(Short Story Criticism)

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.

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Der kleine Herr Friedemann: Novellen 1898

Tristan: Sechs Novellen 1903

Der Tod in Venedig: Novelle [Death in Venice] 1912

*Bekenntnisse des Hochstaplers Felix Krull: Buch der Kindheit 1922

Children and Fools [translated by Herman George Scheffauer] 1928

Mario und der Zauberer: Ein tragisches Reiseerlebnis [Mario and the Magician] 1930

Stories of Three Decades 1936

Die vertauschten Köpfe: Eine indische Legende [The Transposed Heads: A Legend of India] 1940

Die Betrogene: Erzählung [The Black Swan] 1953

Buddenbrooks: Verfall einer Familie, Roman. 2 vols. [Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family] (novel) 1901

Königliche Hoheit [Royal Highness: A Novel of German Court Life] (novel) 1909

Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen [Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man] (essays) 1918

Der Zauberberg: Roman. 2 vols. [The Magic Mountain] (novel) 1924

Lebensabriß [A Sketch of My Life] (essay) 1930

Die Geschichten Jaakobs (novel) 1933

Der junge Joseph [Young Joseph] (novel) 1934

Joseph in Ägypten [Joseph in Egypt] (novel) 1936

Lotte in Weimar [The Beloved Returns] (novel) 1939

Joseph, der Ernährer [Joseph the Provider] (novel) 1943

Adel des Geistes: Sechzehn Versuche zum Problem der Humanität (essays) 1945

Doktor Faustus: Das Leben des deutschen Tonsetzers Adrian Leverkühn, erzählt von einem Freunde [Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer, Adrian Leverkühn, as Told by a Friend] (novel) 1947

Der Erwählte: Roman [The Holy Sinner] (novel) 1951

*Bekenntnisse des Hochstaplers Felix Krull: Der Memoiren erster Teil [Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man] (novel) 1954

Letters of Thomas Mann, 1889-1955 (letters) 1971

*The first chapter of the 1954 novel was published as a novella in 1922.

Dorrit Cohn (essay date 1983)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Cohn, Dorrit. “The Second Author of Der Tod in Venedig.” In Critical Essays on Thomas Mann, edited by Inta M. Ezergailis, pp. 124-43. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1983, Cohn examines the relationship between the narrator and the protagonist in Death in Venice.]


In his review of a now forgotten contemporary novel Thomas Mann draws the following distinction between the author and the narrator of a fictional work: [“Narrating is something totally different from writing, and what distinguishes them is an indirection in the former …”]. This indirectness, he goes on to explain, is most slyly effective when it veils itself in directness: when the author interpolates between himself and his reader a second voice, [“the voice of a second, interposed author,” “as when … a gentleman announces himself and makes speeches who, however, is in no way identical with the epic author but rather an invented and shadowy observer”].1 Clearly Mann does not have in mind here a simple [“first-person narrator”] who tells his own life in the manner of Felix Krull, or even the peripheral type of first-person narrator who tells the life of a friend in the manner of Serenus Zeitblom. The reader needs hardly be told that a narrator so spectacularly equipped with a name, a civic identity and a body of his own should not be confused with the author of the work in which he appears. It is primarily when a narrator remains a truly [“shadowy observer”], a disincarnated voice without name or face, that the reader will be inclined to attribute to him the mind, if not the body, of the author whose name appears on the title page. This is especially likely to happen with a teller who intrudes loudly and volubly into his tale, as the narrators of Mann's own third-person novels almost invariably do. Like so many of his comments concerning the works of other writers, the distinction Mann draws in the passage quoted above looks suspiciously as though it were meant primarily pro domo.

In recent times, with our consciousness raised by modern literary theory, we have learned to resist the tendency to equate that authorial narrator—as we now generally call Mann's “second author”2—with the author himself. At least in theory. In critical practice the distinction has been slow to sink in, perhaps because it has never been freighted sufficiently with demonstrations and qualifications. The author-narrator equation has been peculiarly tenacious in cases where a narrator takes earnest moralistic stands on weighty problems of morality; the reader then is given to extending the narrator's authority in matters of fictional fact onto his normative commentary. When his tone is more jocular, and especially when he plays self-conscious games with the narrative genre, it seems easier to grant him a personality of his own. This may well be why Mann's narrators in Der Zauberberg and the Joseph novels have long since been recognized as “second authors,” whereas the seriously perorating monsieur who narrates Der Tod in Venedig has almost invariably been identified with Thomas Mann himself.

