Death in Venice, Thomas Mann
Death in Venice Thomas Mann
The following entry presents criticism of Mann's novella Der Tod in Venedig (1912; Death in Venice).
Mann's novella Death in Venice is recognized as his best-known and most enigmatic work. Critics assert that the story skillfully combines psychological realism and mythological symbolism to create a multidimensional story that explores the moral transformation of an artist in quest for perfect beauty. It is considered a powerful meditation upon the relationship between art and beauty as well as love and death. Death in Venice has been the subject of much critical study and is regarded as a masterpiece of short fiction.
Plot and Major Characters
Death in Venice chronicles the downfall of an aging German writer named Gustav von Aschenbach. The son of a bourgeois father and a bohemian mother, Aschenbach has spent most of his life struggling to eliminate the bohemian aspects of his nature. After years of living a morally and artistically ascetic life, he finds himself afflicted with writer's block. One day, the sight of an exotic-looking man during a visit to a Munich cemetery disturbs him, and he is seized with a profound longing to travel. Aschenbach journeys south, and on a ship to Venice he is repulsed by the sight of an older man made up to look much younger than his age, surrounded by young, good-looking men. After his arrival at his hotel in Venice, Aschenbach notices a fourteen-year-old Polish boy named Tadzio, who is vacationing with his family. He becomes obsessed with the boy, and follows his family on their excursions in the city and spies on the boy from afar. As Aschenbach succumbs to long-repressed spiritual and physical desires, he begins to lose his sense of self and has a disturbing nightmare in which he participates in a Dionysian orgy. When rumors circulate that cholera is spreading throughout the city, he refuses to leave and decides not to inform Tadzio's mother about the imminent danger because he can't bear the thought of being separated from the object of his affections. One day he eats overripe strawberries, knowing that they were likely infected with disease. Increasingly sickly and lethargic, he begins to walk around in a dream-state. On the day that Tadzio's family is leaving Venice, after finally learning about the cholera epidemic, Aschenbach follows them to the beach and watches Tadzio play in the surf. When a group of boys beat Tadzio, Aschenbach shouts to intervene. Sitting on a beach chair, he imagines that Tadzio is waving to him from the water. He rises up from his chair, collapses, and draws his final breath.
Critics often discuss Mann's exploration of Apollonian and Dionysian elements in Death in Venice; some view it from a Freudian perspective as a struggle between Aschenbach's id and superego. It is this tension between Aschenbach's disciplined, ascetic side and his lustful, reckless one that is identified as the major thematic concern of the novella. Commentators have detected autobiographical elements to this theme: like his protagonist, Mann had a bohemian mother and bourgeois father and had several homoerotic attachments to younger men he met while on vacation. Some critics have viewed the attachments depicted in Death in Venice as a celebration of male friendship as depicted in Plato's Phaedrus. Others interpret Aschenbach's obsession with Tadzio as a representation of the Socratic ideal of the older male lover and his younger male beloved. Homosexuality, or pedophilia, is regarded as an important thematic issue; Mann's own homoerotic experiences are viewed as central to any discussion of the novella. Some critics note that the progress of the plague around the city mirrors Aschenbach's growing obsession with Tadzio. Mythological allusions in the story have been studied at great length, and the setting of Death in Venice is considered significant—critics assert that Venice symbolizes sickness, decay, and death.
Death in Venice is recognized as a central work in Mann's oeuvre and ranks as one of his most studied pieces of fiction. Critics praise his fusion of symbolism, psychology, and myth and view the story as a cautionary tale of what can happen when passion is repressed for the sake of discipline and aestheticism. The story has also been commended for its description of sexuality and disease on realistic, psychological, and mythological levels. Death in Venice has been interpreted through psychoanalytical, historicist, gender, and cultural perspectives. Autobiographical aspects of the story have been a frequent topic of critical analysis, as the novella has been regarded as the expression of Mann's own homoerotic fantasies. However, Mann suggested that the story could be seen as an attack on homosexuality. Other scholars have asserted that Death in Venice was inspired by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Die Wahlverwandtschaften (Elective Affinities), in which Goethe describes his infatuation with a young girl. Parallels between the novella and Euripedes's The Bacchae, Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, Plato's Phaedrus, and Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy have also been explored. Since its publication, Death in Venice has widely been regarded as a powerful meditation on life and death, art and asceticism.
