Death in Venice Thomas Mann
The following entry presents criticism of Mann's novella Der Tod in Venedig (1912; Death in Venice).
Mann's novella Death in Venice is recognized as his best-known and most enigmatic work. Critics assert that the story skillfully combines psychological realism and mythological symbolism to create a multidimensional story that explores the moral transformation of an artist in quest for perfect beauty. It is considered a powerful meditation upon the relationship between art and beauty as well as love and death. Death in Venice has been the subject of much critical study and is regarded as a masterpiece of short fiction.
Plot and Major Characters
Death in Venice chronicles the downfall of an aging German writer named Gustav von Aschenbach. The son of a bourgeois father and a bohemian mother, Aschenbach has spent most of his life struggling to eliminate the bohemian aspects of his nature. After years of living a morally and artistically ascetic life, he finds himself afflicted with writer's block. One day, the sight of an exotic-looking man during a visit to a Munich cemetery disturbs him, and he is seized with a profound longing to travel. Aschenbach journeys south, and on a ship to Venice he is repulsed by the sight of an older man made up to look much younger than his age, surrounded by young, good-looking men. After his arrival at his hotel in Venice, Aschenbach notices a fourteen-year-old Polish boy named Tadzio, who is vacationing with his family. He becomes obsessed with the boy, and follows his family on their excursions in the city and spies on the boy from afar. As Aschenbach succumbs to long-repressed spiritual and physical desires, he begins to lose his sense of self and has a disturbing nightmare in which he participates in a Dionysian orgy. When rumors circulate that cholera is spreading throughout the city, he refuses to leave and decides not to inform Tadzio's mother about the imminent danger because he can't bear the thought of being separated from the object of his affections. One day he eats overripe strawberries, knowing that they were likely infected with disease. Increasingly sickly and lethargic, he begins to walk around in a dream-state. On the day that Tadzio's family is leaving Venice, after finally learning about the cholera epidemic, Aschenbach follows them to the beach and watches Tadzio play in the surf. When a group of boys beat Tadzio, Aschenbach shouts to intervene. Sitting on a beach chair, he imagines that Tadzio is waving to him from the water. He rises up from his chair, collapses, and draws his final breath.
Critics often discuss Mann's exploration of Apollonian and Dionysian elements in Death in Venice; some view it from a Freudian perspective as a struggle between Aschenbach's id and superego. It is this tension between Aschenbach's disciplined, ascetic side and his lustful, reckless one that is identified as the major thematic concern of the novella. Commentators have detected autobiographical elements to this theme: like his protagonist, Mann had a bohemian mother and bourgeois father and had several homoerotic attachments to younger men he met while on vacation. Some critics have viewed the attachments depicted in Death in Venice as a celebration of male friendship as depicted in Plato's Phaedrus. Others interpret Aschenbach's obsession with Tadzio as a representation of the Socratic ideal of the older male lover and his younger male beloved. Homosexuality, or pedophilia, is regarded as an important thematic issue; Mann's own homoerotic experiences are viewed as central to any discussion of the novella. Some critics note that the progress of the plague around the city mirrors Aschenbach's growing obsession with Tadzio. Mythological allusions in the story have been studied at great length, and the setting of Death in Venice is considered significant—critics assert that Venice symbolizes sickness, decay, and death.
Death in Venice is recognized as a central work in Mann's oeuvre and ranks as one of his most studied pieces of fiction. Critics praise his fusion of symbolism, psychology, and myth and view the story as a cautionary tale of what can happen when passion is repressed for the sake of discipline and aestheticism. The story has also been commended for its description of sexuality and disease on realistic, psychological, and mythological levels. Death in Venice has been interpreted through psychoanalytical, historicist, gender, and cultural perspectives. Autobiographical aspects of the story have been a frequent topic of critical analysis, as the novella has been regarded as the expression of Mann's own homoerotic fantasies. However, Mann suggested that the story could be seen as an attack on homosexuality. Other scholars have asserted that Death in Venice was inspired by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Die Wahlverwandtschaften (Elective Affinities), in which Goethe describes his infatuation with a young girl. Parallels between the novella and Euripedes's The Bacchae, Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, Plato's Phaedrus, and Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy have also been explored. Since its publication, Death in Venice has widely been regarded as a powerful meditation on life and death, art and asceticism.