Death in Venice is a novella (one of those long short stories) written by the German novelist Thomas Mann. The story revolves around an ageing writer’s obsession with a young Polish boy. It reflects themes on the duality of art and life, death and disintegration among the living, love and suffering, and the conflict between the artist and his inner self.
The protagonist, Gustave Aschenbach, a man in his 50s, is a depressed and most presumably a repressed writer who is inspired to travel after meeting a mysterious stranger in a graveyard. He lands in Venice in the middle of a bolstering summer heat while the city is beginning to suffer from a cholera epidemic. He meets and becomes attracted to beautiful young Tadzio who is there on a holiday with his family. There appears to be an absence of a male figure in Tadzio’s family; only his mother, his sisters and a governess are mentioned in the story. For most part of the day, Tadzio hangs around with his prim and proper sisters who are often decked out like nuns. Their plainness contrasts with Tadzio’s beauty, which Aschenbach finds fascinating:
“Aschenbach, sitting so that he could see him in profile, was astonished anew, yes, startled, at the godlike beauty of the human being. The lad had on a light sailor suit of blue and white striped cotton, with a red silk breast-knot and a simple white standing collar round the neck – a not very elegant effect – yet above this collar the head was poised like a flower, incomparable loveliness. It was the head of Eros, with the yellowish bloom of Parian marble, with fine serious brows, and dusky clustering ringlets standing out in soft plenteousness over temples and ears.”
Again, in another scene, we read snippets of Aschenbach’s obsession:
“The sight of this living figure , virginally pure and austere, with dripping locks, beautiful as a tender young god, emerging from the depths of sea and sky, outrunning the element – it conjured up mythologies, it was like a primeval legend, handed down from the beginning of time, of the birth of form, of the origin of the gods.”
These and other similar passages describe an erotic infatuation and also display Aschenbach’s delusionary state of mind. This infatuation leads to Aschenbach giving up opportunities to leave the infected Venice. Instead, he spends days and evenings shadowing the boy and his sisters through the streets of Venice and the canals of the Renaissance city.
Throughout the story, I wondered when Aschenbach would approach Tadzio. But he never does, merely observing him from a distance like in most infatuation cases. Tadzio soon becomes aware of Aschenbach’s presence but likewise never makes any attempt to speak to the older man. On the day Tadzio and his family plan to leave the hotel, Aschenbach dies in a beach chair apparently envisioning Tadzio beckoning to him “pointing outward” to the sea with the promise of an “immensity of richest expectation.”
Having no prior knowledge of this story (I did not read the synopsis on purpose), it took me by surprise when I was almost half-way through the book that I may be reading about homosexual love. My suspicions were confirmed later with several more revelations of Aschenbach’s intimate thoughts. For a moment, I wondered if Mann had written some kind of autobiography but I ruled it out when I discovered that he had been married and had six children. But it appears that Mann’s diaries speak of his struggles with his bisexuality, which may have found reflection in this particular piece of work.
We can, of course, read more into the meaning of Death in Venice, such as the symbolic values it represents and the psychological nature of man. But whether this story is about decaying moral values set amidst a decaying city or purely Mann’s repressed feelings about homosexual love, the reader is left to his or her own interpretation. If you’re game for something different, read this to the end. It’s well worth it.