The transformation of restrictive definitions of the “feminine” into a platform for the critique of “patriarchy” in Thomas Mann's "Buddenbrooks"

Essay, 2016
15 Pages, Grade: 2,3


‘In this period, writers transform restrictive definitions of the “feminine” into a platform for the critique of “patriarchy”.’ Discuss.

Femininity: ‘having characteristics that are traditionally thought to be typical of or suitable for a woman.’[1]

This is a first and very common definition of what is supposed to be feminine. In the following essay, this topic will play an important role. To explain the title of this work, I am taking Thomas Mann’s best selling novel ‘Buddenbrooks’ and try to analyse it from these different points of view. To underline all those aspects, I will mainly focus on Antonie Buddenbrook, called Tony, and her brother Thomas, as they are from the same generation and are playing an important role from the beginning of the novel until its very end.

First of all, I will start with trying to give a clear outline of what feminine or femininity is. After seeing some definitions and also paying attention to what women were supposed to be in the 1800’s, we will see in what way they can be called restrictive. Of course, I also need to have a further look into the principle of the so-called patriarchy. To see if Thomas Mann can transform the restrictive definitions of the feminine from his novel into a platform for the critique of patriarchy, I will analyse the two main characters of his novel after the first theoretical part.

This work can be seen as quite important as I will try to see if there is a connection between femininity and the decline of the ‘Buddenbrooks’. Hopefully this will enlighten us on how Thomas Mann did or did not describe a critique towards patriarchy in his first novel.

There have been discussions about the feminine and femininity for a long time already. In 1965, in the early years of feminism, Teen magazine asked several popular actresses about their view on this topic. A common answer was one focused on being pretty like Sandra Dee did: ‘You must be meticulous in your clothing, make-up, skin — to be clean, fresh, and nice all the time.’ Our first reaction fifty years later could be a thankful one for not thinking like that anymore, that women nowadays are not limited to their looks anymore. But on second thoughts, it somehow has not changed a lot. The obsession with being healthy and pretty or having a specific body type is now more present than ever. Another actress, Diane Baker described femininity as an attitude, that it is not linked to a special way of dressing or putting on make-up. If you would act feminine, you would be like that.[2] If you look up different definitions about femininity, you often find something like this: ‘The female sex or gender; having qualities or appearances traditionally associated with women, especially delicacy and prettiness’.[3] John Scott and Gordon Marshall, authors of the dictionary of sociology, define femininity as ‘a summary term, contrasted with masculinity, for the distinctive ways of acting and feeling on the part of women.’ They also include passivity, dependence and weakness as usually mentioned characteristics when describing the feminine.[4]

Simone de Beauvoir has the same idea of the feminine in her mind. In her book ‘le deuxième sexe’, she talks about the object position, which women have to take. This includes everything that can be seen from the absolute, masculine subject point of view as the ‘other’.[5]

Another definition is given by Ian Buchanan in his dictionary of critical theory: ‘The culturally relative ideal gender identity for women, varying substantially from one historical period to the next and from one geographic region to another, femininity is considered by feminism to be an imposed system of rules governing how women should act, look, feel, and even think within a particular society. Femininity is generally portrayed as the weaker, lesser Other of masculinity; a fact that clearly underpins the psychoanalytic concept of penis envy, which supposes that all young girls actually want to be boys on some level. So internalized are these rules and cultural assumptions supposed to be, they define not merely how a woman should comport herself, but what it actually means to be a woman. This can readily be seen by doing a book search using ‘femininity’ as a keyword—the plethora of titles this throws up, from works in philosophy and critical theory to self-help manuals (both of the psychological and beauty tips variety) and autobiographies, is astonishing. A similar search for masculinity yields only a fraction of the results and nothing like the variety. Female writers throughout the ages have recognized that femininity is a constrictive demand placed on women by society, but it was Simone de Beauvoir who first theorized it. Her argument was that by consenting to play the roles femininity demands, women effectively consent to their own oppression. Recent work on femininity has been powerfully influenced by Judith Butler, particularly her concept of performativity (which she derives from J. L. Austin’s linguistic concept of the performative), by means of which she argues that gender roles are paradoxical inasmuch that they aren't fixed and can be varied—women can dress and act like men if they want to and vice versa—but one cannot choose not to have a gendered identity.’[6]

