Places: Death in Venice

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: Der Tod in Venedig, 1912 (English translation, 1925)

Type of work: Novella

Type of plot: Symbolic realism

Time of work: Early twentieth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Munich

*Munich Death in Venice (MEW-nihk). Well-ordered, proper city in Germany’s Bavarian region, in which the story opens around the turn of the twentieth century. There the great writer Gustav von Aschenbach lives. Weary of Germany’s cold and damp northern spring and the dullness of his surroundings, Aschenbach decides to spend a summer in a warm place and goes to Italy. Although briefly described, cold Munich serves as a contrast to the warmth and extravagance of Venice, and it represents the writer’s discipline and respectability.

*Venice

*Venice. Port city in northern Italy where Aschenbach arrives after a few false starts and checks into the Hôtel des Bains on the Lido, an island across the canal from the main city. With a private beach facing the Adriatic Sea, this grand hotel has spacious rooms, well-tended gardens, elegant public areas, a spacious veranda, and an obsequious staff–all of which suits Aschenbach’s aristocratic tastes. He then settles into his comfortable room and looks forward to a refreshing holiday.

Drawn to Venice, he takes a boat across the canal to the city, relishing even “that slightly foul odor of sea and swamp.” At first glance, “that most improbable of cities” appears beautiful with its fabulous towers and ornate palaces and churches shimmering in the sunlight. On closer examination, however, Aschenbach finds that the city is crumbling. Its once magnificent structures are sinking into the water, the paint everywhere is peeling and moldy, elaborate carvings are half eaten away. Nevertheless, the decay, the odors emanating from the fetid canals, the dank passageways, and the stale air seduce Aschenbach as he wanders through the city.

The twofold character of Venice–its dilapidation and its outward magnificence–foreshadows Aschenbach’s own decline. It begins at dinner in the Hôtel des Bains when he watches a Polish family take their seats and admires the beauty of their preadolescent son Tadzio. Soon the admiration turns into an obsession, and Venice assumes a new role, evolving into a place of subterfuge and baseness as Aschenbach sneaks around the passageways to catch glimpses of the boy. At first he remains an ostensibly respectable man, but gradually he gives over to his passions, and like the city he is visiting he begins to deteriorate. He resorts to dyeing his hair and wearing makeup to hide his age–much like the city that covers its deteriorating buildings with fresh coats of paint.

Before long, Aschenbach learns that a cholera epidemic has infected Venice, much as his irrational attraction to Tadzio has infected his state of being. Hotel guests begin to leave, but Aschenbach and the Polish family stay on. Instead of visiting the city, the remaining guests spend more time on the hotel beach, with its brightly colored tents, comfortable chairs, and umbrellas. Aschenbach takes his place on the beach daily, pretending to write but actually watching the graceful movements of Tadzio as he plays in the sand and wades in the ocean. At this point, the city of Venice loses some of its importance as the setting, and “the death in Venice” actually takes place on the beach–a stretch of civilization at the edge of the untamed sea.

The metaphor is complete when Aschenbach at last grasps the dual nature of the artist–that it is one part intellect and the other part sensuality. When he leaves orderly Munich his intellect dominates, but it is later set in conflict with his sensual side through the seductive qualities of the decadent but “improbable” Italian city and through the exquisite but tempter-like Tadzio. No other setting could be imagined for this symbolic analysis of the balance that the artist must maintain. Without that balance, the artist will, like Venice, decay.

BibliographyBerlin, Jeffrey B., ed. Approaches to Teaching Mann’s “Death in Venice” and Other Short Fiction. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1992. Designed for teachers, this book contains several useful shorter essays, especially that by Naomi Ritter on the story in the context of European decadence. Includes a useful bibliographical essay.Cohn, Dorrit. “The Second Author in Der Tod in Venedig.” In Critical Essays on Thomas Mann, compiled by Inta M. Ezergailis. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988. An examination of the highly ironic relationship between the narrator of the story and his protagonist, Gustav von Aschenbach. An excellent example of close textual analysis of one specific aspect of the novella.Heller, Erich. “The Embarrassed Muse.” In Thomas Mann: The Ironic German. 1958. Reprint. South Bend, Ind.: Regnery/Gateway, 1979. Places the novella in the context of Mann’s other works before embarking on a detailed discussion of the irony Mann employs in the narrative. Heller pays special attention to the story’s focus on art and the artist.Reed, T. J. “Death in Venice”: Making and Unmaking a Master. New York: Twayne, 1994. The best general overview of the story with sections on literary and historical context, good close readings, and a look at the story’s genesis and its relationship to Mann and German history. Also includes an annotated bibliography.Weiner, Marc A. “Music and Repression: Death in Venice.” In Undertones of Insurrection: Music, Politics, and the Social Sphere in the Modern German Narrative. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993. A brief but thorough analysis of musical tropes and meanings in the novella. Focuses on interpretation and provides an excellent discussion of the musical aspects of Death in Venice.
Categories: Places