Death in Venice by Thomas Mann

Start Your Free Trial

Download Death in Venice Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Summary

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...

(The entire section is 3,778 words.)