Der kleine Herr Friedemann: Novellen 1898
Tristan: Sechs Novellen 1903
Der Tod in Venedig: Novelle [Death in Venice] 1912
*Bekenntnisse des Hochstaplers Felix Krull: Buch der Kindheit 1922
Children and Fools [translated by Herman George Scheffauer] 1928
Mario und der Zauberer: Ein tragisches Reiseerlebnis [Mario and the Magician] 1930
Stories of Three Decades 1936
Die vertauschten Köpfe: Eine indische Legende [The Transposed Heads: A Legend of India] 1940
Die Betrogene: Erzählung [The Black Swan] 1953
Buddenbrooks: Verfall einer Familie, Roman. 2 vols. [Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family] (novel) 1901
Königliche Hoheit [Royal Highness: A Novel of German Court Life] (novel) 1909
Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen [Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man] (essays) 1918
Der Zauberberg: Roman. 2 vols. [The Magic Mountain] (novel) 1924
Lebensabriß [A Sketch of My Life] (essay) 1930
Die Geschichten Jaakobs (novel) 1933
Der junge Joseph [Young Joseph] (novel) 1934
Joseph in Ägypten...
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SOURCE: Cohn, Dorrit. “The Second Author of Der Tod in Venedig.” In Critical Essays on Thomas Mann, edited by Inta M. Ezergailis, pp. 124-43. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1983, Cohn examines the relationship between the narrator and the protagonist in Death in Venice.]
In his review of a now forgotten contemporary novel Thomas Mann draws the following distinction between the author and the narrator of a fictional work: [“Narrating is something totally different from writing, and what distinguishes them is an indirection in the former …”]. This indirectness, he goes on to explain, is most slyly effective when it veils itself in directness: when the author interpolates between himself and his reader a second voice, [“the voice of a second, interposed author,” “as when … a gentleman announces himself and makes speeches who, however, is in no way identical with the epic author but rather an invented and shadowy observer”].1 Clearly Mann does not have in mind here a simple [“first-person narrator”] who tells his own life in the manner of Felix Krull, or even the peripheral type of first-person narrator who tells the life of a friend in the manner of Serenus Zeitblom. The reader needs hardly be told that a narrator so spectacularly equipped with a name, a civic identity and a body of his own...
(The entire section is 9691 words.)
SOURCE: Rockwood, Heidi M., and Robert J. R. Rockwood. “The Psychological Reality of Myth in Der Tod in Venedig.” Germanic Review 59, no. 4 (fall 1984): 137-41.
[In the following essay, Rockwood and Rockwood offer a Jungian interpretation of Death in Venice and assert that the mythological aspects of the novella are “integral parts of human psychological reality.”]
Despite the great number of psychological background analyses of Thomas Mann's Der Tod in Venedig scholars have so far not attempted to read the novella exclusively and consistently in terms of Jungian psychology, especially in the light of Jung's theory of the archetypes. This theory, to be exemplified in more detail later, seems to us particularly well suited as an interpretive foil for Mann's work, since it concentrates on integrating timeless, depersonalized “mythological” elements into a theory of human personality. The presence of both highly personal as well as depersonalized elements has so far been seen rather as an interpretive dilemma for the Mann scholar, as T. J. Reed states:
Der Tod in Venedig kept the primal suggestiveness of myth by not bringing it into direct contact with the other ways of seeing which are present in the work. The levels of meaning are parallel and self-contained … the mind cannot entertain myth and psychology as true explanations...
(The entire section is 3689 words.)
SOURCE: Frank, Bernhard. “Mann's Death in Venice.” Explicator 45, no. 1 (fall 1986): 31-2.
[In the following essay, Frank elucidates Mann's reference to the mythological figure Phaeax in Death in Venice.]
