Together with James Joyce and Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann is often considered one of the great writers of the early twentieth century. Mann, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1919, was born into an upper-middle-class German family and left his country in 1933 because of his opposition to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime. He later came to the United States, where he taught and lectured. A scholar as well as an artist, Mann shows in his works the influence of such diverse thinkers as Friedrich Nietzsche, Arthur Schopenhauer, Richard Wagner, and Sigmund Freud. The problem of the artist’s role in a decadent, industrialized society is a recurring theme in many of his works, including Buddenbrooks (1901), Tonio Kröger (1903), Death in Venice, and Der Zauberberg(1924; The Magic Mountain, 1927).
Death in Venice, Mann’s best-known novella, is a complex, beautifully wrought tale dealing with the eternal conflict between the forces of death and decay and the human attempts to achieve permanence through art. Mann portrays the final triumph of death and decay, but not before the hero, Gustav von Aschenbach, has experienced an escape into the eternal beauty created by the imagination of the artist. The escape of the famous writer is accomplished, however, not by his own writings but by the art of his creator, Mann. Form and order do finally impose themselves on the chaos of his life; corruption and death are transformed into the purity of artistic beauty.
The characterization of a literary hero of his age is subtle and complex. Author of prose epics, philosophical novels, novels of moral resolution, and aesthetics, Aschenbach has created the hero for his generation. He is aware that his success and talent rely on a basis of physical stamina as well as of moral and mental discipline, and his work is a product of strain, endurance, intellectual tenacity, and spasms of will. He recognizes, however, that his writing has been to some degree a “pursuit of fame” at the expense of turning his back on a full search for truth. As the novella opens, Aschenbach is exhausted and no longer finding joy in his craft; he has become aware of approaching old age and death and is faced with the fear of not having time to finish everything he desires to write. Restlessly walking in the beauty of the English Garden of Munich, Aschenbach is inspired to leave his relatively rootless life on a pilgrimage for artistic renewal in Venice, the perfect symbol of human art imposed on nature’s chaos. This journey motif begins with his glimpse of a stranger in a cemetery, a foreigner with a skull-like face and a certain animal ruthlessness.
Arriving at the port of Venice, he discovers that his gondolier is taking him out to sea rather than into the city; the gondolier’s physical...
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