Summary of the Novella
At the start of the novella, the reader encounters Gustave von Aschenbach, a distinguished writer in his fifties who lives in the city of Munich. He has been feeling distracted and is having difficulty completing his work. Taking a walk, he encounters a sinister-looking man, a pilgrim, who stares at him from the portico of a funeral chapel. This leaves Aschenbach disconcerted, and he decides to take a vacation.
On the island of Pola in the Adriatic, he realizes that he is drawn only to Venice. On the way to Venice, Aschenbach sees a drunken old man elaborately made-up to look young, then he is given a ride by a gondolier without a license. Both resemble the pilgrim.
On arriving in Venice, he becomes infatuated with a boy from Poland who is taking a vacation with his mother and sisters. As Aschenbach starts to follow the young boy named Tadzio around, the stern discipline that brought him fame is destroyed. The aging writer hears persistent rumors about a plague of cholera which is spreading to Venice. Though Venetian authorities deny these reports, Aschenbach finds repeated confirmation of them. At one point, he is able to smell the disease on the leader of a group of travelling entertainers who perform for the hotel guests.
Nevertheless, Aschenbach neither warns Tadzio and his family nor leaves the city himself. At risk of both their lives, he continues to watch Tadzio from a distance. Finally, he dreams of participating in orgiastic celebrations to announce the arrival of a new god. When he wakes, he feels reborn and goes to the hotel barber to have his hair dyed and his face made up.
Then Aschenbach hears that the family of Tadzio is about to leave, and he goes to the beach for a last look at the young boy. Thinking Tadzio is gesturing towards him, Aschenbach slumps down in his chair and dies.
The Life and Work of Thomas Mann
Perhaps no other writer of the twentieth century has cut quite such an imposing figure as Thomas Mann. He wrote dense, learned prose, filled with literary references and parodies. He constantly paid homage to the patriarchs of German letters, whose ranks he obviously expected to join. He could honor the illustrious dead without sounding unduly subservient then claim their heritage without sounding arrogant. In all the many volumes that Mann wrote, it is hard to find a single careless sentence. When he died in 1955 at the age of 80, most people thought of Thomas Mann as a very intimidating figure. Although he cultivated that image, he also warned people against taking it too seriously.
Thomas Mann was born in 1875 into a prominent mercantile family in the medieval city of Lübeck, where he was raised together with two brothers and two sisters. The circles in which the Mann children were brought up placed an enormous value on order and propriety, which the young people often found stifling. The children were never allowed to forget their position, or the responsibilities that came with it, in the highly stratified German society.
To the great frustration of Thomas Mann’s father, Heinrich Mann Sr., none of his children showed any interest or aptitude for running the family business. Instead, they were drawn to the rather glamorous, though slightly disreputable, world of the arts. The eldest son, Heinrich Jr., who would sometimes be a close companion to Thomas and sometimes a bitter rival, was an excellent student. He declined, however, to learn a practical trade and chose to pursue the vocation of writer. Thomas proved a highly inept student who failed repeatedly and was unable to finish high school. He envied those who were more worldly, but he considered himself a social outsider. This left him, Thomas felt, little choice but to follow the example of his brother Heinrich, and he began to devote all his efforts to literature.
In 1901, he published his first novel, Buddenbrooks, a fictionalized account of his family history, which quickly established Thomas Mann as one of the leading young authors of Germany. This was followed by Royal Highness and several shorter works including Tonio Kröger. The novella Death in Venice was published in 1912. By the time World War I broke out, Thomas Mann had married, had started a family, and had become famous. Thomas, however, believed that the dramatic political developments did not allow him to simply devote himself to his career and his private life. Though too thoughtful and reflective to be a conventional propagandist, he wished to put his prestige and talent in the service of Germany. His Reflections of a Non-Political Man, published in 1918, was a collection of radio broadcasts and essays on the subject of German character and destiny.