Nor can we automatically assume that this identification is incorrect. But since it has decisively affected interpretation of Mann's most enigmatic novella, my contention is that it needs to be questioned once and for all.3 In taking up this problem I follow a general directive provided by Franz Stanzel in his Theorie des Erzählens. Having reminded us that the separation of the authorial narrator from the personality of the author is a fairly recent narratological acquisition, he states: [“One must start with the assumption that the authorial narrator is, within certain limits, an autonomous figure … which thus is accessible to the interpreter in his own personality. It is only when this kind of an interpretative attempt has proved conclusively negative that we can assume the identity of the authorial narrator with the author”].4 I assume from the wider context of his Theorie that Stanzel would insist that such interpretive assays be carried out intra-textually, without regard to evidence that might be gathered about the author from outside the text. My own intention, at any rate, is to perform my experiment with Tod in Venedig as far as possible en vase clos.5

My principal focus will be the relationship of the narrator to his protagonist, such as it emerges from the language he employs in telling the story of Aschenbach's Venetian love and death. This story itself must of course be attributed to the invention of its author; the narrator, for his part, recounts it as though it were historically real.6 We can therefore hold him accountable only for his narrative manner, not his narrative matter (or, as the Russian Formalists would say, only for the sujet, not for the fabula). It follows that his personality—his “Eigenpersönlichkeit”—will stand out most clearly at those textual moments when he departs furthest from straightforward narration, when he moves from the mimetic, storytelling level to the non-mimetic level of ideology and evaluation.7 In this respect, as we will see, the narrator of Tod in Venedig provides a profusion of data for drawing his mental portrait: generalizations, exclamations, homilies, aphorisms and other expressions of normative subjectivity. These will ultimately allow us to assess his objectivity, to decide whether he is, ideologically speaking, a reliable narrator, and thus a spokesman for the norms of the author who has invented both him and his story.8


In briefest summary the relationship of the narrator to his protagonist in Tod in Venedig may be described as one of increasing distance. In the early phases of the story it is essentially sympathetic, respectful, even reverent; in the later phases a deepening rift develops, building an increasingly ironic narratorial stance.9 In this regard Mann's novella evolves in a manner diametrically opposed to the typical Bildungsroman, where we usually witness a gradual approach of the mind of the protagonist to that of the narrator. Here the protagonist does not rise to his narrator's ethical and cultural standards but falls away from them. The events of Aschenbach's final dream, we are told [“left behind the cultivation of life annihilated, destroyed”] (516),10 and subsequently, as he shamelessly pursues Tadzio through the streets of Venice, [“the monstrous appeared promising to him, and the moral law appeared invalid”] (518). The narrator meanwhile—as the words he uses here to describe Aschenbach's moral debacle indicate—remains poised on the cultural pinnacle that has brought forth his protagonist's own artistic achievement.

It should be noted from the outset, however, that this bifurcating narrative schema unfolds solely on the ideological or evaluative level of the story, without in the least affecting the point of view (in the technical sense of the word) from which the story is presented.11 On the perceptual level the narrator steadfastly adheres to his protagonist's perspective on the outside world; from the initial moment when he observes the strange wanderer standing on the steps of the funeral chapel to the final moment when he watches Tadzio standing on the sandbar we see the events and figures of the outside world through Aschenbach's eyes. The narrator also upholds from start to finish his free access to his protagonist's inner life (whereas he never so much as mentions what goes on in the mind of Tadzio). In sum, the narrator maintains his intimacy with Aschenbach's sensations, thoughts, and feelings, even as he distances himself from him more and more on the ideological level.12

Now to follow this relationship through the text in greater detail. The most obtrusive indicator of the narrator's personality—and of the fact that he has a clearly defined personality—is the series of statements of “eternal truths” he formulates.13 There are in all some twenty glosses of this kind scattered through the text, and they express a consistent system of values. This narrator is for discipline, dignity, decorum, achievement and sobriety, against disorder, intoxication, passion and passivity. In short, he volubly upholds within the story a heavily rationalistic and moralistic cultural code, most strikingly in the maxims that culminate many of his statements ex cathedra:

For it is dissolute not to be able to want a wholesome disenchantment. For human beings love and honor each other as long as they are not capable of judging each other, and longing is the product of a lack of understanding.