Tracing a brief quotation in Thomas Mann's Death in Venice to the dialogues of Xenophone, Lorraine Gustafson had demonstrated how the ostensibly insignificant allusion led the informed reader first to the dialogue in its entirety, then back to Mann's novella with a play by play thematic parallel.1 Similarly, the identification of Aschenbach's beloved, Tadzio, with various mythological figures first woos us back to the respective myths, then returns us to Mann's story to find it both deepened and expanded.
The symbolic transformations of Tadzio have been analyzed at great lengths.2 He is described as having the head of Eros; he is seen as beauty in love with itself, i.e., Narcissus; in the scene in which he wrestles with Jaschu he becomes Hyacinthus; and, finally, as he beckons Aschenbach out to sea, he is the “psychagog,” Hermes. Curiously, however, another of Tadzio's transformations has been all but ignored. Early on in their hauntingly silent courtship, Gustav von Aschenbach wryly refers to Tadzio as “little Phaeax” (kleiner Phäake).3 The Phaeacian sailor who piloted Theseus' ship is never...
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SOURCE: Rotkin, Charlotte. “Oceanic Animals: Allegory in Death in Venice.” Papers on Language and Literature 23, no. 1 (winter 1987): 84-8.
[In the following essay, Rotkin explores the allegorical significance of the sea creatures in Death in Venice.]
One of the characteristic features of Death in Venice is its intricate fusion of symbolism, psychology, and myth. Mann's intention in this novella of dissolution is both concealed and revealed by his technique of intertwining mythology, allegory, and psychology into a form that gives universal scope to the actions of his protagonist. An ironic tone, superimposed on the structure, testifies to Mann's condemnation of spiritual malaise as the underlying leitmotif of the novella.1
Critical commentary has focused on the archetypal symbolism of the sea in terms of its prototypical pattern of death and rebirth. However, scant attention has been accorded the allegorical significance of sea shells, sea horses, jellyfish, and sidewards-running crabs. The disclosure of the interrelationship of seemingly superficial sea animals reinforces Mann's criticism of moral lassitude, which he equates with a denial of life and art. His ironic enumeration of the sea creatures both parallels and illustrates the importance of their function to characterization and conclusion. The connotative meaning of each oceanic organism reverberates...
(The entire section is 1663 words.)
SOURCE: Weiner, Marc A. “Silence, Sound, and Song in Der Tod in Venedig: A Study in Psycho-Social Repression.” Seminar 23, no. 2 (May 1987): 137-55.
[In the following essay, Weiner delineates the role of music and cacophony in Death in Venice.]
At the turn of the century the polarization of silence and cacophony represented the acoustical extremes within which the artist and the philistine were understood in society. While noise was stigmatized as the emblem of the masses, silence was viewed as the prerequisite—and indeed helped define the aura—of the isolated intellectual. Between these poles music exists as a suspect art, an aesthetic dimension expressed in sound, and therefore socially inferior, yet as an art also sharing in the prestige surrounding other kinds of intellectual pursuit in the modern world. The decrease in decibel level from cacophonous sound to song to silence carries social connotations; it is an acoustical seismograph registering the social position of the artist. Thus, only philosophers, painters, and writers inhabit the ivory tower; theirs is a silent world removed from the more immediate interaction with the public endured by the musician. Surrounded by noise, the man on the street is distracted from artistic contemplation. The social hierarchy within the musician's world spans the gap between these acoustical extremes, from the relative silence of the revered...
(The entire section is 7427 words.)
SOURCE: Rotkin, Charlotte. “Form and Function: The Art and Architecture of Death in Venice.” Midwest Quarterly 29, no. 4 (summer 1988): 497-505.
[In the following essay, Rotkin considers a series of polarities in Mann's life and work and maintains that Death in Venice “reveals Mann's abiding concern with the artist's responsibility regarding the form and function that his life and art assume.”]
