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.
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.