… for passion paralyzes the sense of fastidiousness and lets itself be drawn into dealing with charms that sobriety would take humorously or reject with indignation.


He who is beyond himself detests nothing more than to have to return into himself.


With their causal inceptions (denn) these sententiae profess full accountability for the case under discussion. They embed Aschenbach's story in a predictable world, a system of stable psychological concepts and moral precepts.

That the narrator's code of values in fact closely matches the protagonist's own before his fall can be seen from the flashback on Aschenbach's career as a writer provided in chapter II. As others have noted, this summary biography sounds rather like a eulogy penned in advance by the deceased himself. The narrator clearly takes the role of apologist, and his gnomic generalizations—more extensive here than elsewhere in the text, and all concerned, as the subject demands, with the psychology and sociology of artistic achievement—serve only to heighten the representative import of Aschenbach's existence. With one notable exception—to which I will return below—they unreservedly enhance the laudatio (see e.g. the passages starting with the words [“For an important intellectual production”; “A living, intellectually uncommitted concreteness;” “But it seems that there is nothing against which a noble and diligent spirit”] (452-55).

The ideological concord between the narrator and Aschenbach continues into the narrated time of the story itself: in the starting episode, the voyage South, the early phases of the Venice adventure authorial generalizations are barely differentiated from figural thoughts. During Aschenbach's introspection while he awaits his Munich tramway: [“he had reined in and cooled off his feelings because he knew that he had an inclination to be content with a gay approximation and a half perfection. Was it now the enslaved emotion that was avenging itself by abandoning him, in refusing to bear and give wings to his art … ?”] (449). Note that tensual sequence in the first sentence: Aschenbach knew what the narrator knows to be true. Note also that the second sentence may quite as validly be read as a question Aschenbach puts to himself (in narrated monologue form) and as a question posed by the analytic narrator. Or take the scene where Aschenbach first perceives Tadzio in the hall of the hotel and wonders why he is allowed to escape the monastic dress code of his sisters: [“Was he ill? … Or was he simply an indulged favorite child, elevated by a partial and capricious love? Aschenbach tended to believe the latter. Almost every artist has a voluptious and treacherous tendency to approve the injustice that brings about beauty and to greet aristocratic favoritism with understanding and respect”] (470; my italics). The narrator's speculation about artists flows from Aschenbach's speculations about Tadzio as smoothly as if the latter had self-indulgently accounted for his own reactions. Again, during Aschenbach's first contemplation of the ocean, narratorial comment dovetails with figural emotions:

I will stay then, thought Aschenbach. Where could it be better? … He loved the sea for deep reasons; out of the need for peace of the hard working artist who wants to rest from the demanding multiplicity of appearances at the breast of the simple, the immense; out of a forbidden penchant for the unstructured, immeasurable, eternal, for nothingness, a tendency that was directly opposed to his calling and for that very reason seductive. He who labors at the production of the excellent longs to repose in the perfect; and is nothingness not a form of perfection? But, as he was dreaming away into the emptiness. …

(475; my italics)

Fused almost seamlessly at both ends with Aschenbach's oceanic feelings, the narrator's intervention creates not a trace of distancing irony. This is true despite the ominous notes he sounds: [“at the breast of … the immense,” out of a “forbidden … seductive tendency to nothingness”]. Aschenbach is still [“the hard working artist who struggles to produce the excellent”], and who may be allowed—by way of vacation—a temporary indulgence in thanatos.

This entente cordiale between authorial and figural minds is disrupted at just about the mid-point of the Venetian adventure in a scene to be considered in detail below. From this point on the authorial commentary becomes emphatically distanced and judgemental. A clear example is the scene where Aschenbach, having followed Tadzio with the “salutary” intention of striking up a casual conversation with him finds himself too strongly moved to speak:

Too late! he thought at this moment. Too late! But was it really too late? The step that he neglected to take could very possibly have lead to something wholesome, light, and serene, to a healthy sobriety. But it must have been a matter of the aging man not wanting sobriety because the intoxication was too precious for him. Who is to unravel the essence and character of the artist! Who can comprehend the deeply instinctual fusion of discipline and licentiousness on which it rests. For it is licentious not to be able to want a wholesome disenchantment.