In the voluminous canon of Thomas Mann's work, several autobiographical themes recur. Of primacy is the artist's struggle for control over antagonistic forces that compete for his loyalty. Mann's involvement with polarities began during his formative years in the medieval town of Lubeck. During childhood, Mann was privy to the conflict between two rival forces, the mercantile aspirations of his German father and the bohemian inclinations of his West Indian and Portuguese mother. Tension between the opposing familial factions of the bourgeois and the romantic exerted a profound influence on the structure of Mann's life and on the form of his art. Irreconcilable forms of conduct attendant upon the pursuit of either commerce or culture coalesce in his works as re-told tales of memory infused with art. The dichotomy between his mother's artistic temperament and his father's political ambitions formed part of the narrative substance of, and were immortalized in the autobiographical...
(The entire section is 2622 words.)
SOURCE: Giobbi, Giuliana. “Gabriele D'Annunzio and Thomas Mann: Venice, Art, and Death.” Journal of European Studies 19, no. 1 (March 1989): 55-68.
[In the following essay, Giobbi finds parallels between Death in Venice and Gabriele D'Annunzio's Il Fuoco.]
The Venice of modern fiction and drama is a thing of yesterday, a mere efflorescence of decay, a stage dream which the first ray of daylight must dissipate into dust.1
Because of its unique nature and atmosphere, Venice has traditionally been a favourite setting in the fiction and poetry of European authors. The architecture of Venetian buildings attracted the attention of Art critics like John Ruskin, and the wealth of masterpieces contained in Venice's churches and museums were required study for scholars as well as the object of admiration for foreign tourists. But Venice was not only a city of Art; it was also a city of sickness, decay, death.2 For its very frailty, for the muddy waters of its canals and the endangered situation of many of its houses and monuments, Venice has always appeared a sad, a dying city.
I want to use the three topoi of Venice, Art and Death—with many correlated leitmotifs—to highlight the relationship between two apparently unrelated works: D'Annunzio's Il Fuoco (1900, The Flame) and Thomas Mann's Der...
(The entire section is 5305 words.)
SOURCE: Hayes, Tom, and Lee Quinby. “The Aporia of Bourgeois Art: Desire in Thomas Mann's Death in Venice.” Criticism 31, no. 2 (spring 1989): 159-77.
[In the following essay, Hayes and Quinby explore “the dilemma of desire” in Death in Venice.]
Death in Venice is undoubtedly a central text in Thomas Mann's oeuvre and in contemporary literary criticism. It is also, and this is not exactly the same thing, an exemplary text of “high” modernism, one that questions the moral and aesthetic “certainties” of bourgeois culture. On the one hand the novella has been read as a cautionary tale, an apologue showing that even the most Apollonian artist may give way to Dionysian excess and sink into a slough of despond. In this reading Death in Venice charts the irruption of the Freudian id and elicits sympathy for an artist suddenly engulfed by his “base” desires. On the other hand, from its inception, there have been those, such as Stefan George, who have argued that the novella challenges such notions of baseness by celebrating the spiritualized male friendship depicted in Plato's Phaedrus.
In the following pages we want to show how both of these readings are circumscribed within a discourse of desire in which desire is the desire to attain the unattainable.1 In this discourse, desire produces and is produced by a system of binary...
(The entire section is 7949 words.)
SOURCE: White, Richard. “Love, Beauty, and Death in Venice.” Philosophy and Literature 14, no. 1 (April 1990): 53-64.
[In the following essay, White regards Death in Venice as a meditation on the themes of art, beauty, love, and death and argues that the novella can be read as a “powerful response to Plato and every other philosopher who has argued in favor of the redemptive power of art.”]
Thomas Mann's novella Death in Venice is a sustained and very powerful meditation upon the proper relations of art and beauty, eros and death. In particular, even though the story is set in what was then contemporary Venice, Mann emphasizes the perennial nature of the themes and issues that he considers by using imagery and allusion to evoke the mythical atmosphere of ancient Greece and by dwelling upon the classical parallels to Aschenbach's own obsession. Thus it is clearly the Socratic ideal of the older male lover and his younger male beloved which orients Aschenbach's own perception of his relationship to Tadzio, while this also forms the most obvious framework in terms of which we as readers are meant to understand and even to judge him. Again, at two crucial points in the text Mann inserts his own version of a conversation between Socrates and Phaedrus, in which Socrates' position in Plato's original dialogue is first affirmed and then emphatically rejected. In this respect, the final...
