Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 593
The slight narrative of Gustav von Aschenbach’s stay in late 19th century Venice is inconsequential in itself. The events, though, serve to introduce ideas surrounding the nature of art and the artist. It is this symbolic presentation that lends the work richness and significance.
After years of uninterrupted writing, Aschenbach wishes to get away from Munich for a time. He goes eventually to Venice, a city entirely different. Although en route he meets the specter of death in various disguises, once settled in the elegant Lido hotel, he feels safe.
A Polish family staying at the same hotel has a 14-year-old son named Tadzio, whom Aschenbach beholds as the personification of pure and perfect beauty. His admiration turning to obsession, he follows the boy throughout Venice. Yet they never communicate directly. When cholera strikes the city, Aschenbach the pursuer (the artist) and Tadzio the pursued (art) move toward their inevitable doom.
It had been said of Aschenbach that he faced and lived life like a closed fist. To hold fast, to maintain discipline, and to synthesize his experience into art had forever served as his strict guides. While the outside world believes he keeps these standards to the very end, he had in secret finally loosened the strong hold on his passions when he set out in Venice to pursue pure beauty in the perfect form of Tadzio. On the beach watching Tadzio go into the waves, he at last witnesses at firsthand his ideal of beauty and attains the perfection which he had always sought. Once reaching this ultimate goal, the recorder of perfection (Aschenbach) and perfection itself (Tadzio) are ready for “death in Venice.”
The struggle to understand the function and aim of art lies at the center of the work. So dense, so rich in texture and color, so abundant in symbols, Death in Venice almost reaches the perfection its hero seeks.
Berlin, Jeffrey B., ed. Approaches to Teaching Mann’s “Death in Venice” and Other Short Fiction. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1992. Designed for teachers, this book contains several useful shorter essays, especially that by Naomi Ritter on the story in the context of European decadence. Includes a useful bibliographical essay.
Cohn, Dorrit. “The Second Author in Der Tod in Venedig.” In Critical Essays on Thomas Mann, compiled by Inta M. Ezergailis. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988. An examination of the highly ironic relationship between the narrator of the story and his protagonist, Gustav von Aschenbach. An excellent example of close textual analysis of one specific aspect of the novella.
Heller, Erich. “The Embarrassed Muse.” In Thomas Mann: The Ironic German. 1958. Reprint. South Bend, Ind.: Regnery/Gateway, 1979. Places the novella in the context of Mann’s other works before embarking on a detailed discussion of the irony Mann employs in the narrative. Heller pays special attention to the story’s focus on art and the artist.
Reed, T. J. “Death in Venice”: Making and Unmaking a Master. New York: Twayne, 1994. The best general overview of the story with sections on literary and historical context, good close readings, and a look at the story’s genesis and its relationship to Mann and German history. Also includes an annotated bibliography.
Weiner, Marc A. “Music and Repression: Death in Venice.” In Undertones of Insurrection: Music, Politics, and the Social Sphere in the Modern German Narrative. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993. A brief but thorough analysis of musical tropes and meanings in the novella. Focuses on interpretation and provides an excellent discussion of the musical aspects of Death in Venice.