The narrator distances himself from Aschenbach explicitly and immediately when he questions the directly quoted [“too late!”]. He now provides his interpretation for the failed action, which he attributes to a weakening of willpower, a falling away from the unquestioned values of health and sobriety. The exclamatory authorial rhetoric subsequently reinforces the critical analysis, grounds it in generalizations concerning the moral lability of artists, and caps it with the sententious final judgement. Then, returning to the individual case at hand, the narrator explicitly excludes Aschenbach from this authorial wisdom: [“Aschenbach was not in the mood for self-criticism any more”].

There are numerous instances in the later parts of the story that follow this same general pattern: an inside view of Aschenbach's mind, followed by a judgemental intervention cast in gnomic present tense, followed by a return to Aschenbach's now properly adjudged reactions. To quote one further example: when Aschenbach reads about the Venetian plague in the German newspapers,

“One should be silent,” Aschenbach thought excitedly. … But at the same time his heart was filled with satisfaction about the adventure that wanted to descend upon the world outside. For passion, like crime, does not thrive in the secure order and comfort of the commonplace. Instead, it must welcome any relaxation of civil order, any confusion and affliction in the world for it can vaguely hope to gain some advantage for itself from it. So Aschenbach felt a dark satisfaction about the officially concealed events in the dirty alleys of Venice.

(500; my italics)

Again Aschenbach's response (this time plainly immoral) is instantly denounced and explained by the narrator, and in the severest terms. Even a shade too severe, perhaps. The unwonted analogy between passion and crime makes it appear as though the narrator were bent on imposing his moral standards with the utmost rigidity. At the same time the syllogistic “So …” with which he reverts to Aschenbach's sinful thoughts maintains the sense that he is a perfectly dispassionate analyst.

A further device that underscores the narrator's progressive disengagement is his increasingly estranging and negative way of referring to Aschenbach. In the early sections distancing appellations appear sparingly and remain neutral and descriptive: [“the traveller,” “the waiting one,” “the resting one”]. After the narrator parts company with his character, ideologically speaking, we find on a regular basis the more condescending epithets [“the aging man,” “the lonely one”]. And at crucial stations of his descent Aschenbach becomes [“the afflicted,” “the stubborn one,” “the crazed one,” “the besotted,” “the confused one,” “the one who has gone astray”], and on, in a more and more degrading name-calling series that leads down to the final [“degraded one”].14

So far the schismatic trend I have been tracing has, to all appearances, its objective motivation in the story's mimetic stratum. Faced with a character who manifests such progressively deviant behaviour this severely judgemental narrator can hardly be expected to react differently. Even so, the smugness and narrowness of his evaluative code in the passages already cited may cause some irritation in the reader, akin to that nauseated intolerance Roland Barthes attributes to the reader of Balzac at moments when he laces his novels with cultural adages.15 Perennial reactions of this type aside, however, there are at least two of the narrator's interventions in Tod in Venedig that give one pause on more substantial grounds. In these two instances the narrator indulges in a kind of ideological overkill that produces an effect contrary to the one he is ostensibly trying to achieve. It is to these two moments in their episodic context that I will now turn for close inspection.


As previously mentioned, the turning point in the relationship between narrator and character on the ideological level roughly coincides with the midpoint of Aschenbach's Venetian adventure: the pivotal scene when the enamored writer for the first and last time practices his art.16 Before this point is reached however, a long section (480-492) intervenes where authorial generalizations have disappeared from the text altogether; this section comprises mainly Aschenbach's abortive attempt to leave Venice (end of chapter III) and the first quiescently serene phase of his love (beginning of chapter IV). In these pages the narrator goes beyond adopting merely Aschenbach's visual perspective, he also emulates the hymnic diction (complete with Homeric hexameters), the Hellenic allusions and the mythical imagery that properly belong to Aschenbach's consciousness. This stylistic contagion—technically a form of free indirect style—has often been mistaken for stylistic parody, an interpretation for which I find no evidence in the text.17 The employment of free indirect style, in the absence of other distancing devices, points rather to a momentary “sharing” of Aschenbach's inner experience by the narrator—as though he were himself temporarily on vacation from his post as moral preceptor.