(The entire section is 5194 words.)
SOURCE: Fickert, Kurt. “Truth and Fiction in Der Tod in Venedig.” Germanic Notes 21, nos. 1-2 (1990): 25-31.
[In the following essay, Fickert elucidates autobiographical aspects of Mann's Death in Venice.]
Thomas Mann himself characterized Der Tod in Venedig (written 1911-1912) as a many faceted work and emphasized the fact that this multiplicity of aspects had been compressed into a crystal of rare clarity. He described the composition of the novella in this fashion: “Hier schoß im eigentlichen kristallinischen Sinn des Wortes, vieles zusammen, ein Gebilde zu zeitigen, daß im Lichte mancher Facette spielend, in vielfachen Beziehungen schwebend, den Blick dessen, der sein Werden tätig überwachte, wohl zum Träumen bringen konnte.”1 Appropriately, the figure of speech Mann chose to depict the success of his effort to combine the many motifs of Der Tod in Venedig was taken from Goethe, for Goethe's life and writings played a considerable part in establishing the concepts which underlie the narrative. Indeed, Mann insisted—after an initial reluctance to discuss the manner in which the story had come into being2—that he had originally been inspired to “toss off” (rasch zu erledigen[d]) an interpolation for the adventures of Felix Krull which in fictional guise would decry Goethe's pitiful attempt in his old age to win the favors of a...
(The entire section is 4646 words.)
SOURCE: Bryson, Cynthia B. “The Imperative Daily Nap; or, Aschenbach's Dream in Death in Venice.” Studies in Short Fiction 29, no. 2 (spring 1992): 181-93.
[In the following essay, Bryson contends that Aschenbach enters an extended dream-state in Death in Venice and touches on Mann's interest in Freudian dream theory.]
Most critics look specifically at Aschenbach's ecstatic, Dionysian dream in Thomas Mann's Death in Venice as the primary dream-state, but I would like to make the unusual supposition that Aschenbach's actual dream-state—from which he will awaken only once before succumbing to death (3 and 73)—begins during his “daily nap” after he abandons his departure from Venice and returns to the hotel. Aschenbach is losing his creative edge, “that motus animi continuus” (3), and he can no longer sustain his concentration, conscientiousness, and tact. He needs to rest, and he needs to go to sleep to find Mann's “theatre of the soul,” or the dream-state, in which there is a hyperacuity of the senses and “the onward sweep of the productive mechanism within him” (3). Aschenbach has entered, according to Richard McKeon, “the normal unreflective life of the bourgeois” and must penetrate the dream-state to regain “the thoughtful creative life of the artist” (226).
This extended dream-state follows the typical format for “lucid...
(The entire section is 5093 words.)
SOURCE: Angermeier, John S. “The Punica Granatum Motif in Mann's Der Tod in Venedig.” Germanic Notes and Reviews 26, no. 1 (spring 1995): 12-15.
[In the following essay, Angermeier investigates the source for the pomegranate theme in Death in Venice.]
There is a longstanding admiration among Thomas Mann scholars for his use of Greek mythology in Der Tod in Venedig.1 His skill in foreshadowing Aschenbach's death by bringing in certain ominous figures has received much attention.2 These characters include: the stranger at the tram station in Munich, the ticket agent on the old steamer, the old-young man on the ship heading to Venice, the gondolier, “Charon,” who ferries Aschenbach to “Hades” and the singer at the hotel. Hence, as the story progresses, the reader receives numerous hints as to Aschenbach's inevitable demise. One myth in particular which Mann ingeniously employs here is Aschenbach's sipping of a pomegranate drink. In this instance, the aging artist is simultaneously enticed by the singer's music and Tadzio's presence. It is assumed that Mann was aware of the role the pomegranate fruit plays in Greek mythology. The pomegranate is linked to Persephone, the goddess of fertility, vegetation and death. Since it is probable that a psychological source for the pomegranate theme in Der Tod in Venedig has not been fully explored, let us take a...
