Joseph and His Brothers, by Thomas Mann

by Robert A. Parker


This has been a difficult read. And yet also quite rewarding. It has been difficult because it is very slow-moving. Perhaps because Mann wanted to make use of his considerable research, and explore how to use it imaginatively. But mainly, I think, because he presumed a familiarity with the story of Joseph. (Which I did not have.) And so, as a result, he concentrated on an interpretation of character and culture. Rather than on what was going to happen next.

So it took me a long time to get through these 1,200+ dense pages. The objective each time was to finish the current chapter, with no temptation to read on to see what would happen next. Mann also imposes himself between the reader and plot interest by discussing how and why he is treating both current and upcoming events as he does. This gives a perspective to the tale, but negates the immediacy that I would prefer.

One does wonder why the subject of Joseph appealed to Mann. He wrote it over more than a decade, from the late 1920s and early 1930s, as Hitler rose to power, until mid-1942, when, after writing other works in different locations, he wrote the final volume entirely in the U.S. It would not seem to be the religious angle that appealed to him, since religion itself does not impose itself on the reader, but rather the adventure of Joseph surviving and flourishing in a foreign country. Thus, it seems more likely that Mann was speculating on his own future. Did he foresee his subsequent exile? (Some also suggest he was conscience-stricken by the events developing in Germany.)

The result, however, is not, to me, as successful a literary work as it might have been. It is successful as a tour de force, as a unique interpretation of the life of this biblical character. But the reader senses more that Mann is following Joseph through his career than that Joseph is controlling his own career. (Mann underscores this when he addresses the reader to discuss how he is reporting Joseph’s life.) Thus, Joseph here is a servant of God rather than an independent person finding his own way in life. And so is lacking my criteria for the independence of a true literary character.

And yet, and yet, this work is a magnificent achievement. Despite my qualms, despite my reservations, I cannot ignore the richness, the scope, the detail of this work. Indeed, it is same scope and detail that slowed down my reading of this work. Perhaps I am too accustomed, too committed, to the modern novel of character and action. I am especially used to a novel that lets the character and action impart the context, rather than, as here, a novel in which the author explores the context and confides to the reader his reasons for treating the characters and the context as he does.

Why did Mann write this novel? Reportedly, he was introduced to the subject when he was asked to write an essay for an exhibit of paintings about Joseph’s life. In any event, what is clear at the end is that Joseph has been on a mission for God. That out of his travails, out of his sacrifice, is to come a world of good for his people. His father Jacob is distraught at the loss of his son, and is angry at a God whom he realized has asked for the sacrifice of other sons, such as Abraham’s. Joseph himself does not lose his faith in God, however, not when he is sold, and not when his is brought to an Egypt that his tradition has taught him is representative of the underworld.

He believes, instead, that he has been saved by God for a reason. So he simply acts as he thinks God would wish him to do so, and seems to wait to learn why God has put him in the position he is in. He does seem to come to understand that reason in the third volume, but this is not stressed enough for me. (It is perhaps a stretch, but is Mann asking why current German history is happening? Certainly, it also turned out for the good.)

For me, the overall telling of this magnificent story moves too much away from literature and toward biblical history. And the ability to identify with either Joseph or Jacob suffers, as does any dramatic tension. Mann deliberately does this. It is obvious. Is it because he is dealing with these biblical events that he presumes everyone knows? Is it because he prefers to be conservative rather than daring in literary terms? The result is that I am impressed with his detailed treatment of these historic events, but I am not convinced by his approach. Since this is a novel, I would much prefer more tension and more emotion.

I would also note that Jacob the father is nearly as important here as his son Joseph, despite the volume’s title. For it begins with Jacob as he creates the family of 12 brothers, and ends with his death and funeral procession. He does not achieve in his life what Joseph does, but he provides the bookends for this tale. Indeed, these details are proper for this story; they provide a context.

So how does one sum up one’s verdict of a work by a master, a work that many consider a masterpiece? In the past, the difficulty of reading Joyce did not hinder my evaluation of Ulysses. My chief problem here was the context, the extensive detail in the geography, the history, and the culture. Enough of this comes across during the actual events. But Mann appeared to want to add something to the story. Why else write it, he perhaps thought, if one did not project an explanatory context?

And what is magnificent, what remains magnificent, is the story. The story of a good man who retains his goodness even when betrayed by his own family, a man who proves himself in a foreign land and yet will not forget his original family, a man who not only forgives that family but thanks God for his entire experience. This is not a religious novel, but God is present here.

