“Death in Venice” is a 1912 novella by the German author Thomas Mann. Originally published under the title “Der Tod in Venedig,” the novella relies heavily on allusion and metaphor to construct the narrative which centers around an elderly man falling in love with – and becoming obsessed with – a teenage boy.
Gustav von Aschenbach is a writer living in Germany shortly before the outbreak of World War I. While on vacation in Venice, Italy, Gustav spots a beautiful young boy named Tadzio who he immediately becomes obsessed with. The novel centers around Gustav’s descent into his darkest, inappropriate urges and his slow descent into near insanity. Toward the end of the novel, Gustav discovers that Venice has been hit by an outbreak of cholera and must decide whether he wants to flee the illness, leaving Tadzio forever or stay and risk contamination and almost certain death.
Eventually, Gustav decides to stay, and the city is put under quarantine. Gustav does contract the illness, and he dies on the beach, watching Tadzio from a distance, never having even spoken to the boy. The novella has been adapted into several different plays and operas as well as one film in 1971.
In the early 1900s, shortly before the outbreak of World War I, a man named Gustav von Aschenbach lives alone in Munich, Germany. Gustav is a writer and one who has seen great success in his day. One day while he’s taking a walk to clear his head, Gustav wanders into a stonemason’s shop. He wonders around looking at headstones for sale when he notices a strange man with red hair. The man seems to be staring at Gustav aggressively. For some reason this encounter makes Gustav think about traveling. He begins daydreaming of tropical forests.
Gustav contemplates traveling for a moment before quickly resorting back to his normal he moderate mental state. He thinks about writing, and writers need for perfectionism. But the idea of travel has stirred something in him. He wonders if his work might benefit from the spontaneity of a vacation. Before leaving the stonemason’s yard, Gustav looks for the red-haired man again, but he is unable to find him.
The second chapter, the narrator begins by explaining a bit more of Gustav’s background. Gustav’s family has a long history of loyal service to the Prussian State. His mother was the daughter of the music director. Gustav began writing at an early age and became successful while still very young. He feels that the stress of constantly producing new work damaged his youth and made him have to grow up too soon. As an adult Gustav now has a very disciplined outlook on work. He consider himself devoted to it and rarely takes a vacation.
This obsession has taken a toll on his already fragile health. He struggles with many different chronic illnesses as a result. But Gustav loves his art. He writes most often about overcoming great suffering, poverty, corruption and physical ailments. The heroes of the books are people who are able to overcome these things. The narrator suggest that his heroes are “the heroes of our age” . The draw of Gustav’s writing lies in the need for people from his generation to see themselves and their own diligence and hard work in a hero. Gustav was formally a radical youth and a agitator but he considers his slow ascent into dignity to be one of his greatest achievements.
About two weeks after his visit to the stonemason’s yard, Gustav begins his vacation. He initially travels to an island in the Adriatic Sea but finds the weather too rainy and gray for his liking. The island is also too small and rural. Unsatisfied and still longing to embark on an adventurous vacation which he refers to as a “fantastic mutation of normal reality,” Gustav soon leaves the island and set out for the sunny banks of Venice, Italy.
He boards a boat bound for Venice where he is meant by a pair of seamen who seem dingy and odd. The men irritate Gustav with their manners, and both seem overly familiar as if they are worried that he will back out of the trip before giving them his money. Despite this worrying start, Gustav does not back out of the voyage and the ship sails for Venice.
As he sails on the open ocean, Gustav watches a group of young men also on board the ship as they joke around with each other. After watching them for some time, Gustav is shocked to realize that one of the young men is, in fact, an old man with a dyed mustache and a fake wig. Gustav wonders why the other men have not seemed to notice. This revelation forces Gustav to begin daydreaming about a dreamlike state that he thinks his world has become.
Gustav has been to Venice before, and on previous jaunts, he has found the weather to be very agreeable. However on this occasion when the ship rolls into the city, Gustav is greeted only buy heavy clouds. The weather makes him wonder if this is a different Venice then the one that he went to before. He sees the heavily disguised old man who is now drunk and making a fool of himself. Something about the man seems to make Gustav uneasy and make him feel as though his world is spinning out of control. Before he can get off the ship, the old man approaches him and complements Gustav’s “sweetheart.” Shaken by the experience Gustav steps off the ship and into a gondola.