(The entire section is 1933 words.)
SOURCE: Bergenholtz, Rita A. “Mann's Death in Venice.” Explicator 55 (spring 1997): 145-47.
[In the following essay, Bergenholtz maintains that Aschenbach, the protagonist of Death in Venice, “is not a romantic artist-hero but a parody of one.”]
One of the persisting critical questions regarding Gustave von Aschenbach, the protagonist of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice (1912), is whether or not he is a tragic character. Like numerous critics, Erich Heller argues that he is, and describes the novella as the “tragic story of Aschenbach's disillusion and downfall” (99). In sharp contrast, Martin Travers insists that “it is not on a note of exaltation that Aschenbach is granted his exit, but rather on one of banality. … It is not the noble genre of tragedy but that hybrid form of doubtful status, tragi-comedy, that provides the medium for his valediction” (57-58). I would go further and argue that Mann presents us with a parody of tragedy, which satirizes the romantic assumptions that enable such an exalted view of humankind. Consequently, Aschenbach is not a romantic artist-hero but a parody of one. His literary career is described as a “conscious and overweening ascent to honour” (12). However, the novella focuses not on his so-called rise but on his bathetic decline and fall. Indeed, from the outset Aschenbach's supposed pilgrimage of artistic renewal moves...
(The entire section is 1047 words.)
SOURCE: Fleissner, R. F. “Death in [The Merchant of] Venice.” Germanic Notes and Reviews 28, no. 1 (spring 1997): 11-15.
[In the following essay, Fleissner considers the influence of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice on Death in Venice.]
To what extent was Thomas Mann inspired by no less than Shakespeare in writing his most famous novella, Der Tod in Venedig? That he was somewhat under such histrionic influence elsewhere can scarcely be questioned, but, to my knowledge, a serious case has not yet been made concerning such a debt here. Still, a position might be taken in favor of at least indirect influence of The Merchant of Venice (and not merely titularly with the Venetian ending, though that would also constitute a factor), owing to the relative proximity of his comments on the play and the composition of his own story.
The leading, or most provocative, piece of evidence is thematic: notably use of homosexuality (or, at any rate, homoeroticism) rampant in both works. Probably this Shakespeare comedy is the leading drama of his in which such allusion to sexual inversion has been prominently said to appear (with the possible exception of Othello, where it is more debatable), though strictly speaking only the reference to a “masculine whore” in Troilus and Cressida (5.1.16)1 is ironclad proof thereof. The basic piece of evidence,...
(The entire section is 2062 words.)
SOURCE: Schmidgall, Gary. “Death in Venice, Life in Zurich: Mann's Late ‘Something for the Heart’.” Southwest Review 82 (summer 1997): 293-324.
[In the following essay, Schmidgall asserts that Death in Venice was inspired by Mann's homoerotic attachments to younger men, which continued until the end of his life.]
In May 1932, twenty years after writing one of the most widely admired short novels of the century, Thomas Mann was 56, about the same age as his protagonist in Death in Venice, Gustav von Aschenbach, who travels south from Munich under a heavy weight of weltschmerz, falls in love, and a few weeks later succumbs—so the world thinks—to cholera. Venice was again on Mann's mind, for his daughter Erika and son Klaus were paying a visit to the dubious city.
Perhaps because it was exactly the season of his own poignant vacation experiences of 1911 that had produced Death in Venice, Mann wrote warmly and revealingly to the pair from Munich: “I still want to write you a letter because the place is so important to me and I'm pleased to know you're there and I, in spirit, with you, living the life that otherwise can never be found, between the warm sea in the morning and the ambiguous city in the afternoon. Ambiguous is really the most modest adjective that one can give it.” Mann adds in closing, “my heart would still...
(The entire section is 12664 words.)
SOURCE: Zlotnick-Woldenberg, Carrie. “An Object-Relational Interpretation of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice.” American Journal of Psychotherapy 51 (fall 1997): 542-51.
[In the following essay, Zlotnick-Woldenberg applies object-relational theory to Death in Venice.]