This consonance reaches its apogee in the moments of high intensity that immediately precede the writing scene, when the Platonic theory of beauty surfaces in Aschenbach's mind as he watches Tadzio cavorting on the beach: [“Statue and mirror! His eyes took in the noble figure over there at the edge of the blue, and, with rising ecstasy, he felt he was encompassing with this same glance beauty itself, form as divine thought, the one and pure perfection that lives in the spirit …”] (490). Both the initial exclamation in this quote, and the final present tense (lebt) indicate the extent of the narratorial identification with the figural thoughts. The Platonic montage that now follows (combining passages from the Phaedrus and the Symposium) is largely cast in narrated monologue form, fusing the narrator verbatim with Aschenbach's mental language. An intensely emotive tone thus pervades the text as the narrator, in concert with Aschenbach, approaches the climactic writing scene. His sudden change of tone in the course of narrating this episode is therefore all the more discordant.

The scene opens with a strikingly balanced gnomic statement: [“The happiness of the writer consists in the thought that can fully become feeling, in the feeling that can fully become thought”] (492). No other narratorial generalization in the entire text is as harmoniously attuned to the mood of the protagonist. Its syntactical symmetry reflects with utmost precision the creative equipoise Aschenbach himself seeks between thought and feeling. But already in the next sentence, even as the narrator grants Aschenbach this supreme [“happiness”], he begins to withdraw from the miraculous moment: [“It was such a pulsing thought, such a precise feeling that belonged to and obeyed the lonely man then. … Suddenly, he wanted to write”] (492; my italics). Both the estranging epithet and the distancing adverb underline the narrator's disengagement from the creative act that will ensue. Other even more strongly alienating phrases follow presently: the writer is called [“the afflicted one”], the moment of writing [“at this moment of crisis”], the object of his emotion [“the idol”], and so forth.

When we consider the radical nature of Aschenbach's creative performance in this scene, it is hardly surprising that the narrator refuses to follow him in silent consonance: [“And it was his desire to work in the presence of Tadzio, to use the figure of the boy as a model in his writing, to let his style follow the lines of this body … and to transport his beauty into the spiritual”] (492). As T. J. Reed has pointed out, Aschenbach here tries to enact (literally and literarily) the truth Diotima imparts to Socrates that Eros alone can serve as guide to absolute beauty.18 In this light his act of “writing Tadzio” can be interpreted as his attempt at gaining direct access to the realm of Platonic ideas. But this mystic creative urge is of course in flagrant violation of Aschenbach's own past aesthetic credo, a credo that the narrator had explicitly endorsed. Its dominant principle, as we recall, had precisely been that the artist can not create in the heat of emotion: [“he had reined in and cooled off his feelings because he knew that he tended to be content with a gay approximation and a half perfection”] (449). Aschenbach's scriptural intercourse with Tadzio thus clearly contradicts the ethos to which he has dedicated his creative life. And beyond that it also countermands the entire process of mimetic art, the patient art of the novelist who had woven [“Maja”—“the novellistic tapestry rich...

(The entire section is 9691 words.)

Heidi M. Rockwood and Robert J. R. Rockwood (essay date fall 1984)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Rockwood, Heidi M., and Robert J. R. Rockwood. “The Psychological Reality of Myth in Der Tod in Venedig.Germanic Review 59, no. 4 (fall 1984): 137-41.

[In the following essay, Rockwood and Rockwood offer a Jungian interpretation of Death in Venice and assert that the mythological aspects of the novella are “integral parts of human psychological reality.”]

Despite the great number of psychological background analyses of Thomas Mann's Der Tod in Venedig scholars have so far not attempted to read the novella exclusively and consistently in terms of Jungian psychology, especially in the light of Jung's theory of the archetypes. This...

(The entire section is 3689 words.)

Bernhard Frank (essay date fall 1986)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Frank, Bernhard. “Mann's Death in Venice.Explicator 45, no. 1 (fall 1986): 31-2.