The Tales of Jacob (1933)

This work begins with a Prelude that creates the context for the tale to follow. It explores the family history that Joseph inherits, then the origins of man and his story: his original creation, the location of Eden, the Fall, the Great Flood, the Great Tower, the origins of writing and human thought, and the blending of the flesh, the spirit, and the soul of man. It culminates with a plunge into the past, which is, after all, the duty of every novelist.

This first volume is the result of considerable research and a fruitful imagination. But it begins with very little drama. It presents a narrative rather than a dramatization, and it is about Joseph’s father Jacob rather than Joseph himself. One senses Mann to be translating the events and people of the Bible into what he considers to be a modern novel, in order that we understand better our religious heritage. Except, its narrative form is not modern in terms of the 21st century, and is frustrating to the modern reader.

Some might say that this is Mann being Mann. Being very thorough in his portrait of the times and of Joseph’s family before Joseph himself arrives on the scene. Indeed, it takes more than 100 pages for the “tales” of even Jacob to start. There is intrigue, yes, but little drama, until Jacob’s mother finally plots to send Jacob off to give a blessing to his uncle, whom he initially works for. He then falls for, romances, and marries his daughter Rachel.

Or thinks he marries her. But his uncle pulls a fast one on him, just as his mother did on his brother. Is this retribution? By the family? By God? It all works out, but ironically, because Jacob’s children become born of Leah, and other women in the household, but not of the one he loves. Mann here introduces the idea of a jealous God, a developing God, jealous because Jacob has got his own way until then and thinks he deserves it. But I do not find this persuasive. It works literarily, perhaps, in trying to give a characterization to God, but it does not work theologically, since God for me is beyond characterization, being fully developed, eternally existent.

Rachel, meanwhile, is finally allowed to also marry Jacob but she bears him no children for a long while. When, finally, she becomes pregnant, Mann describes the painful childbirth in which her son Joseph is born. This prompts Jacob to negotiate a new contract with his uncle, a contract in which he takes financial revenge by outwitting this man who originally took him in as a poor boy. But his uncle’s own sons resent him becoming rich at the expense of their father, and Jacob decides to flee their potential plot against him. So he heads off with his large family and in a large caravan representing his new wealth. He is returning to his original family, which he no longer believes is seeking revenge for his earlier deception.

This volume concludes with Jacob going on with Joseph and his other children, but not with Rachel, who dies giving birth to another son, Benjamin. It is a name that reveals she knows she will die, and Mann beautifully captures her last moments. Indeed, in Jacob’s adventures since he has left his mother and his family the reader gradually becomes submerged in this biblical tale. One realizes that Mann has convincingly created not only this biblical era but also the people who inhabit it. He identifies with their suffering, their happiness, and their puzzlement at what it all means.

And for me this work finally becomes religious literature, even if not about religion itself. Whereas at one point I was so frustrated by the narrative technique that I was considering pausing between volumes to read other, more modern work, I am now persuaded to go on. I now appreciate as well as admire the research and imagination that has gone into recreating this distant era and these people who represent Jewish tradition, and who offer a prelude to the Christian era.

Here is a sincere work whose purpose is to bring alive this Biblical story that portrays our spiritual antecedents. And while it took awhile to achieve this, I am now committed to it.

Young Joseph (1934)

Joseph is now 17. But, again, Mann needs to set the scene. More narrative, that is. This time to show Joseph’s relationship with his mentor Eliezer, the latter’s background, and his instructions to Joseph about the measuring of time. Mann also reviews Joseph’s relationships with his brothers by Leah. Then he moves back in history to his ancestor Abraham and his changing relationship to God, and then forward to Joseph’s relationship with his true brother Benjamin.

And, all the while, Mann is addressing the reader, letting us in on his analysis of the Bible, and of history. So we are again continually aware that this is one man’s novelistic vision of the history behind our religious heritage. It is frustrating, however, not to get into the story of Joseph, which this volume is all about.

The story appears to begin when Joseph has a dream—of angels raising him to heaven to meet God. Which is followed by Jacob honoring Joseph by giving his son the famous multi-colored garment. Which upsets his brothers, and after a long and subtle discussion created by Mann, they leave their father and Joseph to raise their sheep elsewhere. Joseph soon pursues them out of guilt in another vivid, descriptive passage that again reveals Mann’s deep research and vivid imagination.

