Death in Venice: Essay Q&A
1. Aschenbach’s love for Tadzio is an unfulfilled homosexual love. Why does Aschenbach so thoroughly abandon himself to this kind of love? Why is he afraid to actually confess his love to Tadzio?
Aschenbach’s love for Tadzio functions on several levels in Death in Venice. On the surface, it is the love of an aging man for a young boy. But on a deeper level, it is a love of himself that Aschenbach experiences.
As Aschenbach grows increasingly infatuated with Tadzio, he becomes increasingly divorced from his formerly staid and proper life. At first, he merely admires the boy’s classical beauty; he even tries to use the boy as a muse to rejuvenate his writing. Soon, however, Aschenbach abandons his old morality and self-respect and allows himself to fall completely and ridiculously in love with Tadzio. He stalks the boy and openly stares at him, and he imagines that the boy’s shy glances return his interest. He even goes so far as to almost touch Tadzio one day, but he is overcome with panic at the last minute. Watching Tadzio thrills him and makes him feel alive like he never has been before; to actually speak his love to Tadzio might shatter the “illusion” he has created of a relationship between them, so he remains a lover from a distance. He notes that other people, such as Tadzio’s family, are uneasy about the way he stares at Tadzio, but he does not care. Similarly, he does not care whether they all die of cholera if he does not warn them of the outbreak in Venice—he cares only to bask in the warming sunshine of Tadzio’s beauty. It keeps him alive, he believes.
At the same time that he idealizes Tadzio, Aschenbach also see himself in the boy. Tadzio is godlike in his beauty, but he is not, Aschenbach notes, altogether perfect. His bad teeth reveal a sickly disposition; hidden beneath his beauty is decay and death. Similarly, Aschenbach has always seen himself as rather perfect, as a model of justice and truth, as someone unconcerned with death. But lately he has felt age chipping at both his art and his body. After gazing at Tadzio, he realizes how old he has become, and he decides to be Tadzio, young and beautiful again. If Tadzio can look so good yet be weakening, cannot Aschenbach, too, look good in the face of death? He begins to dress like Tadzio, and he uses makeup to disguise his age. When he looks in the mirror, he wants to see Tadzio in himself. He wants to love himself again.
The irony of the novel is that the more Aschenbach tries to mirror Tadzio, the closer he comes to death. Death stalks the boy, just as it stalks himself. No amount of beauty—either natural or artificial—will stop death.
2. How does Aschenbach change as an artist throughout the course of Death in Venice? What need drives this change?
Aschenbach begins the novel as a writer whose work ethic could be called Apollonian, but by the end of the novella he has done a complete about face and devoted himself to a belief that the artist should not be Apollonian, but Dionysian, in his craft.
From a young age, the precocious boy Aschenbach devoted himself to being a writer of the highest caliber. He eschewed childish pleasures and juvenile longings to concentrate on his writing. This devotion necessitated a solitariness, an apartness, from the world. He lived a life of the mind rather than the body. In his writer’s mind, he set forth heroes that overcame various obstacles (poverty, illness, bad luck, or a lack of self-control) to find their best selves. Aschenbach achieved what he wanted most: fame. His writings became models for students; his novels earned awards. He could not have done this without the strict work ethic he had developed, without the narrow personal world he had made for himself. His achievement made him feel superior and strong.
Yet as he ages, Aschenbach begins to suffer from writer’s block and a general restlessness at his work. On the day he takes a refreshing walk and comes upon the stone mason’s yard, he sees the odd stranger and decides that he, too, wants to travel. He needs a change of scene. He decides to go to Venice.
Venice is quite different from Aschenbach’s previous vacation destination, a quiet, solitary house in the mountains. Venice is ancient and crumbling and beautiful; it lulls him into a complacent state. And while he is in this state, he sees the boy Tadzio, a boy whose beauty is as perfect as a Greek statue. To Aschenbach, he embodies the spirit of what he himself has always tried to convey in his writing. But there is a crack in Tadzio’s unearthly beauty; the boy is sick, possibly destined for an early death. The truth of this discovery, that even the most perfect and beautiful of humans, that even a youth, cannot defy death, makes Aschenbach question his mode of existence. If death is the end of everything, then why spend life in the strictures of morality? Why not enjoy oneself?
As Aschenbach delves deeper and deeper into his love for Tadzio, he breaks the bonds of responsibility that made him a successful writer. No longer can he simply imagine life—now he must live it in the flesh. As a writer, he no longer feels obligated to model morality in his work. He comes to believe that “poets” cannot be responsible for others, only for themselves. They need to discover Truth through their senses and experiences—through the body, not just the mind. Aschenbach becomes possessed by this need.