Gustave Aschenbach, the protagonist of Thomas Mann's tragic novella, Death in Venice, is a middle-aged acclaimed writer, who seemingly has been leading a rather conventional life. Upon noticing an exotic looking man near a Munich cemetery, he has a sudden impulse to travel. He winds up in Venice, a city with a warmer climate than Munich's, both in the literal and symbolic sense. There he becomes obsessed with Tadzio, a fourteen-year-old boy. Aschenbach follows him everywhere and thinks of little else. When soon thereafter, he learns of a cholera epidemic in Venice, which the authorities have tried to conceal from the tourists, not only does he not leave but he also fails to warn the boy's mother of the danger because he cannot bear to be separated from Tadzio. Aschenbach dies on the day the boy's family is scheduled to leave Venice.
In Freudian terms, the central conflict of the protagonist would be described as his struggle between id and superego. Pushed to achieve as a child, never knowing “the sweet idleness and blithe ‘laissez aller’ that belongs to youth”1 (p. 9), Aschenbach has...
(The entire section is 4206 words.)
SOURCE: Binion, Rudolph. “Death Beckoning: Thomas Mann's Death in Venice.” In Sounding the Classics, pp. 135-44. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997.
[In the following essay, Binion discusses Aschenbach's preoccupation with death and “his headlong rush to meet it” in Death in Venice.]
The story line of Thomas Mann's 1912 novella Death in Venice is short and straight. An aging author settled in Munich travels south on an impulse for a brief respite from his harsh and lonely literary labors, finds his way as if by enchantment to Venice in all its moldy magnificence, and there is secretly so smitten with a Polish boy among the other guests summering in the same grand hotel on the Lido that he cannot tear himself away despite a spreading plague to which he eventually succumbs. The narrative, richly and finely wrought, often verges on a studied monologue by the solitary, self-enclosed hero as it recounts his fatal escapade from his own perspective, tracking his furtive thoughts and feelings through their innermost twists and turns. Only rarely does it back away far enough to reflect on his fate with a detachment beyond his own reach. That fate is of his own making in all its essentials even after he lets himself go—even after he relaxes his strenuous, disciplined grip on life once he has avowed his forbidden love to himself. At this point his virile moralism starts yielding...
(The entire section is 4267 words.)
SOURCE: Foster, John Burt, Jr. “Why Is Tadzio Polish?: Kultur and Cultural Multiplicity in Death in Venice.” In Death in Venice: Complete, Authoritative Text with Biographical and Historical Contexts, Critical History, and Essays from Five Contemporary Critical Perspectives, edited by Naomi Ritter, pp. 192-210. Boston: Bedford Books, 1998.
[In the following essay, Foster maintains that Death in Venice begins to “look beyond the elite English and American literature of the period, glimpsing possibilities for cultural multiplicity and interaction that avoid the shackles of grandiose, self-imposed mythologies.”]
Aschenbach is already obsessed with Tadzio when, in chapter 4 of Death in Venice, the writer's block that sent him on his trip to Venice unexpectedly lifts. Responding, as David Luke puts it in the translation chosen for this volume, to “a certain important cultural problem, a burning question of taste,” he finds that he is able to write a short essay (62). But this moment of inspiration soon proves delusive. By chapter 5, the narrator tells us, Aschenbach's nightmarish vision of Dionysian rites in ancient Greece has left his “whole being, the culture of a lifetime, devastated and destroyed” (80). Mann's references to “culture” at both a high and low point in his character's destiny is significant. It suggests that an...
(The entire section is 7625 words.)
SOURCE: Berman, Russell A. “History and Community in Death in Venice.” In Death in Venice: Complete, Authoritative Text with Biographical and Historical Contexts, Critical History, and Essays from Five Contemporary Critical Perspectives, edited by Naomi Ritter, pp. 263-80. Boston: Bedford Books, 1998.
[In the following essay, Berman provides a contemporary historicist interpretation of Death in Venice.]
