Death in Venice: Novel Summary: pages 40 - 66
Aschenbach gives in to the lulling beauty of the seaside, and for the first time in his life, he takes pleasure in relaxing. “This spot and this alone had power to beguile him, to relax his resolution, to make him glad.” He lounges under the shade on the beach during the mornings, and at night he puts on evening dress for dinner. What most contents him, however, is seeing Tadzio every day. In a short time, Aschenbach has memorized “every line and pose of this form that limned itself so freely against the sea and sky; its every loveliness, though conned by heart, yet thrilled him each day afresh.”
Aschenbach comes to believe that Tadzio’s beauty embodies the truth and beauty that he has always tried to convey in his writing. Just as God brought this beautiful male form into being, so Aschenbach brings beautiful words to being. Tadzio, Aschenbach is convinced, is “beauty’s very essence” in bodily form.
Aschenbach imagines a conversation between the old sage Socrates and the young Phaedrus concerning “the nature of virtue and desire.” Socrates tells Phaedrus that beauty is “‘the sole aspect of the spiritual which we can perceive through our senses. . . .’” Aschenbach feels inspired by Tadzio’s pure beauty to write. He plans to use Tadzio as his muse for an essay, a “page and a half of choicest prose, so chaste, so lofty, so poignant with feeling, which would shortly be the wonder and admiration of the multitude.” He writes for hours, but afterward he feels “debauched” and exhausted, like one who has attended a wild party.
The next morning, Aschenbach follows Tadzio closely on his way to the beach, wanting to touch his shoulder and speak with him. Suddenly, however, Aschenbach’s heart beats frighteningly fast and his breath grows short. He is unable to speak and gives up his chance to speak to Tadzio. He is mortified that Tadzio may have noticed his attempt and think him “ridiculous.” Aschenbach also admits to himself that, in truth, he does not want to speak to the boy, for to do so would make the boy human. Aschenbach would much rather maintain his illusion that the boy is a god.
Aschenbach has no thought of returning home. He rises early each day to watch the sunrise. The feel of its warmth on his face brings back “forgotten feelings, precious pangs of his youth, quenched long since by the stern service that had been his life. . . .” Each day seems mythical to him; the dawn is a goddess strewing roses, the clouds are “herds of gods,” and the sea breeze is Poseidon’s horses. He imagines Tadzio as Hyacinthis.
Aschenbach begins to think that Tadzio is not entirely unaware of him. Sometimes, he meets Tadzio’s glances, in which “a question lay—he faltered in his step, gazed on the ground, then up again with that ineffably sweet look he had; and when he was past, something in his bearing seemed to say that only good breeding hindered him from turning around.”
One evening, the Polish family is late coming back to the hotel. When they arrive, Aschenbach does not have time to compose his features; he shows his joy to Tadzio, who returns it with a smile. Aschenbach imagines it to be Narcissus’s smile as he gazed at himself in the water. The smile leaves Aschenbach quite undone. He staggers away and whispers, “‘I love you!’”
Aschenbach seems to be in the throes of a two-fold identity crisis. On one level, he is an old man grasping for youth again; he seems to live through Tadzio. On another level, he is a writer questioning his work. All his life, he has strictly adhered to a work ethic and a self-denial that produced volumes of works that, Aschenbach believed, tapped some sort of Truth for readers. Now, he sees another route to getting to Truth: by abandoning oneself to the senses. He is even questioning what moral truths he has been advocating. His fixation with Tadzio’s godlike beauty has shown him “that nature shivers with ecstasy when the mind bows down in homage before beauty.” Aschenbach is letting feelings take him over, and he is slowly losing his grip on the moral and wantonly abandoning himself to Beauty.
One may argue, too, that Aschenbach is experiencing a sexual identity crisis. Never before has he loved someone as intensely as he loves Tadzio. Aschenbach seems to have developed homosexual desires that both thrill and puzzle him. And he begins to think that Tadzio might return his feelings.
Does Tadzio return interest in Aschenbach? The old man is convinced he does, but are the downcast eyes and the serious glances indicative of unease—even revulsion—that Aschenbach cannot comprehend? Does Tadzio walk near Aschenbach’s beach tent because he seeks out Aschenbach, or because he does not even notice Aschenbach? Is the smile he gives Aschenbach the smile of a polite young man to an older gentleman he has just noticed? Or is it a smile of disdain for the older man’s obvious—and silly—admiration for him? Or is it one of unease for the man who seems always to be watching him? The narrator only gives readers Aschenbach’s perspective.
That Aschenbach is coming mentally unhinged is evident in his mythic fantasies. He invests Tadzio with godlike beauty, and he believes he is living in “a world possessed, peopled by Pan,” a sort of Bacchanalian world. He believes Tadzio stands for that world, but does he really? When Aschenbach associates Tadzio with the Narcissus myth, is he not also associating himself with it? Is not Aschenbach willfully seeing himself—as the youth he could have been—in Tadzio’s features?
