Buddenbrooks is the most famous novel by German author Thomas Mann. Published in 1901, Mann received the Nobel Prize in Literature for it in 1929. Based on the experiences of his own family (not the only one of his works which did this), it tells about the downfall of a merchant family in the northern German city of Lübeck (the city's name is never stated, but clearly implied). It's set during the years 1835 to 1877. A good example of a Roman à Clef.Let's start with a description of the characters. You'll need it.
Johann "Jean" Buddenbrook jr. Younger son of Johann sr. Inherits the family business. Has four children: Thomas, Christian, Antonie and Klara. His fortunes are going sometimes up, sometimes down. Dies relatively young, in his fifties.
Elisabeth "Bethsy" Buddenbrook, née Kröger. Wife of Jean. Spends a lot of time doing charity work for the (Protestant) church.
Gotthold Buddenbrook. Older son of Johann sr. Only received the smaller part of his father's fortune after marrying the daughter of a shopkeeper. Has three daughters, who stay unmarried and childless through their lives, are full with envy of the other Buddenbrooks and enjoy their failures.
Thomas Buddenbrook. After the early death of his father, he becomes head of the business in his twenties. A bit of a dandy, likes expensive clothing. Was in genuine love with a girl selling flowers, but decided that she was of too low rank for a man in his position. Married Gerda then instead and fathered Hanno, who isn't really the son he wished for. Finds that he has trouble to relate to his wife. Struggles hard to keep the fortune of the family together. Is elected senator of Lübeck, but dies soon afterwards - even younger than his father.
Gerda Buddenbrook née Arnoldsen, who becomes Thomas' wife. Daughter of a great Dutch merchant, who's also a great violinist. Very beautiful, very rich and musically talented. A big fan of Richard Wagner. Not so much into business, and also influences her son in this way, to Thomas' chagrin. Has a relationship with the also musically talented lieutenant Rene von Trotha, with whom she can relate better than with her husband. (It's hard to describe — calling him a lover wouldn't really explain it. Soul mate would be more accurate.) She leaves the city after her husband and son have died, as if "her work was done".
Christian Buddenbrook. Also learns the business of a merchant, but clearly isn't into it. He prefers telling stories and entertainment. With time, he also becomes more and more concerned with his neuroses and hypochondria. Falls in love with the actress Aline Puvogel (at this time, this was considered a scandal), has a child with her and marries her after his mother's death. Then, she sends him to an insane asylum and doesn't let him out, even when he begs her.
Antonie "Tony" Buddenbrook. Starts as the "little princess" of the family. Is then sent to a Boarding School, where she meets Gerda Arnoldsen, her later sister-in-law. Then enters an Arranged Marriage with Gold Digger Grünlich, which ends in a divorce. Later tries again, this time with the Bavarian Permaneder. Also doesn't end well. Being very proud of her family, she suffers pretty much from their downfall.
Klara Buddenbrook. Marries the reverend Tiburtius from Riga (Latvia) and dies early.
Erika Grünlich. Tony's daughter with Grünlich. Later marries the insurance agent Weinschenk, which also doesn't end well when he has to go to prison for having committed re-insurance fraud. Then he leaves the country, never to return.
Justus Johann "Hanno" Kaspar Buddenbrook. A sickly, very sensitive boy who's mostly interested in music, as his mother. Has no friends but Kai. Dies of typhus in his teens, although it is implied that he doesn't want to live anymore.
Ambiguously Jewish: It's not mentioned directly, but you can find pointed out the one or other time that Hermann Hagenström's nose is hooked — a typical Jewish stereotype.
Earlier drafts of the book contained more jabs at them, like one character stating that the German revolution (of 1848) was cooked up, or at least inspired at "Jewish teatables in Berlin".
Amoral Attorney: Weinschenk hires one named Breslauer, who has a reputation for saving many bankrupted businessmen from prison. Thomas suspects that a more down-to-Earth lawyer, even if less competent, would be more promising in their little city where everyone knows everyone. He is right: Breslauer does an impressive argument, but Weinschenk has to go to prison.
In the school chapter, he angsts: "I am nothing and can do nothing."
Antiquated Linguistics: Grünlich uses expressions that are old-fashioned even for his time (mind that he's relatively young, so he has no excuse). "Das putzt ganz ungemein!" Christian finds this funny and imitates Grünlich afterwards.
Atomic F-Bomb: When Tony catches her second husband in the act with their (female) cook, a row ensues, which culminates in Permaneder insulting her, "Go to hell, you dirty swinish slut!" Divorce ensues.
Beard of Evil: Grünlich has mutton chops. (The version without moustache and goatee.)
Beauty Equals Goodness: Subverted in the school chapter. In Hanno's class there's the student Wasservogel who's described as very ugly, but all the teachers treat him very generously to prove to themselves and the world that they don't fall victim to this trope.