Mann also creates a deep philosophical discussion among the ten brothers about the effect of a dreamer, meaning Joseph, on their position in the family. So when Joseph appears it is believable when they immediately attack him, bind him, and toss him into an empty well to die. Fortunately, a passing Ishmaeli caravan saves him, even negotiates to buy him.

When the news reaches Jacob that Joseph has died, even though he has not, Mann extends his creativity as he explores the father’s reaction to the report. First, he discusses whether it is the spoken word or evidence, such as the torn and bloody garment, that is more convincing and/or more merciful. Then he explores, first, Jacob’s denial and acceptance of the report, and then his denial and acceptance of God for having allowed it.

As this second novel concludes, we realize the power of Mann’s imagination, how from the biblical story he has penetrated the hearts and the minds of these biblical characters. We feel their pain, we understand their deception, we accept their humanity. This final chapter, nay this entire volume to date, could have been written only by a mature man who had suffered life’s travails, who had come to understand and accept human nature, the evil that is in man and the good that is also in him, the joy that he feels and the guilt that he feels, the happiness that awaits him and the despair that engulfs him.

This is a slow-moving volume, because it is so penetrating. It is a humanizing of this story of the Bible, so that we may better experience it and so understand it. And it is interesting that Mann wrote this story of the Jews just as the persecution of the Jews was beginning in Germany.

Joseph in Egypt (1936)

Fortunately, this third volume begins with narration rather than exposition. Joseph seeks to earn the respect of the old Master who has purchased him They engage in such discussions as: is he a slave, is he a prisoner, or is he merely accompanying the old man on his way to Egypt to buy goods for resale back home? Joseph does learn that the old man is going to recommend him to be hired by the staff at the Pharaoh’s headquarters, and it seems to be a step Joseph is looking forward to. As is the reader.

However, chapter two is unfortunately back to exposition, not narration. We learn Egypt’s climate, history, and culture, as Joseph travels to the royal city. But even in Thebes, there is considerable description, reflecting more blending of research and imagination. Until finally Joseph meets its palace overseer and is accepted.

At this point, Joseph becomes aware of the self-confidence of his past, his blind assumption of his own worthiness that turned so many people off, including his brothers. He also realizes that he has a mission in Egypt from God.

Mann here steps back to write that there is no historical record of Joseph’s days in Egypt, that he must deduce how Joseph rose in his role with Potiphar, the Pharaoh’s colleague and head of the place guard. He writes that Joseph spent ten years with him, the last three involved in a one-sided affair with Potiphar’s wife, and then three years in prison. For those not familiar with the Bible, this acts as a kind of spoiler, but the reader continues, wishing to know how Mann will create the details.

Dissatisfied with his menial chores, Joseph “ambushes” Potiphar in the palace garden and, in a turning point of his life, so impresses Potiphar that he earns a promotion that will end with him managing the man’s estate. Thus, as time passes, Joseph begins to live the life of an Egyptian and is accepted by them. And over seven years, he becomes a handsome young man. In a long and tender section Mann describes the illness and death of the steward Joseph reports to. Joseph cares for him at the end, and the steward sees that Joseph will become his successor. It is the next turning point.

As Joseph’s eighth year with Potiphar begins, Mann turns his attention to the wife Eni, who famously became infatuated with Joseph. She was not a courtesan, he says; she was frustrated by her relationship with Potiphar because, Mann speculates, he was a eunuch. Aware she was attracted to the young and handsome Joseph, she pleaded with her husband to dismiss him, but he refused. And when the dwarf Dudu detected she was truly besotted, he plotted to involve them with each other, thinking to eventually destroy Joseph. As for Joseph, he was intrigued by his mistress, but kept their relationship businesslike, not personal. Which frustrated Eni.

What is notable here is how Mann treats the sexual tension among these characters. He is very old school. All is innuendo. He spends many pages delving into the internal musings of his characters, into their mental gymnastics, into their own consciences and their speculation about the reactions of others. In Eni’s case, it is that of her husband, the dwarf, and Joseph. There is no physical description here, only long paragraphs of musing. And they are very long, very 19th century musings.

As the years pass, the frustrated Eni first reveals to Joseph her love symbolically, then deliberately offers herself to him. Each time it is not through action but through internal thoughts and dialogue. Mann then describes seven reasons that Joseph remains chaste, such as his loyalty to God, to his master, and to his own father. Finally, when Eni throws himself on him directly, it is again through dialogue.