Summary, pages 52-66
Aschenbach enters the fourth week of his stay. He becomes aware that the number of tourists—particularly German tourists—has declined rather dramatically. The area would normally be crawling with tourists at this season. He also notices, when following Tadzio and his family into Venice, that the city has a medicinal smell, like germicide. In addition, he reads an ordinance that warns against gastric infections and mostly lays the blame on the canal, as well as on oysters and shellfish. People he meets tell him that it is all “just a precaution.” The German papers, however, warn of an outbreak. Aschenbach is annoyed with such warnings. If Tadzio’s Polish family were to catch wind of the warnings, they might leave—Aschenbach could not bear that, he thinks.
Aschenbach begins to follow Tadzio everywhere, longing for a look from him. As he follows the boy, he also smells the “odour of a sickened city,” but still he ignores that ominous sign. His “mind and heart were drunk with passion, his footsteps guided by the dæmonic power whose pastime it is to trample on human reason and dignity.” He gets in a gondola, a “black-snouted bark,” to follow the family. In the heat he takes in a beggar in front of a church, an antiques dealer beckoning customers, and he thinks about how Venice is “half fairy-tale, half snare,” hiding a serious, deadly outbreak in order to stay in business. This knowledge pleases him.
One evening, Aschenbach even goes so far as to rest his head on the outside of Tadzio’s door, not caring if he is caught doing such an inappropriate thing. He does think of his proper ancestors and wonders what they would think of him now. He thinks about how his whole life has been “a service, and he a soldier, like some of them, and art was war—a grilling, exhausting struggle that nowadays wore one out before one could grow old.” He knows they would not approve of his degeneracy, but he also reasons that his dive into love and pleasure is no different than their complete dive into a life of moral virtue. Both are extreme ways of living life.
Meanwhile, he tries to remain respectable looking, while all the time nursing his secret passion for Tadzio, just as the city tries to look normal while it is secretly ill. He takes to trying to bait people to tell him that a plague is happening, but of course they do not admit to that secret.
One evening, a band of musicians entertains in the hotel courtyard. One, a man with buffoonish antics entertains the crowd. In times past, Aschenbach would have looked on such a man disdainfully, but now he finds him amusing. Tadzio is nearby, leaning on the balcony railing, and Aschenbach notices that he keeps casting glances towards him. He does not return the glances because he fears that the mother will notice “that matters had gone so far.” In fact, the family seems to call Tadzio away whenever he is too close to Aschenbach. Aschenbach is both affronted and ashamed that they take this action.
The singer in the courtyard, Aschenbach now notices, has a large Adam’s apple, red hair, and a snub nose. His pale face seems unpleasant, defiant even. His mouth grins luridly. Aschenbach notices as well that when the man moves, the scent of disinfectant wafts from him. He makes the crowd uncomfortable when he goes among them to boldly collect tips. When he comes to Aschenbach, Aschenbach asks in a whisper why officials are disinfecting Venice. The musician feigns ignorance. Yet when he and his companions launch into their final song, it has a mocking, laughing quality that suggests he is laughing at the audience, that he knows something they do not know. Aschenbach is discomfited by this mockery, but as he gets up to leave, he finds Tadzio gazing at him seriously. Aschenbach thinks, as he has before, that the boy is delicate and will not live to be a grown man. Secretly, Aschenbach is pleased this might be the case.
After Tadzio leaves, Aschenbach remains on the terrace, nursing his glass of red pomegranate juice, thinking of an hourglass he had as a child. The red sand ran through the delicate glass as time ran out.
Aschenbach continues to question people who may be hiding the secret about the plague, and finally an English clerk tells him that, apparently, the Asiatic cholera from “the hot moist swamps of the delta of the Ganges” has been spreading, and it has reached Italy. The German papers found out about it when a German man arrived home from a holiday in Italy and died from cholera. Venice has covered up the quarantines and numerous deaths in order not to lose its tourist business. The mood within the city has been one of “intemperance, indecency, increase of crime.”
Aschenbach is pleased to have discovered the truth, and he knows that he should tell Tadzio’s mother so that she can take her family to safety. To do so would give him back his moral fortitude. He thinks of the strange man he saw in the stone mason’s yard and how his appearance sparked Aschenbach’s journey away from himself; he thinks that he should return home, to normalcy and all that is proper. Yet he cannot warn the Polish mother, nor can he make himself return. “His art, his moral sense, what were they in the balance beside the boons that chaos might confer?” he asks himself. He chooses not to speak.
The reappearance of the character from the stone mason’s yard, now in the form of the musician—and previously in the form of the rude gondolier—lends an ominous tone to Aschenbach’s holiday. This character seems to mark Aschenbach’s moral decline. In fact, the man mocks Aschenbach’s morality. He stood irreverently among the cemetery markers that symbolized what Aschenbach stood for at one time: a dutiful life devoted to high-minded art. As a gondolier, he conveyed Aschenbach from that structured moral world into an ancient, abysmal world marked by pleasure, debauchery, and death. Now, as the musician, he mocks Aschenbach’s decline into an immoral man and an artist who has fallen from his lofty standards. His red hair and snub nose, his prominent teeth and irreverent attitude all seem to suggest a devilish, bacchanalian figure bent on ruining Aschenbach.
Indeed, when Aschenbach has a chance to redeem himself and become the moral man he once was, he does not take that chance. He has surrendered to a dissolute life, and he will not give it up even to save the boy he loves from the plague.