This directly brings us to Judith Butler, the well-known feminist and author of bestselling and controversial novel ‘Gender Trouble. In her first chapter, she cancels the distinction between sex and gender and thus makes clear that there is no sex that is not already a gender. She argues that every body has its gender from the beginning of its social existence, so there is no ‘natural body’ that could pre-exist its cultural inscription. This means that gender is not something that simply exists, but it is something every person does, like an act or a performance.[7] She says: ‘Gender is the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of sub- stance, of a natural sort of being. A political genealogy of gender ontologies, if it is successful, will deconstruct the substantive appearance of gender into its constitutive acts and locate and account for those acts within the compulsory frames set by the various forces that police the social appearance of gender.’[8] This does not mean that a subject is free to chose which gender he or she wants to act on, but that we all have a limited number of costumes we can chose to put on and thus act as our gender. She supports her theory by Nietzsche’s claim that ‚there is no ‘being’ behind doing, acting, becoming; ‘the doer’ is merely a fiction imposed on the doing—the doing itself is everything’.[9] So when arguing that our gender identity is not a fixed one, but a performed one, she talks about masculine and feminine identity as a gender through the way we walk, dress, act and so on. This means that we can’t have a fixed and an always-valid definition of the feminine or femininity.

This leads us to the restrictive part of all these definitions seen before. We can observe that they all have one thing in common, which makes them restrictive: they all focus on women being the Other of masculinity and on their stereotypical roles in society (being at home, oppressed by men, …). They never stand as an own identity, free from any imposed rules and they all associate the female identity with a set of characteristics supposed to be typical for a woman. But just as Judith Butler has said, you can’t have a fixed identity based on such things; every subject is performing his own gender and identity, no matter his sex.

Her aim thus consists of exactly the opposite of these imposed rules: to free women (and men too) from everything fixed.

This leads us to the typical image of women in the bourgeoisie, the time in which Tony Buddenbrook lived. Irma von Troll-Borostyani summed up their duties perfectly:

‘Immer das alte Lied: Sieh’ zu, dass ein Mann dich würdigt, dich zu heiraten, diene ihm und gebäre ihm Kinder – alles Übrige in der Welt geht dich nichts an!’[10]

In times of rising standards of living, the concerned families wanted to keep and, if possible, increase their wealth. To get there, the families only wanted to marry their children, especially their daughter(s), befitting their rank, which often meant to marry someone from another mercantile family. They used to marry for money and social reputation. A wedding with someone coming from the upper class stands for material win and new commercial and social relationships. Also the family’s social acceptance is underlined. The mothers went together with their daughters to the balls to look for someone acceptable to marry. This also shows the huge power the mothers had not only on their daughters, but also within their family. Women had a representative function for their husbands and families. They needed to show others that they do not have to work because of all the money they own. To help this, they had to wear expensive (or seemingly expensive) clothes and jewellery as a status symbol. High consumerism was also of high importance. They were not allowed to satisfy their own needs; in the first place they had to come up to social conventions with all their money and to satisfy their husband’s wishes. When it comes to ‘dienen’, her task consisted of keeping the house clean, which she usually did by commanding a staff of domestic workers, so she did not really work in the house herself. The only thing she needed to do on her own was to organise evening parties. As to the part of giving birth to children, this represented the peak of the career of a bourgeois woman. But nevertheless, the families hired again someone to take care of the hereby-associated duties. This often lead to difficult relationships between mother and child as they did not see each other very often and their interests were totally different and neither of them could understand the other one’s interests. Also, the mothers often projected their socially coined wishes into the children (a good career for the boys and a beautiful wedding for the girls). As we can see, the duty of a bourgeois wife was mostly restricted to their domestic environment; all the visits to the theatre or the evening parties were no permanent purpose in life, which lead to boring faineance. Besides, there often was no personal relation between husbands and wives due to the big difference in age, education and therefore missing communication. To conclude we can notice that women get stuck in a socialization system since their early childhood years, which lead to a non-love marriage and to being dependant on their husbands. Self-realization is nearly impossible and only manageable through the husband and children. The imagined marriage of their childhood fantasy had nothing to do with the real-life marriage.[11]

Virginia Woolf perfectly summed up the image of women in her 1929 work ‘A room of One’s Own’: ‚A very queer, composite being thus emerges. Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history. She dominates the lives of kings and conquerors in fiction; in fact she was the slave of any boy whose parents forced a ring upon her finger. Some of the most inspired words, some of the most profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read, could scarcely spell, and was the property of her husband.’[12]

Now that every bit of definition for both femininity and typical tasks for women in the 1800’s are done, it is time to have a further look at patriarchy.

