Death in Venice

by Thomas Mann

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Last Updated on June 12, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2706

Summary of the Novella: 

"Death in Venice" is a novella written by Thomas Mann, a German author, and was first published in 1912. The book is considered one of Mann's most notable works and a significant contribution to German and Western literature. Mann is recognized for his exploration of complex psychological themes and his nuanced portrayal of characters. "Death in Venice", perhaps his best-known work, explores themes of beauty, desire, decay, and the clash between the rational and the sensual.

The story follows Gustav von Aschenbach, a renowned and disciplined writer in his early fifties who becomes infatuated with the captivating beauty of a young Polish boy named Tadzio while on vacation in Venice. Aschenbach's increasing obsession leads to a psychological and emotional unraveling as he confronts his own mortality and grapples with the conflicting desires of restraint and indulgence.

What Happens:

The novella opens with Gustav von Aschenbach, a celebrated writer, feeling emotionally and creatively exhausted. Seeking rejuvenation, he decides to travel to Venice, Italy. Upon his arrival, Aschenbach is captivated by the beauty of the city, but is particularly enthralled with a young Polish boy named Tadzio, whom he first encounters at his hotel. Aschenbach's admiration for Tadzio quickly turns into an infatuation.

Aschenbach frequently observes Tadzio from a distance, becoming increasingly entranced by his youthful beauty. As his infatuation deepens, Aschenbach battles his own moral conflict, torn between his strict self-discipline and the desire to indulge in his forbidden desires. Venice, with its decay and impending epidemic, serves as a highly metaphorical backdrop for Aschenbach's internal struggle.

As the days pass, Aschenbach becomes more aware of the deteriorating conditions in Venice, with reports of a spreading cholera epidemic. Despite the dangers, Aschenbach remains singularly fixated on Tadzio and continues to pursue him. He is torn between the rational need to leave Venice for his own safety and the irrational compulsion to stay close to Tadzio.

Aschenbach's mental and physical health deteriorates as he grapples with his desires, longing for a connection with Tadzio while grappling with his own mortality. The cholera epidemic intensifies, and Venice descends into chaos and decay. Aschenbach's internal conflicts reach their climax when he finally confronts Tadzio on the beach, but his intentions remain unspoken.

In the final section, Aschenbach's declining health becomes evident as he struggles to come to terms with his desires and the imminent threat of his death. He reflects on his life and the pursuit of beauty, acknowledging the destructive nature of his obsessions throughout his life. Finally, Aschenbach succumbs to the cholera epidemic and dies, maintaining a sense of tranquility in his final moments.

Why it Matters:

"Death in Venice" holds a significant place in the canon of Western literature due to its exploration of complex psychological themes and its profound examination of desire and decay. Thomas Mann's novella draws inspiration from the late 19th-century decadent movement and represents a departure from the traditional realist style which was popular at the time.

The book explores, in detail, the internal struggles of an artist torn between the pursuit of beauty and the boundaries imposed by society and his personal morality. Mann's meticulous prose and vivid descriptions of Venice create a haunting and atmospheric setting that mirrors Aschenbach's emotional turmoil.

"Death in Venice" explores the dichotomy between reason and passion, civilization and desire, and the inevitability of aging and death. It raises questions about the nature of art, the role of beauty in human life, and the destructive power of unfulfilled desires. The novella serves as a critique of the oppressive nature of societal norms and the limitations placed on...

(This entire section contains 2706 words.)

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individual expression.

Mann's work is often associated with the literary tradition of German Romanticism and the psychological novel. "Death in Venice" is a paragon example of Mann's ability to delve into the depths of the human psyche, creating complex and multi-dimensional characters. It remains a thought-provoking and introspective exploration of the human condition, reminding readers of the fleeting nature of beauty and the complexities of desire.

The Life and Work of Thomas MannPerhaps 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 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 of 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 that are neither in the original nor the Lowe-Porter translation.


Chapter Summaries