Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The novella is structured by a series of polarities and contrasts: north-south, age-youth, health-sickness, art-life, reason-instinct, reality-illusion, order-chaos. Once Aschenbach breaks free from his northern restraints, he is unable to establish the proper balance between his Germanic culture, intellect, discipline, and serenity and Italian passion, license, freedom, and decadence.

Mann also uses the structural device of the leitmotif: the repetition of a certain phrase in different contexts, which he associates with a particular theme. His allusions to the composers Richard Wagner and Gustav Mahler, the musicians in the gondola and the street, and Tadzio’s name, which sounds like a musical description (adagio means “slowly”), all suggest that art can arouse dangerous emotions. The demonic tempters and messengers of death all have the same physical features and bad teeth; the black gondola, blackened corpses, and snapping black cloth of the camera symbolize death.

Mann’s style changes from coolly objective to intensely passionate as Aschenbach moves from a passive to an active lover and is gradually overwhelmed by moral and physical degeneration. Aschenbach first sees Tadzio as would an intellectual connoisseur, changes to a sympathetic and paternal view, realizes that he is staying in Venice for Tadzio’s sake, and compares their relationship to that of Socrates and his favorite pupil, Phaedrus. As he approaches death, Aschenbach is overcome by panic, hysterical desire, demonic frenzy, and orgiastic dreams, driven as he is into the bottomless pit of excess and damnation.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Munich (MEW-nihk). Well-ordered, proper city in Germany’s Bavarian region, in which the story opens around the turn of the twentieth century. There the great writer Gustav von Aschenbach lives. Weary of Germany’s cold and damp northern spring and the dullness of his surroundings, Aschenbach decides to spend a summer in a warm place and goes to Italy. Although briefly described, cold Munich serves as a contrast to the warmth and extravagance of Venice, and it represents the writer’s discipline and respectability.


*Venice. Port city in northern Italy where Aschenbach arrives after a few false starts and checks into the Hôtel des Bains on the Lido, an island across the canal from the main city. With a private beach facing the Adriatic Sea, this grand hotel has spacious rooms, well-tended gardens, elegant public areas, a spacious veranda, and an obsequious staff—all of which suits Aschenbach’s aristocratic tastes. He then settles into his comfortable room and looks forward to a refreshing holiday.

Drawn to Venice, he takes a boat across the canal to the city, relishing even “that slightly foul odor of sea and swamp.” At first glance, “that most improbable of cities” appears beautiful with its fabulous towers and ornate palaces and churches shimmering in the sunlight. On closer examination, however, Aschenbach finds that the city is crumbling. Its once magnificent structures are sinking into the water, the paint everywhere is...

(The entire section is 621 words.)

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

Early Twentieth Century
A number of events occurred in 1911 inspiring Mann to begin work on Death in Venice. One of these...

(The entire section is 621 words.)

Literary Style

(Short Stories for Students)

Myths are anonymous and traditional stories that cultures tell to explain natural phenomena. Mann makes broad use of...

(The entire section is 551 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The straightforward plot of this relatively short work is embedded with consummate skill in a rich matrix of symbolical and mythological...

(The entire section is 134 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Death in Venice focuses on an artist's radically disturbed relationship to the stark forces of life. Published two years before the...

(The entire section is 99 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Short Stories for Students)

1910–1915: In 1912, the Titanic, a sprawling 892-foot ocean liner and the world’s largest ship, sinks off the coast of...

(The entire section is 155 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Short Stories for Students)

Analyze Mann’s use of color in describing the traveler in the cemetery, the gondolier, the old fop, and the street musician. Write a short...

(The entire section is 229 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The noted Italian director Luchino Visconti adapted Death in Venice for the screen in an Italian and French production of 1971....

(The entire section is 135 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Short Stories for Students)

Luchino Visconti’s 1971 film adaptation of Death in Venice starring Dirk Bogarde and Bjorn Andresen is available at most video...

(The entire section is 33 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Short Stories for Students)

In 2001, Gilbert Adair’s study, Inspiration for “Death in Venice”—The Real Tadzio 1900– 1962, was published. Adair examines...

(The entire section is 135 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Short Stories for Students)

Bergenholtz, Rita A., “Mann’s Death in Venice,” in the Explicator, Vol. 55, No. 3, Spring 1997, p....

(The entire section is 415 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 276 words.)