Death in Venice is a wonderful short novella by German author Thomas Mann. This writeup is not intended to be a summary of plot, in fact reading it may spoil the story; a summary is available at sparknotes, but I recommend simply reading it, it's only about 60 pages in most editions. I will say a bit about themes, and critical interpretations, because one of the distinguishing characteristics of Mann's prose in this work is an intense layering of themes and imagery.
Typical approaches to Mann are psychoanalytic and biographical criticism. A quick glimpse at Mann's biography explains the reason for this. The narrator of the story is undramatized; there is nothing to suggest it is Mann himself, but neither does the voice have a place in the plot. The main character, Aschenbach, is depicted as a morally upright and driven German writer in the beginning who is tempted by a strange and sudden wanderlust to leave Munich. He ends up in Venice, where he falls in peculiarly feverish love with a young boy, Tadziu. Generally the 'shape' of the plot is described either as a downward spiral or an outright slippery slope to moral depravity and abandon. The connection with the biography becomes apparent in the fact that there is substantial evidence that Mann himself was attracted to boys, and even had a questionable relationship with his own son. And obviously, he is a writer much in the same tradition as his character. Much of his work focuses on the linear moral world of the German merchant middle class, and glorifies it, his novel Buddenbrooks being an outstanding example.
Regardless of the validity of any biographical connections, my response to the story itself was very different. Although clearly there is a sort of disintegration in Aschenbach's disciplined life, it is not my opinion that his death is simply the end point of moral collapse. It also has a distinctly creative element to it that emerge from a simple intuitive reading of the prose of the ending scene as well as in deeper interpretive analysis. The following are basically freewritten responses to individual scenes or visual elements in Mann's story, that I believe comprise a good argument for a more philsophical reading of Achenbach's death.
The first crack in the mold of Aschenbach’s rigorous artistic life appears with the red-haired “traveler from far” in the North Cemetery. The stranger’s peculiar presence “conveyed an impression of imperious surveillance, fortitude, even wildness” and his strange appearance, which Gronicka compares to the specter of that “imperious, ruthless liberator from life’s toil, Death,” drives Aschenbach into “a passion and even to a delusion” (Mann 4). For the first time, a glimpse of the startlingly exotic depths of Aschenbach’s mind is revealed to the reader in the striking imagery of Aschenbach’s fantasy.
The wild strangeness of the daydream in juxtaposition to Aschenbach’s otherwise typical afternoon walk marks both the content of the hallucination, as well as the stranger who provokes it, as significant. The vision has the distinctly eastern character of a verdant, tropical jungle; the presence of the tiger affirms this interpretation. The fantastic landscape “under a vaporous sky” filled with, “swollen vegetation” and “stagnant, green-shadowed pools,” is the home of Asiatic cholera, the disease to which he will eventually succumb, as well as the supposed origin of the Dionysian cult (Mann 4). Lilian Furst observes that “this scene of strength and sensuality, but also of decay, decadence and chaos, is violently at odds with Aschenbach’s customary, well-regulated, highly controlled daily existence (164).
As for the stranger, the mythical quality of his sudden appearance “above the two apocalyptic beasts,” and “belligerent” unwavering gaze suggests another layer of interpretation. ‘The Great God Pan’ is often conceived with physical attributes similar to those of the stranger, “moderately, tall, thin,” and certainly a thing of wildness. He is associated with chaos and death (it was said that this music could inspire panic), but above all he was the god of nature: meadows, forests, beasts, and interestingly, human nature. Pan is also the original incarnation of what eventually became the Christian model for Satan. Gronicka goes as far as the point of asserting that the traveler “is the arch-tempter Satan” (Gronicka 121), and clearly this is a significant level of symbolism. But the temptation only makes sense in light of the rest of the narration if the temptation is a psychological temptation, coming from within Mann himself, namely from what Freud would call the Id, or subconscious.
the dandified man, the gondolier
After the coming of the traveler, figures that force Aschenbach into confrontation with his repressed desire seem to parade ironically before him, coming, going, and each one driving Aschenbach closer to some psychological edge, culminating of course with Tadziu. Perhaps the most dramatic foreshadowing occurs while Aschenbach sails to Venice, as he idly observes the antics a group of excited young people, making “no little fuss” in the main deck of the boat. But one of the youth, Aschenbach realizes “with something like horror…was not genuine.”