The long black boat makes Gustav think only of coffins and death. He begins thinking morbid thoughts about his last journey on this earth. But when he gets onto the gondola, he discovers that it is very luxurious and enjoys the ride. Gustav becomes so comfortable in the fact that he fails to notice that the gondola is returning out to sea instead of going into Venice. He begins arguing with the captain, an aggressive man with red eyebrows. The man refuses to tell Gustav how much the ride is going to cost only insisting that he will pay.
Finally, after much arguing and many demands, Gustav manages to make it into Venice. Gustav goes to get money to pay the captain but when he returns he finds the man has disappeared. An old man by the gondola tells him that the captain did not have a license and is a notorious criminal who most likely left to avoid the police.
Gustav checks into his hotel and gets settled into his room, shortly going down to the parlor to await dinner. The hotel guests are a mix of people from many different countries. At a table near his, Gustav notices a group of teenagers accompanied by a governess who is speaking Polish. One boy who appears to be about 14 years old holds Gustav’s attention most of all. Gustav finds the boy to be beautiful. The boy reminds him of a Greek sculpture with his curly golden hair and his serene nature. The boy is most notably dressed in a child’s sailor suit. His two sisters, also with him, appear to be dressed more normally. The boy seems to be rich and pampered. His mother, when she arrives appears to be a wealthy, aristocratic woman. When she collects her children, the boy looks across the dining room and meets Gustav’s eyes.
The following morning the weather is still gray. Gustav remembers another trip to Venice when bad weather made him ill, and he had to return home before the trip was due to end. He wonders if this trip will meet a similar fate. When he goes down to breakfast, the Polish boy is there again, arriving late to join his family. Once again Gustav is astounded by the boy’s beauty. In his mind, Gustav compares a boy to the Greek god of love, Eros.
Gustav continues to watch the family and particularly the boy as they enjoy their carefree vacation. While on the beach later that day, Gustav sees the boy again scowling at a Russian couple who have been exhibiting bad manners. This display of emotion makes Gustav realize that the boy is merely a human and rather than take him down in his estimation, it only makes the boy earn even more of his respect.
Gustav tries to write but does not wish to miss the entertainment of the people around him and the open ocean. He puts away his writing case and buys some ripe strawberries from a vendor. Gustav watches the boy play with all the other children including another boy his age named Jashu. Gustav assumes that the boy is his friend and possibly his closest companion. Gustav feels himself relax amidst the warm air and soothing sounds of the sea. While relaxing, he still keeps an ear open to discern what the boy’s name might be. He managed to make out what may be either Adgio or Adgiu. But he finally assumes that the name they are using Tadzio must be a nickname for the Polish name, Tadeus”.
Returning to his room around midday, Gustav looks at himself in the mirror and notes his aging appearance. In the elevator, he is joined by a group of children that Tadzio was playing with. He gets his first up-close look at Tadzio. Up close the boy looks somewhat pale and possibly ill. The thought that the boy might be sick gives Gustav a strange sense of relief.
Walking through the streets of Venice, Gustav finds it hot and almost suffocating. He wonders if his health might be in danger but finds that he is too excited by the trip to care really. He decides to move to a resort in another town and leave Venice. The next morning he is told that the transportation for the next station is leaving. But Gustav does not want to leave without seeing the boy one last time. He informs the Porter that the transportation can leave without him and that he will take the public steamboat when he’s ready.
Just as he’s getting ready to leave, Tadzio enters, and Gustav feels his regret over leaving the boy to consume him. He begins traveling to the station, but when he arrives, he is not sure if he should take the train or not. To his surprising relief, he finds that his luggage has accidentally been taking on a different train and that he must now stay in Venice until they can return it to him. Gustav returns to the hotel and his room. It is only later that he realizes that the boy may have had a part in his reluctance to leave. He falls back into a chair and makes a gesture of calm acceptance.
Despite the fact that Gustav’s luggage is soon returned him, he continues to stay on in Venice. The frequent sightings of Tadzio give meaning to Gustav’s days. Watching Tadzio makes Gustav have visions of Socrates wooing Phaedrus in Athens. He is enraptured by Tadzio’s physique and the details of his body.