After the German defeat, Thomas gradually began to take a friendlier view of Anglo-American and French democratic traditions. In 1924, he published The Magic Mountain, often considered his finest novel, which affectionately satirized the intense intellectual debates in Germany. He received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1929.
Reluctant to become involved in political affairs again, Thomas Mann was not very prepared to respond when Hitler came to power in 1933. Because his wife was Jewish, and the works of his brother Heinrich were banned, Thomas decided not to return from a speaking tour and went into exile. For a time, he still declined to speak out publicly against the regime of Hitler, preferring to work in Switzerland on a series of novels based on the Biblical story of Joseph and his brothers. Then, in 1938, Thomas moved to the United States, where his enormous reputation made him a spokesman for the German literary community in exile.
Unlike many writers, Thomas Mann loved ceremonial occasions, and he proved adept at cultivating and handling public affairs. However, his real passion was, as always, literature. In 1947 he published his last major work, Dr. Faustus, a somber novel about a musician who sells his soul to produce the supreme work of art. After the war, he moved to Switzerland, where he died in 1955.
Until fairly recently, almost all critics accepted the image Mann liked to project of himself, a dignified family man who practiced an unwavering morality. More recently, biographers and critics have viewed this as simply a public mask. But, if that is so, what did it conceal? According to some, it concealed a confused human being, leading a fairly chaotic life. Other critics see a man who, like Gustave von Aschenbach at the beginning of Death in Venice, lived only for his art and had little hesitation about exploiting other people.
The reader will have to form his or her own opinion about Thomas Mann, but it is important to raise the issue. The works cannot entirely be separated from their author. We do know that the strain of balancing his public image with his personal life, of being both a writer and a man of affairs, often proved a burden; and writing was partly a sort of therapy for Thomas Mann.
Almost all his works, particularly Death in Venice, show the tension between a need to confess and a desire for privacy. Though Thomas Mann constantly shows us glimpses of his life, which excite our interest and curiosity, he is almost never frank or direct. Few writers have written about themselves as persistently as Thomas Mann. His prose, however, almost always seems impersonal. Readers who seek a sort of intimacy with their authors may feel disappointed by him, but the human being behind the works may not be so unknowable as he has often appeared. Those who look for intellectual content or literary technique will always find much in Thomas Mann to admire.
The tone of Death in Venice changes with great subtlety, though not all of this comes through in translation. For the first few pages, the story, told in the third person, seems to be narrated with the detachment of a scientist. The style here seems a bit like the way we are led to imagine the writing of the protagonist, Gustave von Aschenbach: dignified, objective, and austere. We gradually, however, see that this detachment is an ironic pose, almost a joke. The narrator tells everything exclusively from the point of view of Gustave von Aschenbach. As the protagonist becomes infatuated with the young boy and begins to break down, the style also changes.
For one thing, the writing becomes increasingly florid and extravagant as the novel progresses, corresponding to Aschenbach’s increasingly excited state of mind. The novella also goes from being a traditional realistic narrative to something far more modern and experimental. Toward the close of the story, Mann sometimes uses the technique known as “stream of consciousness,” most famously developed by James Joyce and Virginia Wolf. The division between the mind of the protagonist and the external world begins to break down. Instead of a logical chain of events, we have a sequence of dreams and impressions held together only by the personality of the protagonist. This is the case with Aschenbach’s dream of orgiastic abandon, for example, as well as with some of the imagined dialogue between the Greek sage Socrates and his pupil Phaedrus. Nevertheless, Thomas Mann never takes his experimentation as far as Joyce or some other modernists did. Pages of reverie are always followed by sober descriptions, so the reader does not lose his or her bearings.
Death in Venice provides one of the best examples of the irony and self-parody which are the stylistic trademark of Thomas Mann. As in most of his writing, it is not always easy to tell when he is joking and when he is serious. The use of symbolism, for example, is carried so far that it often begins to seem like satire, except that the human situation is so tragic.
