Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Thomas Mann makes Aschenbach a homosexual for several reasons. On one level, his inversion is a manifestation of strain and disorder, a release from psychological repression that results in the vulgar and degrading passion of an elderly gentleman for a rather cruel and unworthy boy. Aschenbach abandons his will, conspires with pseudoartists such as the equivocal musician and the cosmetic barber, sadly deludes himself about his relationship with Tadzio, and condemns himself—and probably his beloved—to death.
More important, Aschenbach’s homosexual pursuit symbolizes the artist’s noble but tragic quest for perfection. Mann’s imaginative artist, who paradoxically creates in his work a life that he is unable to live in reality, must maintain a perilous balance of feeling and thought, and cannot surrender to either without losing his capacity to write. In the doomed love of the suspect and antisocial pederast, Mann found the perfect pattern for the artist’s desperate struggle to recapture the ideal form of sensual beauty, and to unite passion with thought, grace with wisdom, the real with the ideal. The theme of the novella is the seed of self-destruction inherent in creative genius.