Suddenly Gustav is struck by inspiration. He begins writing, expressing his views on something the narrator refers to as “an important cultural problem” as well as a question of taste. He feels that he must write this thesis in Tadzio’s presence because the boy’s physique inspires him so much. However, after he’s done, he feels a sense of shame over having indulged himself in some transgression.
The next day Gustav decides to introduce himself to the boy, but just as he is about to lay a hand on the boy’s shoulder, he is overcome with embarrassment and backs away. The narrator wonders if Gustav might be intent on retaining his fantasy about the boy’s personality without any reality intruding. Gustav ceases working completely and begins spending its time in complete leisure. His adoration for the boy begins to consume all of his waking energy.
One day Gustav begins to realize that Tadzio has seemingly become aware of his adoration. He thinks that the boy has been walking by his cabin purposefully and often meets his eyes as he does so. Tadzio seems to have a look of simple curiosity. One night Gustav bumps into the boys family as they are coming back from dinner and he is unable to hide his adoration from the boy’s eyes. Tadzio gives him a smile that Gustav describes as that of Narcissus, meaning that it is inquisitive and somewhat troubled. Gustav feels that the smile is a gift and it makes him feel overjoyed and delirious. He rushes off to his hotel garden and whispers to the night air a declaration of love for Tadzio.
As the season continues, Gustav notices that the number of guests at the hotel is beginning to diminish. The hotel’s barber accidentally says something about a sickness but tries to change the subject quickly. Gustav begins trying to find out more about this sickness. He finds notices warning residence against drinking the water in the canals and eating the shellfish. But beyond that, he finds a little besides some German rumors about possible epidemics.
At first, Gustav is nervous about the idea of some type of epidemic striking the city. But with a strange kind of elation, he realizes that if the city has to be quarantined Tadzio and his family would have to stay in Venice. Taking his adoration to the next level Gustav begins stalking the boy’s family around the hotel. His obsession makes him feel as though he were drunk on devotion. Gustav also follows the boy’s family around the seedier parts of Venice. It is only occasionally that Gustav questions what he’s doing and what he is obviously becoming. But he casts aside these doubts by reminding himself that he is in the quest of art.
One evening as he is watching a group of street musicians plays in the hotel’s garden, Gustav notices that a singer is a red-haired man who seems to be making a song into something bawdier than it was originally intended. When the singer comes near him, he notices the man smells of bactericide. Gustav asks the man why Venice is disinfected but like all of the other citizens he has asked the man insists that it is only a precaution. Immediately the man is accosted by two hotel employees, but he assures them that he did not say anything indiscreet and they let him go.
The next day, Gustav finally manages to get a clerk at the British travel agency to admit that there is Asiatic cholera spreading through the city.
To keep tourists flowing in, The Italian government has tried to keep a lid on the story. The clerk urges Gustav to leave the city as quickly as possible as he believes that a quarantine is going to be issued any day. Gustav considers returning home and even considers warning Tadzio’s mother, but he cannot help but think of his life before this trip with repulsion. He does not want to return to his home in Germany, and he becomes excited thinking of the adventures that he and Tadzio might have if they were to stay in a city under quarantine.
That night Gustav has a strange dream about a group of primitive dancers worshiping a large phallic symbol. Gustav realizes that the stream is a metaphor for himself worshiping the derangement in his deep soul.
Somehow word seems to get out about the sickness. Most of the tourists leave the hotel except for Gustav and Tadzio’s family. Gustav fantasizes about being left alone with the boy and everyone else dying or fleeing the city. As everyone in the city is consumed with the panic of the illness, Gustav can take his obsession out in the open. He begins being more blatant in his pursuit of Tadzio. The barber convinces him to die his hair and apply things like face powder and rouge to seem younger.
Gustav realizes that he has the fever at first when he becomes confused and loses his way while traveling around the city. He buys some strawberries to quench a thirst that has become almost unbearable and sank in the street to eat them. At this point, the narrator compares Gustav’s current debasement to his high-minded ideals when he initially came into the city. He makes comparisons again to Socrates wooing Phaedrus and Socrates saying that knowledge and beauty lead to the abyss. When Gustav finally makes it back to the hotel, he finds that the Polish family is leaving later that day. He goes down to the beach to watch Tadzio play with his few remaining friends.