From one point of view, everything that Aschenbach does is so ridiculous and undignified that the novella might be read as a satire on artistic pretensions. The imagined dialogue between Socrates and Phaedrus, for example, could be read as a satire on how the use of abstract ideals can be used as a means to seduction. But this way of understanding the novel, by itself, does not do justice to the tragic dimensions of the story. Furthermore, the examples of cynicism shown by many figures in the story, from Aschenbach himself to the corrupt Venetian authorities, makes us hesitate to take a completely sardonic view of the events.
We also have reasons to take the story simply as a tragedy, the fall of a great and lonely man. But this is only possible if we ignore the gravity of what Aschenbach has done, and if we fail to appreciate that, we are not taking the story seriously at all. Aschenbach has not only indulged his inclination to pedophilia, but he is also guilty of stalking. His decision to let Tadzio and his family die rather than tell them of the plague comes close to attempted murder. Furthermore, we are told in the last line of the story that, in the view of the public, Aschenbach is still accorded rather more dignity than he deserves. We do not feel like adding to the empty praise the deceased is receiving from the ignorant cultural authorities.
The story then, should not be understood as either fully serious or satirical. It is a tragi-comedy. Much of the interest of the story comes from the tension between the mocking and pathetic dimensions, which is deliberately left unresolved.
The values in the work of Thomas Mann are largely those of the upper middle class in late nineteenth-century Germany. His parents lived in a decorous world, already starting to disappear as Mann began to write. Society has changed enormously since the original publication of his books, and this is hardly understandable without some knowledge of his times. His works are a splendid ¬introduction to another era. Thomas Mann was an astute observer of everyday life, who can help us understand people and situations that are, in certain ways, not far from our own experience.
When Thomas Mann was born in 1875, railroads were still something of a novelty. A company in America had begun to manufacture typewriters, but almost all manuscripts for books were written out by hand. In the very next year, the telephone would be invented, and this device would soon be followed by early photographs, electric lights, and automobiles. Darwin’s Theory of Evolution had already won wide acceptance in scientific communities, but the public controversy about evolution was at its most intense stage. The modern world was beginning, full of excitement and danger.
Germany, long a collection of provincial kingdoms, had only recently been unified and emerged as a world power. Citizens were proud of, and sometimes intoxicated with, the new prominence of their country, but they still often felt backward compared to the great commercial and intellectual centers of England and France. They strove to overcome this apparent lack of progress in Germany through both rapid industrialization and intensive education. The schools in Germany were becoming the envy of the world. Germans took special pride in the accomplishments of their poets and philosophers, and many people thought of intellectual vocations with awe.
People viewed artistic communities, with their apparently free and easy ways, with a strange combination of admiration and resentment. Poets and artists often used the security conferred by their status to flout rules of propriety in ways that ranged from mocking authorities to boasting of sexual adventures. Thomas Mann never felt entirely accepted in the society of the upper middle class, yet he loved its sense of decorum and propriety.
Thomas Mann gave many reasons for his alienation, but there were others he did not care to talk about directly. One such reason, which we find in the novella Death in Venice, was certainly his sexual attraction to pre-adolescent boys, what we would now call “pedophilia.” While the period in which Thomas Mann wrote, in many ways less sexually tolerant than our own, pedophilia was probably not as strongly condemned as it often is today. Young boys from the aristocracy or upper middle class often went to military schools, where homosexual bonds were common. Often, the attraction of older men to young boys was associated with the ancient Greeks. People imagined very idealized figures from Greek mythology, which enabled them to avoid dealing with the physical and psychological consequences of molestation. Furthermore, late nineteenth-century society allowed far more latitude in
sexual matters to artists than to other people.
One who took that greater freedom as his right was the poet Stefan George, who was extremely influential in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. George had collected about himself a circle of admiring young men drawn mostly from the aristocracy. One day George saw a boy in his teens named Maximin on the street and immediately became infatuated. He brought the boy into his circle to take part in their elaborate ceremonies. Maximin died suddenly, and George proclaimed the lad a Greek god who, after a brief stay on earth, had returned to heaven. With customary solemnity, George led his followers in worship of this divinity.