He was old, no doubt about it. There were wrinkles around his eyes and mouth. The faint carmine of his cheeks was rouge; the brown hair beneath the colorfully banded hat was a wig; his neck was shrunken and sinewy; his clipped mustache and goatee were dyed; the full, yellowish set of teeth he exposed when he laughed was a cheap set of dentures; and his hands, bedecked with signet rings on both forefingers, were those of an old man. (Mann 14)
Although these are ostensibly the words of Mann’s absent narrator, the emotion behind the unreasonably harsh description of the dandified old man seems to emanate unmistakably from Aschenbach himself. Aschenbach clearly overreacts, wondering with a shudder “how could this be?” The fact that this excess of revulsion is a result of Aschenbach’s internal struggle is hinted at by his strange mental reaction: “It seemed to him that things were starting to take a turn away from the ordinary, as if a dreamy estrangement, a bizarre distortion of the world were setting in” (15).
The peculiar choice of the word ‘dreamy’, is used by Mann at several suggestive points in the novel; Aschenbach’s encounter with the stranger included the dream motif in the form of a daydream, and Aschenbach calls the mix-up at the Venice train station which resulted in his “forced” return to the hotel a “dreamlike adventure” (33). During his quiet boat ride to Lido in the hands of his illicit gondolier, thoughts “ramble about dreamily in Aschenbach’s mind.”
In fact, the entire episode of the gondolier is also a critical turning point for Aschenbach’s rapidly deteriorating discipline. In fact, Aschenbach’s obvious delight in “leaning back into the cushions as the yielding element carried him” (18) contrasts remarkably with what “a canny observer” said about his character:
“You see Aschenbach has always lived like this”—and the speaker closed the fingers of his left hand into a fist—“never like this”—and he let his open hand dangle comfortably form the arm of the chair. (8)
However, Aschenbach’s resignation to this sort of sensuous existence is by no means a one-sided trip “across the river Styx,” as his strange gondola ride has suggested to many critics. This critical tradition tends to cast Aschenbach’s lapse into unrestrained sensuality in the light of some sort of surrender before a dark, or even demoniac power. The brave “hero of the age,” (10) as it were, after having fought so long as so hard with an “elegant discipline,” (9) tragically and cowardly succumbs to ignoble pleasure, tempted by…whom? The devil? The problem with this formulation is the fact that there seems to be very little external moral force in Venice, good or evil.
A more appropriate metaphor might be the Lethe, river of forgetfulness and oblivion, and also the final river the dead must cross before they are allowed to enter Elysium, the beautiful fields of bountiful pleasure. Aschenbach identifies his desire to reach the oblivion of the Elysian fields after his aforementioned return to the hotel, which he realizes,
“Enchanted him, relaxed his will, made him happy. Sometimes in the morning, under the canopy of his beach cabana, dreaming away across the blue of the southern sea, or sometimes as well on a balmy night, leaning back under the great starry sky…then it might seem to him that he had been transported to the land of Elysium at the far ends of the Earth, where a life of ease is bestowed upon mortals…where the days run out in blissful leisure, trouble-free, struggle-free, dedicated only to the sun and its revels.” (35)
Aschenbach thinks that he has found paradise, and only shortly after this passage, he realizes with a mixture of joy and disbelief, “thoroughly shaken,” that he is in love with the young, beautiful, unreachable Tadziu (43).
The motif of forgetfulness and oblivion reappears one evening shortly after Aschenbach achieves the insight to see that he is indeed deeply in love with Tadziu. It is the fourth week of Aschenbach’s stay, and he has become increasingly aware of disturbing events occurring outside the small sphere of himself and the young polish boy. Disease, apparently, had come to the city, and the Venetian officials were determined to keep things “under wraps,” with which Aschenbach is perfectly content. “The heinous secret belonging to the city fused and became one with his own innermost secret,” (45) and so that evening, despite the death moving slowly into the city, Aschenbach sat “cooling his lips from time to time with a mixture of pomegranate juice and soda” and listened to the “low-life virtuosos” of the street performers, or rather watched Tadziu and his polish family, who did not speak enough German to read about the disease in the foreign papers (49). The allusion is unavoidable. Venice is slowly becoming the land of death, and Aschenbach, in a manner similar to that of Persephone, is condemning himself to remain, subtly consuming the pomegranate.
The choice is a significant one. The internal crisis within Aschenbach that the traveling stranger had provoked was now far beyond a minor struggle of his divided will. Aschenbach has fallen into a forbidden love; he has been tempted by the image of a beauty he had spent most of his adult life pursuing at the “cost of intellectual self-sacrifice” (28). Now he had found its incarnation, naturally possessed by a boy, tragically young and sheltered, and thus ethically untouchable. Mann’s language accentuates the boy’s vulnerability, and Aschenbach notices immediately that “softness and tenderness were the obvious conditions for the boy’s existence” (22).