Tadzio’s wrestling with Jashu becomes violent, and Tadzio walks away refusing to accept an apology from his friend. At the edge of the ocean, Tadzio looks back and meets Gustav’s eyes. Gustav falls into an ill stupor but believes that he sees Tadzio smiling and beckoning him out into the ocean. Gustav walks out to follow him. But the narrator reveals that he actually collapsed in his chair and died later that day.
Gustav von Aschenbach – the main character of the story. Gustav is a writer living in Germany. At the beginning of the novel, Gustav is a diligent worker and a quiet man who considers his writing to be the most important thing in his life. The idea of going on vacation occurs to Gustav suddenly and almost comically. He approaches the vacation as if he has come to a great revelation and as if it is the only vacation he has ever taken.
This doggedness toward his writing is totally interrupted when Gustav goes to Venice and first sees Tadzio. Gustav’s love for Tadzio reads more like an obsession. He compares Tadzio to the goddess of love, Eros and their relationship to Socrates wooing Phaedrus. He seems to believe that the boy represents some purity and innocence that he, himself has lost. Of course, in reality, it is obvious that their relationship is not some doomed romance and that Gustav is clearly dangerously obsessed with the boy.
He gleefully fantasizes about different scenarios in which he would be left alone with Tadzio, many of which involved everyone else dying. Though he claims to love the boy – and that his love is pure – he does not warn Tadzio’s family about the cholera in the hopes that the impending quarantine will trap the boy in the city with him. In the end, Gustav dies from the illness that he easily could have escaped and seems to be happy to do so.
Tadzio – the objects of Gustav’s obsession. Tadzio is a fourteen-year-old Polish boy who catches Gustav’s notice when he is vacationing in Venice with his wealthy parents. In real life, it is believed that Gustav was based on Baron Wladyslaw Moes, a young boy that Mann became obsessed with on vacation and who inspired him to write the novel.
In the novel, Tadzio is said by Gustav to be exceptionally beautiful and to resemble a Greek statue with his golden ringlets. Though the novel is primarily about him, not much is revealed about Tadzio’s character as Gustav never actually interacts with him outside of his own imagination. By the end of the novel, Gustav seems to believe that Tadzio realizes that he is in love with him and is innocently curious about the older man’s interest, although Tadzio’s side of this is never revealed.
Thomas Mann Biography
Thomas Mann was born on June 6, 1875, in Lubeck, Germany. The son of a senator and a grain merchant, Mann has raised Lutheran despite the fact that his mother was Roman Catholic. In 1891, Mann’s father died, and his business was foreclosed. As a result of this, Mann’s family moved to Munich. Mann begins attending the Ludwig Maximillians University of Munich and the Technical University of Munich where he studied history, literature, and economics.
After university, Mann began working with the South German Fire Insurance Company with his brother, Heinrich. His career as a writer began in 1898 when man’s first short story, “Little Mr. Friedemann” was first published in Simplicissimus magazine.
In 1905, Man married Katia Pringsheim, the daughter of a wealthy Jewish industrialist. The couple went on to have six children. 1912 he and his wife moved to a sanatorium in Switzerland where he began writing one of his most famous novels “The Magic Mountain.” Part of his reasoning for moving to Switzerland was his discussed over the coming outbreak of World War I. Mann began publishing longer works at this time such as “Death in Venice” (1912).
In 1929, Mann was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for his novel “Buddenbrooks” (1901). After being informed that he was not allowed to return to Germany, Mann later emigrated to the United States where he taught at Princeton University in 1939. In the early 1940s, Mann and his family moved to Los Angeles, California where they became prominent members of the literary community.
Throughout this time, Mann produced some of his best-known novels, including the epic tale “Joseph and His Brothers” a series that took over 16 years to write. He also wrote “Doktor Faustus” (1947) during this time. During World War II Man was heavily anti-Nazi and participated in offering anti-Nazi speeches to the German people via BBC radio.
In 1952 Man and his family returned to Europe to live near Zürich, Switzerland. Though he was at this point allowed to return to Germany, he never again lived in his home country. In 1955 he died of atherosclerosis in Zürich, and he was later buried in the cemetery in Kiltchburg.