[In the following essay, Frank elucidates Mann's reference to the mythological figure Phaeax in Death in Venice.]

Tracing a brief quotation in Thomas Mann's Death in Venice to the dialogues of Xenophone, Lorraine Gustafson had demonstrated how the ostensibly insignificant allusion led the informed reader first to the dialogue in its entirety, then back to Mann's novella with a play by play thematic parallel.1 Similarly, the identification of Aschenbach's beloved, Tadzio, with various mythological figures first woos us back to the respective myths,...

(The entire section is 707 words.)

Charlotte Rotkin (essay date winter 1987)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Rotkin, Charlotte. “Oceanic Animals: Allegory in Death in Venice.Papers on Language and Literature 23, no. 1 (winter 1987): 84-8.

[In the following essay, Rotkin explores the allegorical significance of the sea creatures in Death in Venice.]

One of the characteristic features of Death in Venice is its intricate fusion of symbolism, psychology, and myth. Mann's intention in this novella of dissolution is both concealed and revealed by his technique of intertwining mythology, allegory, and psychology into a form that gives universal scope to the actions of his protagonist. An ironic tone, superimposed on the structure, testifies to Mann's...

(The entire section is 1663 words.)

Marc A. Weiner (essay date May 1987)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Weiner, Marc A. “Silence, Sound, and Song in Der Tod in Venedig: A Study in Psycho-Social Repression.” Seminar 23, no. 2 (May 1987): 137-55.

[In the following essay, Weiner delineates the role of music and cacophony in Death in Venice.]

At the turn of the century the polarization of silence and cacophony represented the acoustical extremes within which the artist and the philistine were understood in society. While noise was stigmatized as the emblem of the masses, silence was viewed as the prerequisite—and indeed helped define the aura—of the isolated intellectual. Between these poles music exists as a suspect art, an aesthetic dimension...

(The entire section is 7427 words.)

Charlotte Rotkin (essay date summer 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Rotkin, Charlotte. “Form and Function: The Art and Architecture of Death in Venice.Midwest Quarterly 29, no. 4 (summer 1988): 497-505.

[In the following essay, Rotkin considers a series of polarities in Mann's life and work and maintains that Death in Venice “reveals Mann's abiding concern with the artist's responsibility regarding the form and function that his life and art assume.”]

In the voluminous canon of Thomas Mann's work, several autobiographical themes recur. Of primacy is the artist's struggle for control over antagonistic forces that compete for his loyalty. Mann's involvement with polarities began during his formative years...

(The entire section is 2622 words.)

Giuliana Giobbi (essay date March 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Giobbi, Giuliana. “Gabriele D'Annunzio and Thomas Mann: Venice, Art, and Death.” Journal of European Studies 19, no. 1 (March 1989): 55-68.

[In the following essay, Giobbi finds parallels between Death in Venice and Gabriele D'Annunzio's Il Fuoco.]

The Venice of modern fiction and drama is a thing of yesterday, a mere efflorescence of decay, a stage dream which the first ray of daylight must dissipate into dust.1

Because of its unique nature and atmosphere, Venice has traditionally been a favourite setting in the fiction and poetry of European authors. The architecture of Venetian buildings...

(The entire section is 5305 words.)

Tom Hayes and Lee Quinby (essay date spring 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Hayes, Tom, and Lee Quinby. “The Aporia of Bourgeois Art: Desire in Thomas Mann's Death in Venice.Criticism 31, no. 2 (spring 1989): 159-77.

[In the following essay, Hayes and Quinby explore “the dilemma of desire” in Death in Venice.]

Death in Venice is undoubtedly a central text in Thomas Mann's oeuvre and in contemporary literary criticism. It is also, and this is not exactly the same thing, an exemplary text of “high” modernism, one that questions the moral and aesthetic “certainties” of bourgeois culture. On the one hand the novella has been read as a cautionary tale, an apologue showing that even the most Apollonian...

(The entire section is 7949 words.)

Richard White (essay date April 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: White, Richard. “Love, Beauty, and Death in Venice.” Philosophy and Literature 14, no. 1 (April 1990): 53-64.

[In the following essay, White regards Death in Venice as a meditation on the themes of art, beauty, love, and death and argues that the novella can be read as a “powerful response to Plato and every other philosopher who has argued in favor of the redemptive power of art.”]

