Places: The Black Swan

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: Die Betrogene, 1953 (English translation, 1954)

Type of work: Novella

Type of plot: Symbolism

Time of work: 1920’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Düsseldorf

*Düsseldorf. Black Swan, TheCity on the Rhine River in western Germany’s Ruhr region, which was the nation’s industrial heart in the 1920’s. At one point in the narrative, the characters, who live in the best part of the city, unwittingly pass through a district given over to industry and lined with workers’ houses, an area they usually avoid. The genteel Düsseldorf described in the novella is a place of tree-lined streets and rows of apartment buildings with ornamented facades. It could be any provincial city in Germany during the 1920’s; as one character notes, it lacks the sophistication of Berlin or Munich. Nevertheless, it seems exactly the right place for the unfolding of Frau Rosalie von Tümmler’s poignant story. Like the city she inhabits, she is ordinary and provincial, yet possesses a touch of beauty and gentility.

Mann himself spent time in Düsseldorf, where, according to his biographers, he engaged in a homoerotic affair with a young man.


*Ruhr. The western German landscape that Frau Tümmler so loves stands in sharp contrast with the area’s industrialization, where weapons factories, steel mills, and coal mines dominate. Although crisscrossed with the heaviest concentration of railways in the world, the Ruhr has rich soil and a temperate climate that nurture such an abundance of trees and shrubbery and flowers that they tend to obscure the traces of heavy industry. In every season, each one distinct, Frau Tümmler celebrates what she reverently calls “Nature,” and takes long walks in Düsseldorf’s fine parks and the surrounding countryside. Having been born in the spring, she associates this season of rebirth with her own renewal as a woman when she falls in love with the handsome young American, Ken Keaton, who is tutoring her son in English.

The Ruhr landscape with its subdued beauty serves effectively to draw parallels between the everlasting cycles of nature and the temporal condition of human life. It also enlarges Frau Tümmler’s strong belief in a woman’s closeness to the organic world, which, in an ironic twist, leads to her destruction. Her deification of “Nature” and her willing surrender to emotion separate her from the conflicting force of the intellect, which her impassive daughter represents. The opposition between emotion and intellect emerges as a central theme in all of Mann’s fiction.

Holterhof Castle

Holterhof Castle. Apparently imaginary castle beside the Rhine, whose banks, from Düsseldorf to Koblenz, are dotted with castles, some ancient and in ruins, others more recent and preserved. Holterhof Castle assumes its own reality, as the climactic scenes take place there. First, the group visits the castle’s pond to feed the black swans, the source of the novella’s title. When Frau Tümmler teases a swan, pretending to withhold bread, it hisses at her–an incident that she later recalls as a prediction of her death. The black swan, with its phallic neck and its feminine body, is also suggestive of the desired sexual union. Once inside the castle Frau Tümmler and the young American separate from the rest of the tour group. They wander through dank and dark passageways, where she confesses her love for him and they kiss for the first time. In a daring metaphor, the castle’s ravaged interior foreshadows the clinical description of Frau Tümmler’s cancer-ridden female passages.

BibliographyFeuerlicht, Ignace. Thomas Mann. New York: Twayne, 1968. A brief treatment of The Black Swan in chapter 9 calls for a broader, more sympathetic reception. Views the story structurally as a novella–with its trademark turning point, dominant image, and strange occurrence–and not as a short story.Latta, Alan. “The Reception of Thomas Mann’s Die Betrogene: Tabus, Prejudices, and Tricks of the Trade.” Internationales Archiv für Sozialgeschichte der Deutschen Literatur 12 (1987): 237-272. Painstakingly thorough studies of the novella’s reception, including detailed documentation.Latta, Alan. “The Reception of Thomas Mann’s Die Betrogene: Part II, The Scholarly Reception.” Internationales Archiv für Sozialgeschichte der Deutschen Literatur 18 (1993): 123-156. Latta demonstrates how the initial lack of understanding for the novella has been superseded in recent years by more open, thoughtful, and less taboo-determined interpretations.Mileck, Joseph. “A Comparative Study of Die Betrogene and Der Tod in Venedig.” Modern Language Forum 42 (December, 1957): 124-129. Though Mann himself claimed these novellas are unrelated, Mileck compares the theme of death through love (Liebestod) in both novellas.Schoolfield, George C. “Thomas Mann’s Die Betrogene.” In Thomas Mann, edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. A scholarly, positive, and balanced treatment of the work, though it does not reflect the feminist concerns of more recent readings. Excellent on influences and the mythological background of the characters.Straus, Nina Pelikan. Introduction to The Black Swan, by Thomas Mann, translated by Willard R. Trask. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. A female-centered, though not necessarily a feminist, positive reading of the novella. An excellent place to begin an in-depth interpretive study. Contains a brief description of earlier negative readings. No notes or bibliography.
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