Thomas Mann was one of Germany’s best known writers of the 20th century. German philosophers like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche influenced him profoundly and evidence of this influence can be seen in his writing. Mann’s writing is philosophic in nature with most of his stories ending tragically. The conflict between art and life is a frequently occurring theme here. Death in Venice is truly representative of his writings with many of the ideas discussed in the literature of his time finding echoes here. There are strong autobiographical undercurrents too in Death in Venice. Like Aschenbach, Mann was also homosexual; he too had gone to Venice on holiday during a cholera outbreak when he met young Mahler who attracted him greatly.
Relevance of the Title
The title, which is written without an article at the beginning sounds strangely like a newspaper headline or the title of a bestseller that deals with spies and espionage. There is only one death in the novella, that of Aschenbach. That comes at the very end of the story. It can be assumed that the death referred to in the title may deal with the artistic death of the protagonist. He had prided himself on his self-discipline and dignity. In Venice, he lets go of all that when he sees Tadzio.
Aschenbach’s desire for Tadzio is sudden and unexpected considering he is a middle aged man known for his discipline and control. But once the idea gets hold of him, he becomes more and more brazen in his pursuit of the boy.
It is not surprising that the journey of Aschenbach from self discipline to abandonment can only end in death. In a city under the grips of cholera, we wonder how safe Tadzio, the other half of this physical attraction, will be.
Gustav von Ascenbach
He is an aging writer who takes his profession very seriously. He has been honored by the society and given the title ‘von’. But he is disturbed by the quality of his own writing decides to travel to Venice, something he does rarely. But in Venice, he falls in love with a young boy, Tadzio. This is a sign of his repressed sexuality. Though careful initially, he soon becomes brazen following Tadzio all over Venice even when he knows that cholera is present in the city. Soon, completely debased and shorn of dignity, he dies of cholera.
Gustav von Aschenbach is dignified, disciplined and fastidious about what he does. He is an intellectual writer who believes that true art can only be produced by resisting corrupting passions and physical infirmities.
Aschenbach had a sudden urge to travel; he gives in to this urge by telling himself that a change of scene may be good for him as a writer. Giving in to this unusual indulgence is the first sign of his moral turpitude and decline. The balmy weather and the rhythmic sway of the gondolas of Venice make him defenseless and vulnerable to temptations. At the hotel where he stays, Aschenbach notices a family with two children; it is the handsome boy who captivates him beyond telling. While initially he takes only an artist’s interest in the boy, soon he falls helplessly in love with him.
Though he is initially circumspect, Aschenbach soon becomes brazen in following the boy, Tadzio around. Cholera is noticed in the city but the authorities are reluctant to announce it as it may scare the tourists. Aschenbach comes to know of the presence of the disease but does not stay within the hotel. He follows Tadzio wherever he goes, unmindful of the risk he runs. Soon he falls prey to the disease and dies, debased and shorn of all dignity.
Tadzio is a character in the novel but he is also linked to several Characters in Greek mythology like Narcissus, Hyacinth and Phaedrus. He is also the idea of perfect beauty that writers pursue in their endeavor to produce excellent works of art.
This is not just a disease but a base longing that takes over Aschenbach leading to his downfall. The author seems to suggest that cholera has its origin in the steamy jungles of India from where it travels to Europe which are areas that have no defenses against it. Cholera can also be considered to be the unchecked desires that arise in Aschenbach’s repressed mind.
His desire sprouted eyes, his imagination, as yet unstilled from its morning labors, conjured for the earth's manifold wonders and horrors in his attempt to visualize them: he saw. He saw a landscape, a tropical quagmire beneath a steamy sky—sultry, luxuriant, and monstrous—a kind of primordial wilderness of islands, marshes, and alluvial channels…
Aschenbach’s dream of a strange landscape seems to resemble the tropical Ganges delta from where the author says that cholera travels westwards. The description of the land has suggested sexual connotations too.
Overwrought from the difficult and dangerous labors of the late morning hours, labors demanding the utmost caution, prudence, tenacity, and precision of will, the writer had even after the midday meal been unable to halt the momentum of the inner mechanism—themotus animi continuusin which, according to Cicero, eloquence resides—and find the refreshing sleep that the growing wear and tear upon his forces had made a daily necessity. And so, shortly after tea he had sought the outdoors in the hope that open air and exercise might revive him and help him to enjoy a fruitful evening.
This paragraph indicates the extreme fastidiousness with which Aschenbach went about his business of writing. He had a repressed mind and his moving outdoors is the first indication of his mind wanting to free itself from the shackles of repression.
Yet he knew only too well the source of the sudden temptation. It was an urge to flee—he fully admitted it, this yearning for freedom, release, oblivion—an urge to flee his work, the humdrum routine of a rigid, cold, passionate duty. Granted, he loved that duty and even almost loved the enervating daily struggle between his proud, tenacious, much-tested will and the growing fatigue, which no one must suspect or the finished product betray by the slightest sign of foundering or neglect. But it made sense not to go too far in the other direction, not to be so obstinate as to curb a need erupting with such virulence.
Aschenbach suffers from a case of “writer’s block”. He wishes to escape from it seeking new sources of inspiration.