Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1163

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).

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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 description ominously echoes that of the stranger of the cemetery. The gondola itself is specifically compared to a black coffin. The trip becomes the archetypal journey of life to death and of a man into the depths of himself. Aschenbach discovers Venice, the symbol of perfect art in his memory, to be dirty, infected, corrupt, and permeated by the odor of the human disease and pollution spread in the natural swamp on which the artifice is built. Aschenbach’s own transformation to a “foreigner,” one who belongs in Venice, is accomplished at an increasingly mad tempo after the moment when, turning his back on the possibility of escaping Venice by train, he collapses at a fountain in the heart of the city. His death becomes almost self-willed; he dies not because of the plague, not because of his love of Tadzio, but because of his will to live and to create atrophy.

The exterior events of the story, which are minimal, can be properly explained only in terms of the inner conflict of the artist. To produce art, Aschenbach believes he must practice absolute self-denial, affirming the dignity and moral capacity of the individual in the face of a world of self-indulgence that leads to personal abasement. However, he is also a man and, as such, has drives connecting him to the chaos of the formless elements of nature. This inner conflict is objectified in the boy Tadzio, who embodies all that Aschenbach has rejected in fifty long years of dedication to Apollonian art. As his desire for Tadzio becomes obsessive and drives him to neglect his body and dignity, disintegration sets in and death becomes irrevocable. Subconsciously, Aschenbach is choosing to pursue the basic sensual, Dionysian side of himself that he has always denied.

Mann uses dream visions to underline and clarify Aschenbach’s subconscious conflicts. His first hallucination of the crouching beast in the jungle is evoked by the glimpse of the stranger at the Byzantine chapel in Munich. This vision literally foreshadows the trip to Venice and metaphorically foreshadows the inner journey during which Aschenbach discovers the jungle and beast within himself. The second vision on the beach in Venice, in the form of a Platonic dialogue, explores the interrelatedness of art, love, and beauty with human bestiality. In a third major dream hallucination, Aschenbach is initiated into the worship of the Dionysian rite and finally glimpses “the stranger god” of sensual experience, formless chaotic joy, and excesses of emotion. The most striking vision occurs at the end of the novella, when Aschenbach, viewing the amoral beauty of perfection of form in Tadzio silhouetted against the amoral, formless beauty of the sea, accepts the promise inherent in the sea’s chaos as the equivalent of the beauty produced by order and moral discipline. Readers assume the vision to be objective reality until brought sharply and suddenly into the present reality of Aschenbach’s dead body. Ernest Hemingway used this same technique later in his own novella-length study of death and art, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” (1961).

Mann’s use of natural, geographical symbols also underlines the central conflicts of the novella. Aschenbach identifies the discipline of his art with Munich, a city of northern Europe, and with the snowy mountains. These places are associated with health, energy, reason, will, and Apollonian creative power. Against them, Mann juxtaposes the tropical marshes, the jungle animal and plant life, the Indian plague, the sun and the sea, which are associated with Dionysian excesses of emotion and ecstasy in art. The beast, the jungle, the plague, chaos lie within the nature of humanity and art just as clearly as do mountains, self-denial, will, and reason, qualities that enable human beings to construct artifice upon the chaos of nature. Great art, Nietzsche says in Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik (1872; The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music, 1909), is a product of the fusion rather than the separation of the calm, ordered, contemplative spirit of Apollo and the savage, sensual ecstasy of Dionysus. This is what both Aschenbach and the reader discover in Mann’s Death in Venice.

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