During recent decades literary critics have increasingly chosen to approach texts by scrutinizing their historical standing. This “new” history represents a significant break with the formalist methods associated with the once “New” Criticism, which flourished during the middle of the century and directed attention to the internal structures of literature rather than to contextual matters. Critics treated such contexts, somewhat derisively, as merely “extrinsic” to the work of art. The recent historicist turn has also, however, proliferated in competition with the neoformalism of deconstructive criticism, which, when strictly pursued, addresses only the linguistic ambivalences of literary texts rather than their cultural or institutional embeddedness, the purview of historical criticism.
Yet contemporary historicist criticism is hardly blind to textual complexities. On the contrary, it continues to assimilate intellectual questions posed by a range of critical...
(The entire section is 7395 words.)
SOURCE: Otis, Laura. “The Tigers of Wrath: Mann's Death in Venice as Myth and Medicine.” In Teaching Literature and Medicine, edited by Anne Hunsaker Hawkins and Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, pp. 243-51. New York: Modern Language Association, 2000.
[In the following essay, Otis discusses similarities between Death in Venice and Robert Koch's 1884 articles on germ theory.]
While reading Robert Koch's articles on germ theory, I made a startling discovery. In 1884, Koch described the Ganges delta, the area he envisioned as the origin of cholera, as follows: “Luxuriant vegetation and abundant animal life have arisen in this uninhabited area. This area is shunned by humans, not only because of floods and tigers, but principally because of the pernicious fever that befalls everyone who remains there even for a short time” (166). The passage seemed familiar to me, and, turning to Death in Venice (1911), I compared Thomas Mann's description with Koch's: “His desire acquired vision. […] He saw, saw a landscape, a tropical swamp under a vaporous sky, moist, luxuriant, and monstrous, a sort of primitive wilderness […] saw the eyes of a lurking tiger sparkle between the gnarled stems of a bamboo thicket; and felt his heart pound with horror and mysterious desire” (5).1 Both writers, one a bacteriologist who wrote no fiction, the other a novelist who never studied science...
(The entire section is 2841 words.)
SOURCE: Robertson, Ritchie. “Classicism and Its Pitfalls: Death in Venice.” In The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Mann, edited by Ritchie Robertson, pp. 95-106. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
[In the following essay, Robertson argues that in Death in Venice Mann “dramatizes the strengths, the weaknesses and the pitfalls of classicism, in its different versions, through the career of a writer dedicated to a classical ideal.”]
While staying in Venice with his wife and brother between 26 May and 2 June 1911, Thomas Mann, like his fictional Aschenbach, was fascinated by a handsome Polish boy whom he watched playing on the beach. This ‘personal and lyrical experience’, as Mann later described it in a much-quoted confessional letter, prompted the story Death in Venice.1 And just as Mann's protagonist Aschenbach is inspired by the sight of Tadzio to write ‘a page and a half of exquisite prose’ on an unspecified problem of taste and culture (VIII, 493), so Mann wrote a short essay on his changing attitude to Wagner. Having idolised Wagner for many years, he confessed, he was now turning away from the composer's steamy Romanticism and towards a new classicism:
But if I consider the masterpiece of the twentieth century, I imagine something which differs from Wagner's profoundly and, I think, for the better—something...
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Angermeier, John S. “Marienbad and Goethe as a Source of Motifs for Mann's Der Tod in Venedig.” German Life and Letters 48, no. 1 (January 1995): 12-24.
Cites Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's experience in Marienbad as a probable source for many of the themes in Death in Venice.
Brink, André. “The Tiger's Revenge: Thomas Mann, Death in Venice.” In The Novel: Language and Narrative from Cervantes to Calvino, pp. 173-88. New York: New York University Press, 1998.
Analyzes the tension between the narrator and the character Aschenbach of Death in Venice.
Ritter, Naomi, ed. Death in Venice. Boston: Bedford Books, 1998, 295 p.
Collection of critical essays from various perspectives, as well as a translation of Death in Venice.
Additional coverage of Mann's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 2; Concise Dictionary of World Literary Biography, Vol. 2; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 104, 128; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series Vol. 133;Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 66; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition;...
(The entire section is 251 words.)