Permaneder. Tony describes how out-of-place and unappreciated she felt in Munich. Permaneder surprisingly consents to divorce Tony and return the dowry.
Tom and Gerda's son Johann (JB4, "Hanno") is born 1861. Christian has an illegitimate daughter Gisela through the courtesan Aline in Hamburg. Tom defeats Hermann H. in the race for senator (1862). He and Gerda build an elegant new home 1863. Hanno is developing slowly. Clara dies of brain TB, Christian has rheumatic fever, and Tom becomes depressed. Tiburtius receives Clara's inheritance from her mother. Business is bad. In 1864, war breaks out between Denmark and Prussia (Bismarck is Prime Minister; wins Shleswig-Holstein from Denmark) and in 1866 with Austria [National unification 1866-71, N. German confederation 1866-7, the 2nd reich of unified Germany incl. Bavaria under Prussian hegemony 1871 begins with Wilhelm I emperor].
Erika marries Hugo Weinschenk, a crude manager of an insurance company. Christian shares the mistress of his friend Andreas Giesenke. Tony's friend Armgard's husband Ralf von Maiboom has financial problems and Tom foolishly agrees to prebuy their crop (which is later destroyed by hail). Hanno has nightmares and seems overly sensitive. Tom is exhausted at 42 and is smoking too much, has a case of nerves. He reluctantly agrees to a celebration of the firm's centennial (1878). There he berates his wimpy son and receives the bad news about Armgard's crop damage from hail.
His wife Gerda makes music and with organist Edmund Pfühl. Hanno shows an interest in music and Gerda enlists Pfühl for lessons, about which Tom disapproves. Tom resents Gerda's cruel exclusion of him from her passion for music and sees it as a force separating him from his son. Hanno has poor health and dental problems. Hanno's friend Count Kai Mölln is a dirty but kind remnant of the aristocracy.
Hugo Weinschenk goes to jail for insurance fraud, prosecuted by Mortiz Hagenström, brother of Hermann-- the H.'s are having great success in town as the B.'s decline. Christian acts increasingly inappropriate. Hugo and Erika's belongings are sold off and she moves in with her mother & grandmother Elisabeth's in the Meng Strasse home.
Elisabeth dies a painful death of pneumonia (1871). The servants plunder her clothing. Christian announces he wants to marry Aline and adopt her children-- Tom forbids it and has control over his inheritance. Tom decides to sell the family home at Meng Strasse and Hermann H. buys it, turning part of it into profitable shops. The family's Christmas customs decline.
Tom becomes increasingly depressed and withdrawn, obsessed with his clothing and appearance. Raif von Maiboom, Armgard's husband, kills himself after his business failure. Hanno is bullied by the Hagenström kids and remains a sickly, anemic weakling. A summer vacation (1872) at the Travemünde seashore does not improve his health. Hugo gets out of prison early but is rejected by the family.
Gerda frequently receives a visitor, musically-inclined Lt. René von Throta, and Tom and the townsfolk wonder if she is having an affair. Tom's health is declining. He has a flash of inspiration and insight reading a metaphysical tome but lapses quickly back into conventional Christianity in all its incomprehensibility. He and Christian travel to Travemünde in fall 1874 for a rest. In 1875, he has an abscessed molar extracted and afterwards collapses, dying soon thereafter.
Christian moves to Hamburg and marries Aline but eventually ends up in a sanatarium (asylum). Gerda sells their elegant home and the firm disadvantageously and dismisses the long-faithful attendant Ida Jungmann. Hanno is 15 and is doing poorly in school. His friendship with Kai is thought to be "foul and hostile", perhaps with homosexual undertones. Hanno laments that Pastor Pringsheim says that he comes from a degenerate family and that he has lost all hope, will never amount to anything, and wants to die.
Hanno dies of typhoid or typhus (Feb. 1877 or 78) and Gerda resolves to sell all her possessions and abandon her Lübeck life and move back with her father in Amsterdam. Christian remains institutionalized. Sesame rejects Tony's skepticism about Christian beliefs and insists she will see Hanno in heaven.