Death in Venice

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by Elizabeth Freund

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Death in Venice is Thomas Mann’s most famous and widely read literary work. This semiautobiographical short story about a writer’s trip to the city of Venice, which uses symbolism and employs Mann’s meticulously written prose, also presents themes relating to modernity.

Plot Summary

The protagonist of Death in Venice is the reputable, fifty-three-year-old writer Gustav Aschenbach, a member of the upper-middle class.  Aschenbach writes under a very strict schedule, working every morning for a set amount of time, but he has recently been troubled by a lack of creativity.  While walking by a cemetery to the north of Munich, he sees a strange man and has a vision of a jungle.  This vision causes Aschenbach to temporarily forgo his tightly scheduled life, and he decides to travel south.  Aschenbach’s journey takes him to Venice, where, after a ride with a rogue gondolier, he checks into his hotel.  It is here that he encounters a beautiful Polish boy named Tadzio.  Over time he becomes more and more enamored of the young man, eventually abandoning all discipline and reason in the face of his infatuation.  Despite discovering that there has been an outbreak of cholera, Aschenbach makes only a half-hearted attempt to leave the city before deciding to stay in Venice and continue devoting his time to watching Tadzio.  His infatuation, which never leads to physical intimacy, causes him to follow the boy’s every move, and this pursuit has an effect on Aschenbach’s art--his previous writer’s block disappears and he is able to write freely once again.  One night, Aschenbach dreams of "the stranger-god" surrounded by a crowd of dancing, howling, torch-bearing humans dressed in animal skins while worshiping the god.  The worshippers fly into a frenzy around a huge wooden symbol, which Aschenbach realizes to be himself.  One day Aschenbach trails Tadzio into the city and after losing track of the boy, eats some strawberries purchased from a street vendor.  Later, while watching Tadzio at the beach, Aschenbach loses consciousness and dies, apparently from cholera that contaminated the strawberries.  The world reacts to the death of this highly regarded author with shock and mourning.[1]

Life of Thomas Mann 

Born in 1875 into a newly unified Germany, Mann moved to Munich at the age of eighteen.  His first novel, Buddenbrooks, was published in 1901.  Living his life in the modern time, Mann was an avid reader of Nietzsche. Mann was also “modern in his mode of work, rejecting emotion and inspiration in favor of discipline, detachment, and application."[2]  The story of Death in Venice was inspired by a vacation that Mann and his family took to Lido, Venice, from the 26th of May to the 2nd of June in 1911.  Mann completed the work in June of 1912.  Death in Venice is semiautobiographical not only because it is set at the site of Mann’s family vacation.  Mann also became intrigued by a boy similar to the character Tadzio on his trip, although he did not pursue this fascination to the same extent as Aschenbach.[3]  Also, the character of Aschenbach possesses many of Mann's qualities and traits.  Like Aschenbach, Mann labored over every sentence of his writing, and was a dedicated and disciplined “moralist of achievement.”  Also like Aschenbach, Mann felt out of place in Munich because the city’s easy-going southern character conflicted with Mann’s northern German sensibility.[4]  Munich was the center of visual arts at the time, which Mann considered inferior to the written word.  In his opinion, visual art could only skim the surface of experience, while literature could explore its depths.  In some ways, Aschenbach was actually the embodiment of what Mann strove to become in his writing: Aschenbach’s fame in the story arises from works that Mann had not yet finished.  We can see Aschenbach as the fulfillment of Mann’s own desires to be a nationally recognized and respected writer.  The character plays the role of respected writer and then rejects it, losing belief in bourgeois morality and values while yearning for social destruction and nothingness, eventually giving in to intoxication and love.  In a way, the creation of Aschenbach was Mann's attempt to achieve perfection in his own life.  In Aschenbach’s case, this perfection leads to destruction.

What’s in a Name?

The name of the protagonist, Gustav Aschenbach, is a combination of two artists’ names from Mann’s time.  Gustav Mahler was a composer who died on the 18th of May in 1911 while Mann was on his vacation in Venice.  The name Aschenbach comes from Andreas Aschenbach, an inventive painter of the time who broke from the popular trend of painting romantic landscapes.  This last name also has a great significance in that “Aschenbach” translates to “ash creek,” and is a reference to both death and the canals of Venice.

