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Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family - Thomas Mann, John E. Woods, T.J. Reed

There is a concept in statistics, Regression or Reversion to the Mean, which is widely used in a variety of fields of knowledge. It was first realized by Sir Francis Galton, cousin of Charles Darwin, when he worked on the correlation of heights between adult children and parents.

The concept refers to the tendency for any variable which exhibits an extreme value at any point of measurement to move towards the average next time it is measured.

This mathematical tool is used regularly both in Genetics and in Finance Theory. Consequently, it is an apt model for dealing with the Buddenbrooks and their three Fs: Family, Firm and Fortune, and particularly so because the anchor of the family is precisely that: Trading. Their pride was founded upon the buying and selling of grains, and to do so in the appropriate manner with suitable methods, engaging in the right discipline, performing the relevant calculations, exerting their commercial savvy, and adhering to their code of ethics -- all of these constituted their pride and nature.

The novel begins with the second generation of a family and spans five generations. Their business had, however, one generation less. The book tracks the progression of the Buddenbrooks as a function of their prosperity. The characters and their circumstances are factors that exert a force in the success trend of the family.

In the Buddenbrooks the finances and identity of the firm and family are inseparably intertwined. The family’s expenses are expenses for the firm. And profits from the firm accumulated as capital provide the income and living style of the family. The new Buddenbrooks house, the family symbol with which the novel begins, is a monument to itself. Family and firm reside there.

In addition to the launch of the triumphal house the novel regularly pegs the level at which the Buddenbrooks capital stands. They start off with a mark of 900k Marks and the subsequent levels, which can be plotted, guide us as we follow their successes or hardships. Johann Buddenbrook the Younger begins the apprenticeship of his son Thomas by giving a quick review of the big blocks composing their capital. He understands them well. Later on Tom gives the latest balance to his sister Tony, and although the figure sounds reassuringly high to her, he however adds with concern: “we should be at one million” The Buddenbrook capital has stayed sort of flat, which in any progression of prosperity means trouble. As we approach the end of the novel the family is valued at 650k, amount that will however decrease further as the assets are liquidated inadequately.

So, how does this function of prosperity work? The phenomenon of moving back to the Mean irremediably starts and both Genetics and Trading are players in the game.

Depending on their gender and their primogeniture the various members of family will have to perform a different role. The patriarchs, role reserved for the eldest son, are to be the main motor. When this works, it works, but the problem is that its dependency is concentrated on one individual becoming therefore too risky. We see that even the luck of begetting a male son does not guarantee the survival of the genes of mercantile prosperity. Christian turns out to be a good-for-nothing and therefore neither a support nor a back-up to the elder brother in any of the Buddenbrook responsibilities and activities. He becomes a deviation from the trend and a very strong pull away from excellence. Nor is Hanno a healthy alternative to the mercantile model. The boy inherits the artistic inclinations from his mother, but also the lack of discipline that we saw in his uncle. His musical abilities turn out to be good only for toying around with music, not really for playing or composing. He is not, as Tony hoped, a new Mozart. Surprisingly, Thomas Mann does not present the Arts and Music as Saviours for the Buddenbrooks. No redeeming transformation is generated.

The women and daughters occupy a very particular position. The daughters are detractors of a significant amount of the capital, since significant dowries have to be carved out of the sustaining trunk. These side investments are expected to bring back both prestige and an extended business clout with an overall benefit for the Buddenbrooks. In this family the dowries granted out were almost all utter failures. We know that money seduces swindlers like honey attracts flies. And the Buddenbrooks, both the women and the men, suffer as the victims of the Gründlich hoax and of devout greed. The family’s mercantile acumen was not able to detect the money-hunters. In spite of these failures, however, dowries did net in around 89k Marks thanks to the 300k that Gerda brought along when she married Tom.

But it is the concentration on the different roles that the various family members have to play, according to their gender, which increases the probability of failure. Tony is a convinced Buddenbrooks even if she suffered when she sacrificed her Morten. Could she have offered the business support to her elder brother once it was clear that Christian was not capable? Or could she, or her daughter and grand-daughter, have continued the family firm similarly to the way Donatella Versace has? This is hard to say, since after all it was she who persuaded her brother of the suitability of the Pöppenrader deal. Failure or hailstorm, had she been able to participate or take over the business, the probability of survival would have increased. With this possibility barred, the Pöppenrader misfortune takes place precisely and symbolically when Tom’s grandiose house and the Centennial of the firm are celebrated. It marks the resistance point and the decline clearly begins.

But not all the triggers for the Verfall can be found in the family members. The novel gives loose indications of the historical and economic conditions in which we see this family’s progression. We learn that although Johann the Elder expressed antipathy towards the rising Prussia, he had made a great deal of his profits by selling his grains to the emerging Teutonic Kingdom. And several times the Customs Union is mentioned, although we cannot know in what specific aspects they were detrimental for their business. Revolution comes, entertains, and goes. And the new war between Prussia and Austria remains hazily further south. When Thomas refers to the slow pace at which their benefits are made, signalling a business of narrowing margins, we wonder whether there were other factors that were transforming the business profoundly and which he was not detecting. Although the context is included in the novel, we are left with only a very general idea that the rules of the game must have changed and that these have debunked the Buddenbrooks-way. But the book does not offer further detail.

So, what brought the downfall of the Buddenbrooks? It was a joint result of bad luck, some failed judgment, changing political and economic circumstances, and the determinism of social conventions. But when a reversion to the mean process begins, the causes are not important. What is important is that it happens and that it can hurt.

As the Turkish proverb, that Tom quotes, says: Wenn das Haus fertig ist, kommt der Tod, and so the graphs and statistical laws show.


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