It portrays the downfall (already announced in the subtitle, Decline of a Family) of a wealthy mercantile family of Lübeck over four generations. The book is generally understood as a portrait of the German bourgeois society throughout several decades of the 19th century. The book displays Manns characteristic detailed style, and it was this novel which won Mann the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1929, although according to Manns wife this achievement would not have occurred without the publication of The Magic Mountain.
Manns objective was to write a novel on the conflicts between businessman and artists worlds, presented as a family saga, continuing in the realist tradition of 19th century works such as Stendhals Le Rouge et le noir (1830; The Red and the Black). More personally, he wanted to surpass the literary status already achieved by his eldest brother Heinrich Mann, who met relative success with the novel In einer Familie (1894, In a Family), and who was working at that time on another novel about German bourgeois society, Im Schlaraffenland (1900, In the Land of Cockaigne). It can be said that both of Thomas Manns objectives were satisfied. The novel stands today as one of his most popular, especially in Germany, and is considered by many to be the novel that best captures the 19th century German bourgeois atmosphere.
The exploration of decadence in the novel can be attributed to the profound influence of Arthur Schopenhauer on Thomas Mann during his youth. The three generations of the family depicted in the book experience a continuous economical, physical, and spiritual decline, with true happiness becoming increasingly unavailable to all the members of the family. The characters who sacrifice their lives for the sake of the family firm meet unfortunate ends, just as those who do not.
The city where the Buddenbrook family lives shares so many of its street names and other details with Manns hometown of Lübeck that the identification is perfect, although Mann carefully avoids explicit pronunciation of the name throughout the whole novel. In spite of this fact, many German readers and critics attacked Mann for writing about the dirty laundry of his hometown and his own family. However, although this may be debated, it must be said that the fate of the Buddenbrooks bears no direct resemblance with the authors own family, nor with that of the 19th century German bourgeoisie in general, not even with the money aristocracy, although merchandizing is a central topic.
The main period of time considered covers 1835 to 1877, and thus includes some of the most dramatic episodes of 19th-century German history: the Revolutions of 1848, the Austro-Prussian War, the North German Confederation, and the establishment of the German Empire). However, in agreement with the above-mentioned remarks, these events play only a peripheral role and thus in this sense Buddenbrooks is also not a historical novel.