Big Fancy House: Thomas builds one, but later feels exhausted and regrets building such an expensive home. Even the house the family moves in later (after their downfall has become obvious) would probably qualify.
Book Ends: At the beginning of the book, the family talks about another merchant who was ruined recently. Guess what happens to the family Buddenbrook at the end.
Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Many of the teachers, who have peculiar ways of talking and such. Also, some other characters like Thomas' compagnon Marcuse.
Cain and Abel: Thomas and Christian. Thomas is the strict businessman (although sometimes, it becomes too much for him), Christian a playboy and a neurotic. At one point, Thomas threatens Christian to put him under tutelage. Thomas also tells him, "I became what I am because I didn't want to become like you!"
Can't Get Away with Nuthin' : We learn that the re-insurance fraud Weinschenk committed apparently is common in his line of work, but he's especially unlucky to suffer for it.
Child Prodigy: Subverted. Hanno is good at doing some little fantasies on the piano, but nothing more. Only Tony thinks he is this.
Hanno and Kai, who "nickname" their teachers not "the spider" or "the cockatoo" as their classmates do, but rather "Herr X". Also, Hanno's geography teacher, who's a big fan of satirist Heinrich Heine, tries to be this.
Thomas also has elements of this. When Christian starts rambling about how disgusting you feel after drinking too much of punch bowl, he comments "a good reason to describe it in detail". It doesn't stop Christian.
And then there is Sesemi, when the French girl is taking too much sugar: "I would take the whole sugar bowl!"
Death by Childbirth: Gotthold's mother, which his father never forgives him. And Gerda comes close at Hanno's birth.
Department of Redundancy Department: When Thomas takes over the firm, the other businessmen state that he wants to make money "mit avec". "Mit" is German for "with", and "avec" is French.
Depraved Dentist: Subverted with the dentist Brecht. When he has to pull out teeth (at this time, there were no anesthetics!), he gets pretty nervous and suffers with his patients.
Also Bilingual Bonus, as Brecht is almost identical to the German word for break or crush.
The Ditz: Tony is impressed by smart people (like Morten Schwarzkopf — a doctor-to-be with whom she falls in love, but can't marry him because of the Grünlich thing), but is neither book smart nor street smart herself, and calls herself "a silly goose" sometimes. However, her poor relative Klothilde is even more so, and gets picked on by everybody.
Double Entendre: At the party at the beginning, a poet who's a friend of the family cites a historical one. It involves the Marshal de Saxe and Louis XV's mistress, the Pompadour, and the poem speaks of them as "the king's sword - and his sheath!"
Downer Ending: The firm is dissolved, and more importantly, Hanno dies. In the last chapter Tony, the Misses Buddenbrook, and Sesemi Weichbrodt discuss whether or not there is such a thing as God, or even hope. Depending on how you interpret this conversation, it can make the ending more bittersweet or an even bigger downer.
Dramatic Irony: Quite a lot. Prominent example: If Sesemi wishes people good luck or happiness, they always tend to become unlucky and unhappy in their lives.
Emo Kid: The story is older, but Hanno cries very easily.
Foil: Kai to Hanno. Kai is wild, Hanno is shy and timid; Kai lives on a farm, Hanno in the city; Kai lives with his father, after Hanno's father's death and the conviction of his uncle all his other family members are female.
Foreshadowing: Little Hanno reads the family chronicles and also finds the family tree, including his name. Then, he takes a ruler and draws a line under this. When his father gets upset and demands an explanation, Hanno answers "I thought, nothing would follow."
From Bad to Worse: Probably the main theme of the novel. When Johann sr dies and leaves a strong and successful business to his large family, everything starts to go downhill with nothing of either remaining two generations later.
Hilarity Ensues: At Sesemi's christmas parties, there is always something going wrong.
Holier Than Thou: Johann Buddenbrook jr. was somewhat pietist (other than his enlightened father). His wife becomes this completely, especially as a widow.
Honor Before Reason: Hanno unexpectedly gets help (that is, cheating in class) by a classmate who wants to become an officer and believes in cameraderie so much that he even helps Hanno, despite not liking him personally.
Insult Backfire: Grünlich criticizes Tony for wasting money. She admits he's right, but acts like there's nothing she can do - "it runs in my mother's side of the family". Yes, she identifies so much with her family that she defends her flaws. (There's a serious background: Grünlich was practically broke when he asked for her hand; now her Genre Savvy father asked around for Grünlich's financial situation, but since his creditors also knew that Grünlich needed the dowry to pay his debts, they didn't want to tell the truth either.)
Long List: Sometimes, when Tony's upset, she lists all the bad people who have hurt the family (especially her) in the past, and expresses hope that god will punish them.
Malaproper: Kind of, we don't know the exact reason, though it's neither stupidity nor lack of schooling — hypercorrection, subdued Large Ham maybe? So or so, Sesemi Weichbrodt always manages to pronounce all vowels in the non-standard way.