Thomas Mann's novella Death in Venice is a sustained and very powerful meditation upon the proper relations of art and beauty, eros and death. In particular, even though the story is set in what was then contemporary Venice, Mann emphasizes the perennial nature...

(The entire section is 5194 words.)

Kurt Fickert (essay date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Fickert, Kurt. “Truth and Fiction in Der Tod in Venedig.Germanic Notes 21, nos. 1-2 (1990): 25-31.

[In the following essay, Fickert elucidates autobiographical aspects of Mann's Death in Venice.]

Thomas Mann himself characterized Der Tod in Venedig (written 1911-1912) as a many faceted work and emphasized the fact that this multiplicity of aspects had been compressed into a crystal of rare clarity. He described the composition of the novella in this fashion: “Hier schoß im eigentlichen kristallinischen Sinn des Wortes, vieles zusammen, ein Gebilde zu zeitigen, daß im Lichte mancher Facette spielend, in vielfachen Beziehungen schwebend,...

(The entire section is 4646 words.)

Cynthia B. Bryson (essay date spring 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Bryson, Cynthia B. “The Imperative Daily Nap; or, Aschenbach's Dream in Death in Venice.Studies in Short Fiction 29, no. 2 (spring 1992): 181-93.

[In the following essay, Bryson contends that Aschenbach enters an extended dream-state in Death in Venice and touches on Mann's interest in Freudian dream theory.]

Most critics look specifically at Aschenbach's ecstatic, Dionysian dream in Thomas Mann's Death in Venice as the primary dream-state, but I would like to make the unusual supposition that Aschenbach's actual dream-state—from which he will awaken only once before succumbing to death (3 and 73)—begins during his “daily nap”...

(The entire section is 5093 words.)

John S. Angermeier (essay date spring 1995)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Angermeier, John S. “The Punica Granatum Motif in Mann's Der Tod in Venedig.Germanic Notes and Reviews 26, no. 1 (spring 1995): 12-15.

[In the following essay, Angermeier investigates the source for the pomegranate theme in Death in Venice.]

There is a longstanding admiration among Thomas Mann scholars for his use of Greek mythology in Der Tod in Venedig.1 His skill in foreshadowing Aschenbach's death by bringing in certain ominous figures has received much attention.2 These characters include: the stranger at the tram station in Munich, the ticket agent on the old steamer, the old-young man on the ship heading to...

(The entire section is 1933 words.)

R. F. Fleissner (essay date spring 1997)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Fleissner, R. F. “Death in [The Merchant of] Venice.” Germanic Notes and Reviews 28, no. 1 (spring 1997): 11-15.

[In the following essay, Fleissner considers the influence of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice on Death in Venice.]

To what extent was Thomas Mann inspired by no less than Shakespeare in writing his most famous novella, Der Tod in Venedig? That he was somewhat under such histrionic influence elsewhere can scarcely be questioned, but, to my knowledge, a serious case has not yet been made concerning such a debt here. Still, a position might be taken in favor of at least indirect influence of The Merchant of Venice (and not...

(The entire section is 2062 words.)

Gary Schmidgall (essay date summer 1997)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Schmidgall, Gary. “Death in Venice, Life in Zurich: Mann's Late ‘Something for the Heart’.” Southwest Review 82 (summer 1997): 293-324.

[In the following essay, Schmidgall asserts that Death in Venice was inspired by Mann's homoerotic attachments to younger men, which continued until the end of his life.]


In May 1932, twenty years after writing one of the most widely admired short novels of the century, Thomas Mann was 56, about the same age as his protagonist in Death in Venice, Gustav von Aschenbach, who travels south from Munich under a heavy weight of weltschmerz, falls in love, and a few weeks later...

(The entire section is 12664 words.)

Carrie Zlotnick-Woldenberg (essay date fall 1997)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Zlotnick-Woldenberg, Carrie. “An Object-Relational Interpretation of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice.American Journal of Psychotherapy 51 (fall 1997): 542-51.

[In the following essay, Zlotnick-Woldenberg applies object-relational theory to Death in Venice.]