Once Aschenbach comes to this conclusion, he throws responsibility to the winds and plunges into a decadent, debauched life, a Dionysian life driven by passion rather than responsibility. He turns from the Apollonian life modeled by the god Apollo, and converts to the life modeled by the god Dionysius.
3. Symbols play an important part in Death in Venice. In fact, Mann plays some symbols off of one another. How does Mann use Venice as a symbol that plays off of the symbol of the stone mason’s yard? What message does this connection suggest?
The stone mason’s yard and Venice are two important symbols in Death in Venice. They share many characteristics and could be said to mirror one another; in fact, as with any mirror image, they reflect one another’s opposite sides.
Both the stone mason’s yard and Venice are places that represent ways of living one’s life, or more specifically, ways that Aschenbach can live his life. The stone mason’s yard represents a structured, upright life. The towering stone buildings, as well as the monuments, seem lofty and indestructible. Aschenbach’s life up until he journeys to Venice has been devoted to hard work and service to his craft; his name has become like one of those monuments, a name inscribed on German culture as writer of the highest quality. The yard is situated across from a real graveyard; the inscriptions on the monuments in the stone mason’s yard suggest death to come—a death that is organized and reverent, a death that comes after a life lived respectably. Aschenbach reads these inscriptions in the late afternoon shadows and contemplates their “mystical meaning,” their promise of a heavenly life as reward for a life lived well. Standing in the yard is a bit like shopping for one’s death, choosing the inscription that best fits.
Like the stone mason’s yard, Venice contains old, imposing stone architecture, monuments to another time, to other religious beliefs and other gods that rewarded lives lived a certain way. Venice has stood a long time, its gondolas “unchanged from ballad times,” gliding through gloomy canals lined with “balconies of delicate marble traceries flanked by carven lions, round slippery corners of wall, past melancholy facades with ancient business shields reflected in the rocking water.” Like the stone mason’s yard, which sits near a cemetery, Venice is in close proximity to the “island of San Michele, where the cemetery was.” The stone mason’s yard has no one about when Aschenbach visits it; Venice, likewise, seems unusually quiet to Aschenbach, and he soon finds out that this is due to the cholera outbreak.
It is this secret—that a cholera outbreak has brought death to the city—that turns Venice from a mirror-like image of the stone mason’s yard to the opposite of the stone mason’s yard. The way in which people react to death is the opposite of the ways the stone mason’s inscriptions suggest people should react to death. Instead of quietly submitting, people turn to “intemperance, indecency, increase of crime.” They respond with emotion and a frenzied intoxication, and Aschenbach joins them: “His art, his moral sense, what were they in the balance beside the boons that chaos might confer?” Like Venice, Aschenbach turns his back on his old, law-abiding, proper life, and plunges pleasure and debauchery. He does not lie down for death, but he dances wildly toward it, both denying and accepting it at the same time.
Of course, the irony of the connection between the stone mason’s yard and Venice is that while both suggest opposite ways to live one’s life and approach one’s death, both cannot deny the inevitability of death. Whether sober and hardworking or drunk and merry, all men must die.
4. The narrator of Death in Venice focuses only on Aschenbach’s thoughts and feelings, yet the narrator describes the actions of those around Aschenbach. How do these comments convey what others see when they look at Aschenbach or what they think of him? How do these comments help readers understand what is happening to Aschenbach?
Aschenbach’s moral decline can be traced not only by his thoughts and actions, but also by the narrator’s description of how others react to Aschenbach as he changes.
When Aschenbach first arrives in Venice, he is treated with deference by the staff and other guests of the hotel. The manager is courteous; the other guests affect “mutual indifference.” The agent from whom he purchased a ticket to Venice had gone overboard to make Aschenbach feel that he is a “cultured man.” One may imagine from these encounters that Aschenbach appears to others as an older, respectable man on vacation. The narrator also tells of Aschenbach’s disgust when the young-old man on the boat tries to pay him a “formal farewell” and calls him “your Excellence” in French. The two of them side by side would clearly show Aschenbach to be upright and proper, while the young-old man “gurgled and stuttered” in his ridiculous clothes. Even on Venice’s streets, Aschenbach is besieged by vendors and beggars who see him as someone prosperous and above them.
