Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Thomas Mann makes Aschenbach a homosexual for several reasons. On one level, his inversion is a manifestation of strain and disorder, a release from psychological repression that results in the vulgar and degrading passion of an elderly gentleman for a rather cruel and unworthy boy. Aschenbach abandons his will, conspires with pseudoartists such as the equivocal musician and the cosmetic barber, sadly deludes himself about his relationship with Tadzio, and condemns himself—and probably his beloved—to death.

More important, Aschenbach’s homosexual pursuit symbolizes the artist’s noble but tragic quest for perfection. Mann’s imaginative artist, who paradoxically creates in his work a life that he is unable to live in reality, must maintain a perilous balance of feeling and thought, and cannot surrender to either without losing his capacity to write. In the doomed love of the suspect and antisocial pederast, Mann found the perfect pattern for the artist’s desperate struggle to recapture the ideal form of sensual beauty, and to unite passion with thought, grace with wisdom, the real with the ideal. The theme of the novella is the seed of self-destruction inherent in creative genius.


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

At the heart of the novella stands Mann's concern for the future of a classical humanism, which in its concentration on a merely formal mastery of life has long denied itself all knowledge and recognition of the less pliable and more destructive elements in man. In contrast to earlier novellas, Mann sees the artist not as an outcast from, but as one of the crucial architects, of a society which lives in the throes of a profound and ever more wearisome self-deception. Exhausted by the demands of unnaturally high pretensions to nobility, such a culture yearns for an irrational escape from all constraints, only to find itself swept away in a chaos of unpremeditated ferocity.

The theme of the rapid decomposition of a man's lifelong achievements is brilliantly supported by Mann's employment of Venice as the scene of his hero's unseemly demise. Gradually sinking into the waters of corruption, Mann's most cherished cultural metropolis shares the artist's fatigue, and under the impact of a cholera epidemic, hero and city become sinister accomplices in their common descent into orgiastic dissolution.

(The entire section is 179 words.)


(Short Stories for Students)

Art and Society
The idea of the artist as a hero with a noble calling to pursue beauty has a rich tradition in western literature, especially romantic and modern literature. Mann describes von Aschenbach as an artist who has sacrificed his emotional life and distanced himself from the sensuous world to create beauty with his stories. In the second chapter, the narrator says of von Aschenbach, “Even as a young man . . . he had considered perfectionism the basis and most intimate essence of his talent, and for its sake he had cooled his emotions.” As a writer consumed by ideas and a moral obligation to pursue beauty at all costs, even his physical health, von Aschenbach likens himself to heroic figures such as Socrates and St. Sebastian, an early Christian martyr, both of whom lived their lives in pursuit of a higher good. A critic in Mann’s novella claims that the kind of hero von Aschenbach favored in his stories was based on the idea of “an intellectual and youthful manliness which grits its teeth in proud modesty and calmly endures the swords and spears as they pass through its body.” Von Aschenbach was proud of this description, and felt it accurately portrayed his work. Mann shows what happens when von Aschenbach loses control over his passions and can no longer distinguish between art and life.

Death in Venice has become a central text in the canon of gay literature, even though the novella depicts no...

(The entire section is 581 words.)