Nightmare Fetishist: Christian surely is too fascinated by his own maladies, or his father dying (he wasn't there and wants to hear all the not-so-nice details). It's part of the all-over morbidity theme in the book.
Oktoberfest: Tony's second husband, Permaneder, is a Protestant Bavarian who likes drinking beer more than doing business.
One-Hour Work Week: Christian tends to this, to the chagrin of his brother. Also, Justus Kröger, brother-in-law of Jean.
One Steve Limit: Averted, there are three Buddenbrooks named Johann, not counting the firm's founder Johan.
Only Known by Their Nickname: Antonie and Justus Johann Kaspar are almost always mentioned as / named "Tony" and "Hanno". Also, Therese Weichbrodt, who tells everyone to call her "Sesemi".
Only Sane Man: At the end, Thomas. And then he dies. Say goodbye to the firm.
Phrase Catcher: Whenever Weinschenk meets Gerda, he asks her "How's your violin?" for lack of a better topic. After the third time, she doesn't bother to answer.
The Prankster: Hanno's classmates. Not so much under the watch of the stern teachers and sadist teachers, but when the new, younger and nicer English teacher enters the classroom, the boys start to throw bang snaps, exchange pornographic drawings in class and openly claim that a classmate (who's sitting in the room!) was dead and thus can't recite the poem he had to learn.
Refuge in Audacity: After bowing to some teachers of the lower classes (and no, even in Imperial Germany students didn't have to do that - hmm, case of Stealth Insult?), Kai greets a pretty old and decrepit teacher: "Good morning, you corpse!" And then looks elsewhere as if nothing had happened.
The Rival: The family Hagenström. Note that for Thomas, it's just a competitor - but for Tony, it's Serious Business since she had a Cat Fight with Hermann's sister Julchen when they were kids.
Self-Insert Fic: Kai invents one. It involves Josephus, the parrot of Dr. Brecht, whom they imagine to be an enchanted prince.
Serious Business: Said business and the station of the family. While Thomas feels an obligation to keep the family line and the business strong and gets depressed from utterly failing at both, Tony constantly ruins her own life because she can never accept what happiness she finds because it's below her station of a patrician daughter.
Shaming the Mob: When the republican revolutionaries have the city hall surrounded, Jean Buddenbrook talks them down, and things end peaceful. Well, almost, when his father-in-law is hit by a stone shortly afterward and becomes so enraged that he has a fit and dies.
Shout-Out: Hanno's class has to learn the poem "The Monkey" by Mary Howitt (1799-1888). They think it's pretty dumb, and the student who has to present it openly cheats.
Sinister Minister: Tiburtius, who manipulates his wife (and indirectly, her mother) into giving her inheritance to him. Also, Trieschke who falls in love with Tony.
The Slacker: Johnny Thunderstorm with whom Christian "worked" in Valparaiso. Christian claims that he (Johnny) was a great merchant, though.
Stealing from the Till: Riekchen Severin who worked for Jean's widow (Thomas, Christian's and Tony's mother) takes some bedsheets and such after the widow has died, claiming that they were promised to her. Tony is shocked.
Stern Teacher to Sadist Teacher: Most of Hanno's, especially the very Prussian director Wulicke, whom Hanno and Kai nickname "the good God" (he is much like the Old Testament God — don't provoke his wrath). Many of these are also pretty eccentric.
Stuttering Into Eloquence: Typical behavior of Herr Ballerstedt, Hanno's religion teacher. (The other students call him "the cockatoo".)
Sweet Tooth: James Möllendorpf, another patrician of the city, is a diabetic and still insists on eating cake. When his family stops him, he rents a shady apartment - for no other reason than to eat cake there. Which will kill him at the end.
Teacher's Pet: Herr Mantelsack has several of them, and prefers them in a very egregious way. And changes them on a whim. Noone dares to protest however, because noone wants to miss on his chance.
The Unfavorite: Jean's older brother, Gotthold. Gotthold's mother whom their father had loved very much died at Gotthold's birth, which the father never forgave him. When Gotthold married the daughter of a shopkeeper, the split is complete.
Upper-Class Twit: Christian. He may be less genuine stupid like other examples, but has a tendency to put his foot in the mouth. Like when he states in the club (where all the other businessmen are, including The Rival Hagenström): "Isn't every businessman basically a crook?"
The Vamp: Gerda. While she is more than a two-dimensional movie Vamp, she doesn't exactly have a good influence on the family, and leaves unscathed at the end of the story, with her husband and son dead, the family being without any influence left, and the firm dissolved.
Write Who You Know: All the characters are based on Thomas Mann's family members. His uncle who supposedly was like Christian wasn't too happy about it. Also note the relationship between Thomas and Christian in the novel, and Thomas Mann's with his Real Life brother Heinrich...