Gustave Aschenbach, the protagonist of Thomas Mann's tragic novella, Death in Venice, is a middle-aged acclaimed writer, who seemingly has been leading a rather conventional life. Upon noticing an exotic looking man near a Munich cemetery, he has a sudden impulse to travel. He winds up in Venice, a city with a warmer climate than Munich's, both in the literal and symbolic sense. There he...

(The entire section is 4206 words.)

Rudolph Binion (essay date 1997)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Binion, Rudolph. “Death Beckoning: Thomas Mann's Death in Venice.” In Sounding the Classics, pp. 135-44. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Binion discusses Aschenbach's preoccupation with death and “his headlong rush to meet it” in Death in Venice.]

The story line of Thomas Mann's 1912 novella Death in Venice is short and straight. An aging author settled in Munich travels south on an impulse for a brief respite from his harsh and lonely literary labors, finds his way as if by enchantment to Venice in all its moldy magnificence, and there is secretly so smitten with a Polish boy among the other guests...

(The entire section is 4267 words.)

John Burt Foster, Jr. (essay date 1998)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Foster, John Burt, Jr. “Why Is Tadzio Polish?: Kultur and Cultural Multiplicity in Death in Venice.” In Death in Venice: Complete, Authoritative Text with Biographical and Historical Contexts, Critical History, and Essays from Five Contemporary Critical Perspectives, edited by Naomi Ritter, pp. 192-210. Boston: Bedford Books, 1998.

[In the following essay, Foster maintains that Death in Venice begins to “look beyond the elite English and American literature of the period, glimpsing possibilities for cultural multiplicity and interaction that avoid the shackles of grandiose, self-imposed mythologies.”]



(The entire section is 7625 words.)

Russell A. Berman (essay date 1998)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Berman, Russell A. “History and Community in Death in Venice.” In Death in Venice: Complete, Authoritative Text with Biographical and Historical Contexts, Critical History, and Essays from Five Contemporary Critical Perspectives, edited by Naomi Ritter, pp. 263-80. Boston: Bedford Books, 1998.

[In the following essay, Berman provides a contemporary historicist interpretation of Death in Venice.]

During recent decades literary critics have increasingly chosen to approach texts by scrutinizing their historical standing. This “new” history represents a significant break with the formalist methods associated with the once “New” Criticism, which...

(The entire section is 7395 words.)

Laura Otis (essay date 2000)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Otis, Laura. “The Tigers of Wrath: Mann's Death in Venice as Myth and Medicine.” In Teaching Literature and Medicine, edited by Anne Hunsaker Hawkins and Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, pp. 243-51. New York: Modern Language Association, 2000.

[In the following essay, Otis discusses similarities between Death in Venice and Robert Koch's 1884 articles on germ theory.]

While reading Robert Koch's articles on germ theory, I made a startling discovery. In 1884, Koch described the Ganges delta, the area he envisioned as the origin of cholera, as follows: “Luxuriant vegetation and abundant animal life have arisen in this uninhabited area. This area is...

(The entire section is 2841 words.)

Ritchie Robertson (essay date 2002)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Robertson, Ritchie. “Classicism and Its Pitfalls: Death in Venice.” In The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Mann, edited by Ritchie Robertson, pp. 95-106. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

[In the following essay, Robertson argues that in Death in Venice Mann “dramatizes the strengths, the weaknesses and the pitfalls of classicism, in its different versions, through the career of a writer dedicated to a classical ideal.”]

While staying in Venice with his wife and brother between 26 May and 2 June 1911, Thomas Mann, like his fictional Aschenbach, was fascinated by a handsome Polish boy whom he watched playing on the beach. This...

(The entire section is 4944 words.)

Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Angermeier, John S. “Marienbad and Goethe as a Source of Motifs for Mann's Der Tod in Venedig.German Life and Letters 48, no. 1 (January 1995): 12-24.

Cites Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's experience in Marienbad as a probable source for many of the themes in Death in Venice.

Brink, André. “The Tiger's Revenge: Thomas Mann, Death in Venice.” In The Novel: Language and Narrative from Cervantes to Calvino, pp. 173-88. New York: New York University Press, 1998.

Analyzes the tension between the narrator and the character Aschenbach of Death in Venice.

Ritter, Naomi,...

(The entire section is 251 words.)