George seemed to enjoy his notoriety, which he took as a sign of distinction. He admired authoritarian leaders, mourned the passing aristocratic order, and viewed democratic institutions with disdain. Thomas Mann, who did not know George personally, used the relationship of George to Maximin as a partial model for the story of Death in Venice.
However, Thomas Mann was not willing to confine himself to artistic circles. Even in the era when Thomas wrote, his sexual inclinations could have been enough to cause a scandal, and probably ruin his reputation among the middle class, had he been open about them. Thomas Mann had concealed the autobiographical content of Death in Venice so cleverly that hardly anybody seemed to guess his secret. Stefan George thought the story was cynical. Thomas Mann found himself attacked, by people of opposing persuasions, for both advocating and condemning homosexuality.
A number of critics complained that the tale did not sound spontaneous. Others praised the simplicity and the emotional power of the plot. Some felt the tale was poetic; others thought it was overly mannered. The controversies continue today, but most critics have come to regard Death in Venice as a masterpiece.
Thomas Mann only confessed to his forbidden desires in his journals, which were opened after his death. It is likely that the habitual conservatism of Thomas Mann, on cultural and political matters, may have been partly a compensation for these desires. But this conservative bent was also in line with the spirit of the times. The shock of abrupt modernization had created a strong reaction, and much of German society was pervaded by a longing for the old feudal order, which people often thought of as a time of harmonious simplicity. Thomas Mann certainly shared this, but he was realistic enough to realize that many traditions were doomed. The resigned acceptance of modernity often gave his works a melancholy tone.
Hitler was able to take power, in part by exploiting German nostalgia for an idealized past. Opposition to Hitler placed Thomas Mann in the company of many cultural and political liberals, among whom he never felt entirely comfortable. After World War II, he never again lived in Germany, probably less on account of the Nazi past than because the forces of modernity finally seemed triumphant there. Instead, as his final home, he chose Switzerland, where traditional ways were more intact.
Master List of Characters
Gustave von Aschenbach—A famous writer, who goes to Venice, falls in love with a young boy named Tadzio, and allows himself to contact cholera and die.
The Pilgrim—A sinister fellow whom Aschenbach sees in the portico of a mortuary chapel and who stares angrily at him.
The Ticket Seller—A flamboyant man who issues Aschenbach’s ticket to Venice.
The Rakish Old Man—A man on the ship to Venice whom Aschenbach encounters repeatedly. He has false teeth and dyed hair, but he is carousing with a group of young clerks.
The Gondolier without a license—A gondolier who transports Aschenbach without being directed to and turns out to be operating illegally.
The Boatman—The man who helps Aschenbach’s gondola to shore.
The Hotel Manager—An ingratiating man who always seems ready to help guests at the hotel but who denies the danger of plague.
Tadzio—A good-looking Polish boy of about 14-years-old with whom Aschenbach becomes infatuated.
The Sisters of Tadzio—Three young girls who are dressed in very shapeless, austere garments.
The Governess of the Sisters of Tadzio—A stout, red-faced woman, who accompanies the sisters of Tadzio.
The Mother of Tadzio—A very formal, dignified lady who is simply yet elegantly dressed.
Jaschiu—A playmate of Tadzio, who is, at first, a special friend and who arouses jealousy in Aschenbach. Jaschiu later wrestles Tadzio to the ground.
Socrates—A famous Greek philosopher, known for his homely appearance as well as for his wisdom. Aschenbach, in daydreams, imagines himself as Socrates.
Phaedrus—In a dialogue written by Plato, a handsome young man with whom Socrates engages in dialogue. Aschenbach imagines Tadzio as Phaedrus.
The Mountebank—The head of a group of wandering entertainers who spreads the plague among his audience.
The Young Englishman—A clerk who warns Aschenbach about the plague. He stands out, especially by comparison with the Venetian authorities, for his honesty and directness.
