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.