Hans Castorp, fresh from university and about to become a civil engineer, comes to the Sanatorium Berghof in the Swiss Alps to visit his cousin Joachim, an army officer, who is recovering there from tuberculosis. Intending to remain at the Berghof for three weeks, Hans is gradually contaminated by the morbid atmosphere pervading the place. Wishing very much to be considered a patient like the others, he achieves his ends and stays in the sanatorium for …seven years. During this time, he has enough time to take part in the furious philosophical debates pitting against each other Settembrini, a secular humanist, and Naphta, a totalitarian Jesuit. And to fall in love with the beautiful but enigmatic Clawdia Chauchat. When he is finally discharged in 1914 – along with all the other patients – it is only to plunge into the horrors of World War I.
The narrative opens in the decade before World War I. We are introduced to the central protagonist of the story, Hans Castorp, a young German. We encounter him when he is in his early 20s, about to take up a shipbuilding career in Hamburg, his home town. Just before beginning this professional career he undertakes a journey to visit his tubercular cousin, Joachim Ziemssen, who is seeking a cure in a sanatorium in Davos, high up in the Swiss Alps. In the opening chapter, Hans is symbolically transported away from the familiar life and mundane obligations he has known, in what he later learns to call the flatlands , to the rarefied mountain air and introspective little world of the sanatorium.
Castorp’s departure from the sanatorium is repeatedly delayed by his failing health. What at first appears to be a minor bronchial infection with slight fever is diagnosed by the sanatorium’s chief doctor and director, Hofrat Behrens, as symptoms of tuberculosis. Hans is persuaded by Behrens to stay until his health improves.
WARNING SPOILERS BELOW!
During his extended stay, Castorp meets and learns from a variety of characters, who together represent a microcosm of pre-war Europe. These include the secular humanist and encyclopedist Lodovico Settembrini (a student of Giosuè Carducci), the totalitarianist jesuit Leo Naphta, the hedonist Mynheer Peeperkorn, and his romantic interest Madame Chauchat.
In the end, Castorp remains in the morbid atmosphere of the sanatorium for seven years. At the conclusion of the novel, the war begins, Castorp is conscripted into the military, and his imminent death on the battlefield is suggested.