The Hotel Barber—Dyes Aschenbach’s hair and puts make-up on Aschenbach’s face. The barber is very talkative, while Aschenbach remains quiet.
Estimated Reading Time
An initial reading of Death in Venice will probably take about two and a half hours. The reader should go more slowly at first, in order to become accustomed to the style of Thomas Mann. The language may seem very formal, but the reader ought not to be intimidated by it.
There is very little action in the story, and once the reader has understood the basic situation, the plot will be easy to follow. What is interesting is usually the psychology in the story rather than the action. It is best to read the novella with a minimum of interruptions. One to two sittings is about right.
Death in Venice contains a great deal of symbolism. While understanding this symbolism adds to our appreciation, it is not always necessary. If the reader is puzzled by some detail, it is best not to stop for very long, so as to avoid interrupting the flow of the story. Then, after finishing, the reader may wish to return to certain passages and try to figure out exactly how they are significant. It is, however, important that the reader not feel it is necessary to understand every reference, especially at first.
As with many fine works of literature, it is possible to constantly discover new aspects of Death in Venice. Thomas Mann compared the book to a crystal where light is reflected through a great number of facets. Every detail in the book, even the smallest, is significant; and these details are connected in many intricate ways. This book will show you some of the facets, some of the connections, but no book will ever show you all of them. That means there is always a lot for the alert reader to discover. You do not need to be highly educated in order to uncover these connections. You will just have to pay careful attention.
The reader will have to decide what level of understanding will satisfy them. Some will certainly care to read it over more than once. A few may become fascinated, and wish to explore the book in greater detail. For most, a basic understanding will be enough, and that is really all that most teachers will ask.
The novella has chapter numbers in the original German edition, but these are not retained in the translation by Hans T. Lowe- Porter, which separates the parts only by small breaks in the text. Since it was disproportionately long, I have divided Chapter Three of the German original into two smaller sections. Then, to make events of the novella easier to follow, I have added headings which are neither in the original nor the Lowe-Porter translation.
Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Death in Venice is one of the greatest novellas of the twentieth century and has been adapted for film (1971, directed by Luchino Visconti) and opera (1973, with music by Benjamin Britten and libretto by Myfanwy Piper). In this story, Mann further develops many of the ideas that he had so successfully explored in Tonio Kröger.
The story is centered on Gustav von Aschenbach, a famous writer who has come to Venice for a vacation. Aschenbach is suffering from fatigue and world-weariness, the result of intense literary efforts and an incipient emotional crisis. When Aschenbach arrives at his hotel in Venice, he notices a Polish family that is also on vacation, in particular, a young boy named Tadzio....
(The entire section is 644 words.)
Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
The opening pages of the novella brilliantly foreshadow the theme of death by cholera in Venice, a city whose history of sensual self-indulgence has led to moral decline and physical collapse. The first of three symbolic messengers of death—a distinctly exotic figure with straw hat, red hair, snub nose, prominent Adam’s apple, and glistening white teeth laid bare to the gums—suddenly appears in the Byzantine-style mortuary chapel (a parody of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice) while Gustave von Aschenbach is walking near the North Cemetery in Munich. This disturbing apparition weakens Aschenbach’s repressive self-control, stimulates his visionary dream (which represents the source of the Asiatic cholera in the moist swamps of...
(The entire section is 729 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Gustav von Aschenbach is a distinguished German writer whose work brings him world fame and a patina of nobility from a grateful government. His career is honorable and dignified. A man of ambitious nature, unmarried, he lives a life of personal discipline and dedication to his art. In portraying heroes who combine the forcefulness of a Frederick the Great with the selfless striving of a Saint Sebastian, he believes that he speaks for his race as well as for the deathless human spirit. However, his devotion to the ideals of duty and achievement bring him close to physical collapse.
One day, after a morning spent at his desk, he leaves his house in Munich and goes for a walk. His stroll takes him as far as a cemetery on...
(The entire section is 1145 words.)