Themes and Interpretations

In Death in Venice, Mann uses both theme, character, and plot to critique modern, bourgeois life.  Aschenbach is the son of a civil servant and extremely disciplined in all aspects of his life.  His expression of eroticism, the eating of the strawberries, infects him with cholera; his uncontrollable infatuation with Tadzio, then, ultimately causes his dath due to his lack of discipline and self–criticism.[5]  Aschenbach is willing to destroy himself and obliterate his social and cultural intuitions because of this infatuation.  He is also willing to risk the death of his beloved by not telling his family about the disease.  His dream is his final departure from his former disciplined existence as an artist into a sort of chaotic self.

Through the portrayal of Aschenbach, Death in Venice contains both an affirmation and resistance of the world of antibourgeois values.[6]  It is a critique in that it presents the idea that the artist who wants recognition must stay away from life, even though that distance leads to stagnation of the imagination.  The bourgeois notion of the artist as a guise is flawed, as Aschenbach’s imagination ignores the norms and binding rules of society. The insights and knowledge that art conveys are antibourgeois. Death is Venice also shows Aschenbach containing and controlling his desires.  He does not act on his desires towards Tadzio. In this way Aschenbach is affirming the antibourgeois values. Can and should the bourgeois artist live a lie of self-alienation and discipline?  Death in Venice addresses this question and the potential answers. 

Another theme presented in Death in Venice is the role of homosexuality in modern culture.  In the story, the narrator comments on how Aschenbach never had a son, leading the reader to originally believe that Aschenbach’s feelings for Tadzio are parental in nature.  However, these feelings quickly develop into more of a manic obsession. This obsession can be seen as a pursuit of beauty in an otherwise impure world, or, if interpreted in another sense, as a critique of the cultural attitude towards homosexuality at the time.  The multiple references to a more Platonic, mentoring relationship are apparent; however, these seem to be little more than the illusions that Aschenbach uses to justify his actions.[7] 

A separate theme of Death in Venice is the contrast between the East and West in modern times.  Starting with Aschenbach’s vision of the jungle which leads him to travel south, the novel presents the east as an exotic world of chaos and disorder.  There are multiple references to the tension between East and West, with cholera being a disease of the east and references to the god Dionysus, who is of Asian origin, slowly penetrating Aschenbach’s rigidly scheduled life.  This directly ties in with the theme of Greek mythology that can be seen in many of Mann’s writings, and Death in Venice is no exception.  The references start at the beginning of the story, when Aschenbach is struggling with writer’s block. The stranger in the cemetery, with his straw hat and ironed-tipped cane, invokes the image of Hermes.  Hermes is the Greek god who guides souls into the underworld, and in Mann's novella the Hermes-like figure serves as a messenger of impending death.  There are also multiple references to the Socrates/Phaidros relationship, a symposium of Platonic love between an older mentor and younger student.[8]  There are also multiple references to Dionysus, who is the eastern god of intoxication, rapture and chaos.  He appears most notably as “the stranger god” in the dream that causes Aschenbach to stray from his formerly disciplined existence.  Aschenbach’s thoughts and actions become controlled by “that dark god whose pleasure it is to trample man’s intoxicating rapture and chaos."[9]  When Aschenbach finally meets his end, Tadzio, like Hermes, seems to lead Aschenbach into the underworld.

  1. Hannelore Mundt. Understanding Thomas Mann. (Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina, 2004), 88.
  2. T.J. Reed, Death in Venice: Making and Unmaking a Master (New York: Twayne, 1994), 4.
  3. Andre Von Gronika. "'Myth Plus Psychology': A Style Analysis of Death in Venice." In Death in Venice (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1994), 118.
  4. Reed, 4.
  5. Mundt, 90.
  6. Reed, 7.
  7. Thomas L. Jeffers. "God, Man, the Devil--and Thomas Mann." Commentary 120.4 (2005): 77
  8. Bernhard Frank. "Mann's Death in Venice." The Explicator 64.2 (2006): 99.
  9. Mundt, 91.
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