The expression patriarchy first appeared in the old Greek and Roman constitution, in which the male head of the family dominate economically and juridically over the other male an female members of the family, which are all depending on him.[13]

Ara Wilson defines patriarchy as ‘a cardinal concept of the radical second-wave feminists’.[14] One of these feminists, like Silvia Walby define patriarchy as ‚a system of social structures and practices in which men dominate, oppress and exploit women’.[15] This is a very similar definition of patriarchy to the London Feminist Network one, which talks about it as ‚the term used to describe the society in which we live today, characterised by current and historic unequal power relations between women and men whereby women are systematically disadvantaged and oppressed. This takes place across almost every sphere of life but is particularly noticeable in women’s under-representation in key state institutions, in decision-making positions and in employment and industry. Male violence against women is also a key feature of patriarchy. Women in minority groups face multiple oppressions in this society, as race, class and sexuality intersect with sexism for example.’[16] A more sociological and maybe more neutral form defines patriarchy as a social organization characterized by the superiority of the father in the family and the legal dependence of their wives and children. In other words, patriarchy is the ‚control by men of a disproportionately large share of power’.[17]

We can conclude, that the term patriarchy is ambiguous. Sometimes it defines father-power in the family and sometimes it designates a general oppression of men over women in our society.[18] The oldest male rules over the younger men, women and children and of course over the servants too.[19]


[1] (20.04.16, 04:13 pm).

[2] (01.04.16, 6:00 pm).

[3] (22.04.16, 09:00 am).

[4] (20.04.16, 02:00 pm).

[5] De Beauvoir, Simone (1949) : Le deuxième sexe. Paris : Gallimard. P. 15.

[6] (16.04.16, 03:00 pm).

[7] Salih, Sarah (2002) : Judith Butler. New York : Routledge. P. 55.

[8] Butler, Judith (1990) : Gender Trouble. New York : Routledge. P. 25.

[9] Nietzsche, Friedrich (1887) : On the Genealogy of Morals. Trans. Douglas Smith (1996). Oxford: Oxford University Press. P. 29.

[10] Von Troll-Borostyani, Irma: Edouard von Hartmanns neueste Offenbarung über die Frauenfrage. In: Höfele, Karl Heinrich (1967): Geist und Gesellschaft der Bismarckzeit 1870-1890, p. 153. Göttingen: Musterschmidt.

[11] Gross, Gabrielle (2002) : Der Neid der Mutter auf die Tochter. Bern : Peter Land. P. 48-57.

[12] Woolf, Virginia (1929) : A room of One’s Own. New York: Harcourt Brace. P. 75.

[13] Cyba, Eva : Patriarchat : Wandel und Aktualität. In : Becker, Ruth&Kortendieck, Beate (2008) : Handbuch Frauen- und Geschlechterforschung. Wiesbaden : VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften. P. 17.

[14] Wilson, Ara: Patriarchy : Feminist Theory. In: Kramarae, Cheris&Spender, Dale (2000) : Routledge International Encyclopedia of Women : Global Women’s Issues and Knowledge. New York : Routledge. P. 1493.

[15] Walby, Silvia (1990) : Theorizing Patriarchy. Oxford : Blackwell. P. 214.

[16] (13.04.16, 09:00 pm).

[17] (10.04.16, 10:00 am).

[18] Boa, Elizabeth : Buddenbrooks : Bourgeois Patriarchy and fin-de-siècle Eros. In : Mindem, Michael (1995) : Thomas Mann. London : Longman. P. 125.

[19] Boa, p. 127.

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The transformation of restrictive definitions of the “feminine” into a platform for the critique of “patriarchy” in Thomas Mann's "Buddenbrooks"
University College London
Reading modern novels
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thomas, mann, buddenbrooks, Patriarchy, Rollenverteilung
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Jil Hoeser (Author), 2016, The transformation of restrictive definitions of the “feminine” into a platform for the critique of “patriarchy” in Thomas Mann's "Buddenbrooks", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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