Summary and Analysis
Part One: Aschenbach at Home in Munich
Gustave von Aschenbach: famous writer; goes to Venice and falls in love with a boy named Tadzio
The Pilgrim: sinister fellow Aschenbach sees in mortuary chapel
As the story opens on a spring afternoon, the tensions in ¬Europe threaten to erupt in war. Gustave von Aschenbach, a distinguished writer in his fifties living in Munich, is exhausted and unable to concentrate. He strolls through the empty streets till he comes to a funeral chapel, where he contemplates the religious inscriptions: “They are entering the House of the Lord” and “May the Light Everlasting shine upon them.” This meditation on the words is interrupted by the sight of a pilgrim in...
(The entire section is 1578 words.)
Part Two: A Look Back Over Aschenbach’s Life
Reflections on travel lead the reader back through time, and we learn of Aschenbach’s life. Almost all his passion and effort has been devoted to the literary art. He had been born in Selesia. Coming from a family of prominent officials, his father had spent an austere life in service of the king, but his mother was the daughter of a Bohemian musical conductor. Unable to attend school because of his health, he had received solitary lessons at home. After going through a brief period of youthful iconoclasm, he had settled in Munich and was happily married. He had a daughter, who is now married herself, but no son. His wife died soon after marriage. All that seemed to matter to him, from that time, was mastery...
(The entire section is 1076 words.)
Part Three: The Trip to Venice
The Ticket Seller: flamboyant man who sells Aschenbach a ticket to Venice
The Rakish Old Man: man on the ship who Aschenbach encounters repeatedly
The Gondolier without a license: transports Aschenbach illegally without being directed to
The Boatman: man who helps Aschenbach’s gondola to shore
At first Aschenbach travels to the island of Pola in the Adriatic. On arrival, however, he almost immediately realizes that he is drawn only to Venice, despite the fact that he became ill in that city years ago. To make arrangements for a trip to Venice, he is escorted by a hunchbacked sailor, who is outwardly polite but seems to be laughing at...
(The entire section is 1229 words.)
Part Four: The Frustrated Departure
The Hotel Manager: man who always seems ready to help guests at a hotel but denies the danger of the plague
Tadzio: A good-looking Polish boy of about 14-years-old with whom Aschenbach becomes infatuated.
The Mother of Tadzio: a very formal, dignified lady who is simply yet elegantly dressed
The Sisters of Tadzio: three young girls
The Governess of the Sisters of Tadzio: accompanies the sisters of Tadzio
Jaschiu: playmate of Tadzio
The hotel manager, a small ingratiating man, shows Aschenbach to his room. The place is pleasant enough, and Aschenbach spends the afternoon in contemplation of the sea. When the time...
(The entire section is 2045 words.)
Part Five: The Smile of Tadzio
Socrates & Phaedrus: both are present only in the imagination of Aschenbach
Having finally admitted his disreputable infatuation to himself, Aschenbach begins to center his life more and more around the boy, whom he constantly watches. He unpacks completely and settles in for an extended stay. Sometimes Aschenbach imagines himself as the aged Socrates and the boy as his pupil Phaedrus, to whom he discourses on the philosophy of love. As Socrates, Aschenbach tells Phaedrus that the lover is more divine than the beloved since only the lover has divine inspiration. For some time, Aschenbach remains torn between his obsession with the boy and occasional reproaches of his...
(The entire section is 1796 words.)
Part Six: Conclusion—The Plague
The Young Englishman: a clerk who warns Aschenbach about the plague
Aschenbach comes across reports and indications of a plague. First, he hears a mysterious illness which caused a German family to leave, mentioned casually by the hotel barber. Soon he begins to smell disinfectant everywhere. Then he sees ordinances posted by city authorities, warning people not to eat oysters or use the canal waters. A shopkeeper tells Aschenbach that all these steps are just routine precautions.
While the papers for tourists mention nothing, Aschenbach finds reports of a plague in the German press, which are then ¬denied and angrily debated. Aschenbach gradually realizes...
(The entire section is 3692 words.)