As Aschenbach becomes more obsessed with Tadzio, however, his appearance and behavior change—and the reactions of those around him change, too. At first, Tadzio “modestly cast down his eyes before the grey-haired man of the lofty brows,” the natural, deferential reaction of a young boy noticing an older gentleman. Yet does Tadzio’s behavior toward Aschenbach remain respectful? Aschenbach himself notes that the boy sneers at things he does not like, such as the Russian family. Tadzio is capable of derision. Aschenbach chooses to believe that Tadzio avoids the boardwalk (the place where Aschenbach followed him so closely that he almost touched him) because he wishes to walk near Aschenbach, “passing Aschenbach’s tent in front, sometimes so unnecessarily close as almost to graze his table or chair.” Aschenbach believes this gesture indicates Tadzio’s acknowledgement of his interest, yet what Aschenbach cannot see is that it might be the gesture of a boy deliberately teasing the weird man who constantly stares at him.
As Aschenbach begins to change his appearance so that he resembles to young-old man, he does not see how others respond to him. Tadzio briefly meets his eyes with a serious look, which Aschenbach takes to mean he somehow “understands” the old man. On the terrace the night of the musical performance, Aschenbach is aware that “the lad would cast a glance, that might be slow and cautious, or might be sudden and swift, as though to take him by surprise to the place where his lover sat.” Aschenbach believes Tadzio is consciously seeing him as his lover, but Tadzio could just as easily be nervous or—again—teasing the weird man whom he knows watches him. With shame, Aschenbach begins to note that “on the beach, in the hotel lobby, on the Piazza, that they [Tadzio’s family] called Tadzio away from his neighborhood.”
The narrator never exposes Tadzio’s own thoughts or that of his family, except by reporting their actions and offering Aschenbach’s interpretations of those actions. Because readers understand that Aschenbach’s authority and judgment are unraveling, they can also understand that his interpretations are becoming more and more self-serving and delusional.
5. On one level, Aschenbach is simply a man traveling to Venice. Yet Mann depicts this journey as much more than a mere vacation. What techniques does Mann use to suggest that Aschenbach’s journey has deeper meaning?
Thomas Mann uses several techniques to suggest that Gustav Aschenbach’s journey to Venice is more than a mere vacation. Foreshadowing, dreamlike descriptions, recurring characters, and references to Greek mythology all elevate Aschenbach’s journey to a mythic significance.
The narrator of Death in Venice offers Aschenbach’s story as the factual account of an old man who descends into madness as he tries to come to grips with death. The facts the narrator gives, however, take on deeper meaning when coupled with odd occurrences and coincidences. The stone mason’s yard, at first, appears to be merely a stone working business, but certain facts make it feel more than just a place: its proximity to a graveyard, the late afternoon shadows that creep over it, the imposing texts on the stones, the loneliness of the place give it an eerie quality. The stranger’s sudden presence gives the impression that he materialized out of thin air; his surly demeanor seems odd, too. His presence triggers in Aschenbach longings to travel to sultry, rather dangerous climates—longings altogether alien to his usual urges. The stranger—presented so matter-of-factly—is more than just a stranger; his appearance in just this place seems to foreshadow something dark on the horizon for Aschenbach. In fact, he seems to usher Aschenbach onto his journey. He reappears at points in which Aschenbach sinks deeper into his madness. He is the gondolier who takes him into Venice—and into death; he is the musician who laughs at death.
Another character who foreshadows Aschenbach’s future is the young-old man. The narrator gives a matter-of-fact description: he is old, but dressed like a youth in gay, striped clothing, wearing false teeth and makeup. When Aschenbach first sees him, he feels “not quite canny, as though the world were suffering a dreamlike distortion of perspective which he might arrest by shutting it all out for a few minutes and then looking at it afresh.” The second time Aschenbach sees the man, he has the same “dazed” reaction. This reaction suggests that the young-old man is, like the stranger, no mere coincidence. He has a part to play, ushering Aschenbach into another life—or death—and foreshadowing what he will become along the way: a ridiculous young-old man himself.
Tadzio, of course, takes on significance as Aschenbach becomes obsessed with him. He is a mere boy, but the narrator also describes Aschenbach’s fantasies that he is a god from Greek mythology. His presence catapults Aschenbach into a mythic realm in his mind. The narrator’s language changes from matter-of-fact to lofty and poetic, resembling that of writings such as The Odyssey, a classic story of a man’s journey. The sun does not merely rise each day, but “the naked god with cheeks aflame drove his four fire-breathing steeds through heaven’s spaces” and Tadzio becomes, to Aschenbach, “Narcissus bent over the mirroring pool” or a golden-locked god. Venice, as the narrator’s changed language suggests, is more than a city, but it is also a mythical place. Death in such a place is not a mere passing away, but a passing over to another realm—at least in Aschenbach’s mind.
Aschenbach’s story is, on one level, that of a plain man. But on another, mythic level, it is the story of all men through the ages who face death.