It has been claimed that in Thomas Mann's novella Death in Venice that "Gustav von Aschenbach's death had a metaphysical rather than a medical cause". How might Mann's literary technique support...

It has been claimed that in Thomas Mann's novella Death in Venice that "Gustav von Aschenbach's death had a metaphysical rather than a medical cause". How might Mann's literary technique support such an interpretation of events in Death In Venice?

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thanatassa | College Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Part of what creates a plot structure in novels is that things ordinarily happen for reasons, outside of a limited number of genres such as the absurdist novel, surrealism, and certain types of documentary realism. Thomas Mann's novella Death in Venice, although modernist in form, shares the theme of doomed love with many earlier works of German Romanticism, and particularly Goethe' Sorrows of Young Werther, in which the protagonist, a writer, is inexorably doomed to die because of unsustainable love. It is not absurdist but has a generally logical plot structure, albeit one grounded in psychology, with many mythic and symbolic elements. 

The first way in which Mann's literary technique supports the statement that "Gustav von Aschenbach's death had a metaphysical rather than a medical cause" is based on genre. In detective stories, mysteries, thrillers, and medical dramas, an essential part of the plot structure is analyzing physical causes of death. For example, Sherlock Holmes will discover first that a person died of a subtle poison and then, of course, reveal to us the identity of the poisoner. The plot structure of such fiction (or films) revolves around a scientific concept of causality. Generically, though, "Death in Venice", is not a plot-driven novel in which readers are primarily concerned with resolution of action or discovery of fact, but rather a work focused on the interactions of individual psychology with cultural expectations. 

The second literary technique that that suggests Aschenbach's death is metaphysical in nature is intertextuality or allusion. At the end of the novel, Mann discusses Plato's Phaedo, a dialogue in which Socrates drinks hemlock and dies. In this dialogue, rather than resist death, Socrates claims  "“Philosophy is a preparation for death,” and himself accepts death peacefully, as a better choice than living in a way that would be untrue to his ideals. Although it can be argued that Mann's invocation of Socrates casts a harsh light on Aschenbach (Socrates died due to a commitment to philosophical truth while Aschenbach dies admiring a scantily clothed boy), the invocation of Socrates does compel readers to consider this death in metaphysical or philosophical context rather than medical.

The final way in which Mann uses literary technique to make Aschenbach's death a metaphysical rather than medical issue is by his choice of language in the final paragraphs of the novel. The narrator does not use specific medical terms. Ashenbach is only descibed as "unwell" and "dizzy." No detailed physical symptoms are analyzed as would be the case in Sherlock Holmes novels. Instead, readers are treated to a detailed portrait of his psychological or metaphysical state of hopelessness:

... Gustav von Aschenbach, ... had struggled with certain fits of dizziness, only half physical, that were accompanied by strong feelings of fear and perplexity, a sense of hopelessness, of which it was not clear whether it pertained to the outside world or his own existence.

 
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