Thomas Mann's first novel, Buddenbrooks, was published in 1901, and his fame began with its second edition in 1903. Not yet thirty, he found himself a success. Before this recognition he had published vivid stories about odd characters who did not fit into ordinary society. These stories were experiments with the lives of outsiders distanced from society, from a society in which God was dead, and the proper meaning of love and death had to be re-discovered. In the novels outsiders relate to normal people. In Buddenbrooks we are shown how the distance from bourgeois society might develop. The connection between the viewpoints of outsiders and those of writers is explicit in the novellas “Tristan,” “Tonio Kröger” (both 1903), and “Der Tod in Venedig” (Death in Venice, 1912). Characters living in tension with their society are found in “Wälsungenblut” (Blood of the Walsungs, written in 1905), Joseph und seine Brüder (Joseph and His Brothers, 1933–43), Lotte in Weimar (1939), and Doktor Faustus (1947).
For Mann, society is held together by love and power, and the extraordinary individual has to reckon with both. The unstable relationship between the extraordinary individual and love, power, and society stands at the center of all of Mann's works. Another major theme, in the absence of a binding religion, is the fascination with death. In the Buddenbrook family the acquisition of wealth — that is, power — is favored over sexual love. In Königliche Hoheit (Royal Highness, 1909) an outsider's distance is healed by love. In Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain, 1924) a young middle-class man is thrown out of his normalcy by illicit love and curiosity about death. In “Die vertauschten Köpfe” (The Transposed Heads, 1940) a gifted Brahman and an ordinary person are friends, until sexual desire for a pretty but ordinary girl separates them, with inordinate consequences. Gregorius, the protagonist of Der Erwählte (The Holy Sinner, 1951) is what the German title says, “The chosen one.” Like all other outsiders in Mann's work, Gregorius clashes with the normal world through sexuality. The medieval model serves Mann to play with the social disapproval, the “sinfulness,” of extraordinariness. But this play with sin and human superiority is undertaken with a parodistic veneration for humane religion.