That Aschenbach was aware of the tenuous ethics of his infatuation is evident in the mixture of happiness and terror he feels at every indicator that his interest has gone beyond detached admiration. The end of the forth chapter, the most violent and honest eruption of Aschenbach’s desire is incontrovertible evidence of his awareness, and his concern. A single smile from Tadziu reduces him to helplessness, “overpowered and shivering uncontrollably” and yet even more conscious of the circumstances of the smile, “impossible under these conditions, absurd reviled, ridiculous, and yet holy and venerable” (43-44). Despite Aschenbach’s seemingly unchecked life of abandon and chaos, he has not forsaken his own moral structure.
abandon, absolute freedom, absolute responsibility
Aschenbach displays two curious characteristics, heretofore unexplained, that are reconciled by the perseverance of his moral conscience. The first is that unexplained feeling of pleasure that Aschenbach ashamedly enjoys upon speculating on Tadziu’s apparently fragile health. Since he “refrained from trying to account for the feeling of satisfaction” it gave him, it is left to interpretation (29). The evening of the street musicians, Aschenbach’s observation that Tadziu had strange breathing habits that suggested some sort of respiratory problem fills his heart with “ingenuous solicitude mixed with a dissolute satisfaction” (52). The possibility of death concerns him because he loves the boy, it satisfies him because this love cannot be consummated, the act of which he could not reconcile with his moral sense.
He has noticed that the boy “was regulating his behavior and behavior according to that of the man…this childlike and meaningful docility was disarming so overwhelming, that the gray-haired traveler could only with difficulty refrain from hiding his face in his hands” (52). Only responsibility could weigh so heavily on Aschenbach’s sentiment, and the assertion that Aschenbach moral system is disintegrating does not hold in the face of this single scene, wherein Aschenbach’s true depth and freedom are revealed. Much in the way that Jean Paul Sartre’s absolute freedom is mistaken for absolute license, so Aschenbach’s creative desire for chaos is mistaken for disintegration. The nuance is a small one but it is of infinite consequence for Mann’s novella. Sartre said that the free individual is also a creative individual. We create our own personality and situation by interpreting our environment; in this way we are also responsible. Existence thus involves freedom, creativity, responsibility. Aschenbach has always been in love with beauty, perhaps more than truly befits a staunch middle-class German artist of his caliber, and his life has been the creative life. He does not abandon that creativity in his pursuit of freedom, and neither does he abandon responsibility, and that is why he is granted a peaceful death.
Aschenbach’s moment of death is clearly not a moment of terror or tragedy, nor is it determined by his circumstances. Such conclusions deny the beauty and triumph of Mann’s prose in this final scene. It is in fact more defined by the language of dreams, and Aschenbach death as one of “deep sleep” (63). An intuitive imagination, envisioning the melancholy boy sanding knee deep in the pale waves in a “proud mood…on the edge of misty boundlessness,” beckoning to Aschenbach on the beach, is moved to question the true quality of the descent, the decay, that seems to define the novel up to that point (Mann 62). And yet it is equally impossible to explain the beauty of the death except to read it as the Dionysian death, a sort of strange orgasmic triumph over the artificially imposed restraints of civilization on man’s claim to freedom, and not the Apollonian death of productivity and conformity. Aschenbach has lived too long in civilization, according to its constraints, and the final scene of his death on the beach is a culmination of his freedom, his ability to spontaneously choose a particular mode of the creative life. His journey to that final day on the beach was a choice that flew in the face of reason, but it was also a type of creation. By choosing to linger in a Venice turned Hades, in choosing death, he forsook neither his authentic love for Tadziu, nor his Ethics, with which it conflicted. Gustav von Aschenbach died in the same manner that he lived, in the service of Eros.
Furst, Lilian. “The Potential Deceptiveness of Reading in Death in Venice.” From Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism: Death in Venice. Ross C Murfin, Ed. New York: Bedford Books: 1998.
Gronicka, Andre von. “’Myth Plus Psychology’: A Style Analysis of Death in Venice.”
MAnn, Thomas. Death in Venice. New York: Norton & Company, 1994.
Symington, Rodney. “The Eruption of the Other: Psychoanalytic Approaches to Death in Venice.” From Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism: Death in Venice. Ross C Murfin, Ed. New York: Bedford Books: 1998.