One wonders at the author’s reserved approach. Is it because of the times in which he writes? Is it because of his own distaste? Is it because he is respectful of the story’s origin in the Bible? Or is it simply German sensibility? In any event, one does not feel the emotion between these two people, such as the desperation of one and the fear of the other. The approach is too dry, too intellectual. To me, this is an example of this work at times being thought out too much. Perhaps the problem is that this is a familiar story, and that Mann sees no point in emphasizing the plot, is only intent on exploring the internal reality of these people.

Potiphar finally learns of his wife’s conduct from the dwarf, while Eni, first, threatens Joseph she will lie to her husband if he will not sleep with her, second, tells her women friends of her desire for Joseph, and, third, asks a witch to cast a spell over Joseph. But when the witch does, Mann curiously draws the curtain on the couple. He will not dramatize this most dramatic of scenes, he says, because Joseph reveals himself as an ass. How he does, however, is unclear to me. In any event, Joseph again refuses her, and she screams for help and has him arrested. Whereupon, Potiphar sends him off to the Pharoah to be punished, but with a plea for mercy. And the volume ends.

It is like the movie serials of yesteryear. The hero is in dire straits, and we cannot wait to read what happens to him next.

If only…. Because this work is as slow-movingly introspective as it can be.

Joseph the Provider (1946)

After a prologue set, it appears, in heaven, presumably because Joseph’s story is a story ordained by God, the final novel begins. Fortuitously, the prison camp Joseph arrives at is under a humane leader. He recognizes Joseph’s skills, and assigns him to similar duties as Joseph had with Potiphar. And soon Joseph is running the prison, just as he ran the household of Potiphar.

Three years later, Joseph’s fortunes change when a new and young Pharaoh, who identifies with religion rather than warfare, takes over. This Pharaoh has a dream about seven cows and seven corn stalks, and he summons Joseph, whom he has heard interprets dreams.

Mann spends a long chapter with Joseph and the young Pharaoh, plus the mother, in conversation. They tell each other stories, then Joseph explains the dreams, and then the three discuss what the Pharaoh should do, in light of Joseph’s interpretation. It is all conversation, no action, over 50 pages, presumably because Mann believes this new turning point in Joseph’s life needs to be justified in literary terms.

Now the volume’s title become clear, as Joseph is given a new administrative role because the Pharaoh has accepted his interpretation that the dream meant that good times would be followed by bad times. And so Joseph see to it that the regime will provide the people of Egypt with their needs, by storing grain as the changing environment brings those hard times. It seems at this point, however, that Mann is more intent on using his research to explain history than he is in writing a novel.

But now arises the drama. Egypt and the surrounding nations are experience a famine, and Joseph gets word that ten of his brothers are coming to buy grain. What should he do? Will they recognize him? Well, they appear, they do not recognize him, and they are told he will sell them grain only if they go back home and bring to him his youngest brother, Benjamin. When they do return with him, Mann intrudes too much for my taste. He compares what the Bible tells about these events to the tale he is telling.

The final chapters return, appropriately, to the personal drama of this family such as when the sons return to their father Jacob, and reveal that Joseph is still alive, and then when their father finally meets Joseph in Egypt. But there is still too much narrative summary about the significance of these events and then descriptions, instead of movement, of what follows.

The ending is quite satisfying, however, as Jacob, knowing he will die shortly, calls Joseph and his brothers to three meetings. In the first says he wants to be buried in what is now Israel, in the second he gives his blessing to Joseph’s two sons, and in the third he gives a farewell blessing or curse to the eleven brothers. And this is followed by a lengthy description of the embalming of his body as a mummy and an extravagant month-long procession in the finest Egyptian tradition to the tomb he desired in Israel. It is a fitting, and even moving, conclusion to these four volumes, as is Joseph’s final message to his brothers. He forgives them, for “God turned it all to good.”

This is the last Mann work I have planned to read. Its intellectual bent is perhaps due to Mann writing it toward the end of his life. Yes, all of Mann is intellectual, but this appears to have been truly written to be a masterpiece, to be a collation of all the recorded knowledge about a subject. I believe Mann succeeded in his own terms, but I still wish this work was a few hundred pages shorter. I might also note that the translation I have read is by H. T. Lowe-Porter, whose language has been criticized as archaic. But I do not think Woods’ supposedly “cleaner” translation would negate my basic criticism. (October, 2014).