In northern Germany nearing the end of the 19th century the Buddenbrooks of Lubeck represent one of the rich, highly educated families which at the time form the upper class level of Prussian society. Though prosperous and influential, the family is well-grounded in morality, sternly pious and deeply reverential towards established traditions of integrity and hard work. The Buddenbrooks live in a world where strict divisions of society are laid down. Distinctions between the labor classes, bourgeoisie and upper-middle class mercantile families are easily identifiable even within the relatively small town of Lubeck where the Buddenbrooks play a major role in maintaining the status quo in regards to both themselves and everybody else. Unspoken guidelines for whom their children should associate with, which schools they should attend, who they form ties to and, of course, whom they should ultimately marry go hand-in-hand with daily tasks. Both sides of the social spectrum are aware of the often costly implications an inappropriate match could have which is why it is so important that the couple’s youngest daughter Frau Antonia "Tony" Buddenbrook marry Herr Grunlich, a visibly successful businessman from Hamburg and a man seemingly of good taste and distinction, even if Tony doesn't like him.
Tony's poor opinion of her "chosen" mate isn't so inaccurate. As it turns out, within months after their wedding, Herr Grunlich is found out as a scoundrel, unworthy of all good society and especially of being wed to such a catch as Tony. The marriage promptly dissolves in divorce, a lamentable but necessary action which eventually puts the Buddenbrooks back into relatively modest standing among their peers. Other problems crop up though as Christian, the family's middle child chooses a life in the theater, a heretofore unheard-of and near scandalous profession to embark upon. As further indignities cause friction and highlight conflict, the family fortune, once worth nearly 100,000 marks, has now dwindled to an alarmingly low sum as collective debts force the once and still proud family to face reality.
Mann's novel is not so much about the family Buddenbrook epitomizing the ruling class as it is about their decline, a dissolution which parallels the demise of an entire epoch and the ultimate dismembering of the Hapsburgian Empire. Even as shrewd decisions are made by upstanding family members in order to preserve their "place", shifting paradigms of a world beyond their control force the family and indeed the whole of Germany to confront change and transition. Mann was one of the great commentators of his times. The turn-of-the-century changes affecting his native land, the growing nationalism, imperial transitions, political reconfigurations and the creeping advance of German militarism are perhaps best detailed through his exquisite works both fiction and non-fiction.