This novella, which bears comparison with Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, was written between July 1911 and July 1912, and published in 1912. It tells the story of a famous writer in his fifties who is overcome by an illegal passion for a fourteen year-old boy. Gustav von Aschenbach has been made a member of the nobility for his services to German letters, and extracts from his books are taught in schools. Aschenbach’s entire being has been dedicated to the pursuit of glory and fame (‘Ruhm’) and a morality of strict steadfastness (‘durchhalten’), but now he dedicates himself instead to the pursuit of Tadzio, a Polish adolescent whom he encounters whilst on holiday in Venice. The novella is full of references to classical mythology and philosophy, in particular to Plato’s Phaedrus and the Symposium. Aschenbach tries to persuade himself that his feelings for Tadzio are Platonic, a form of disinterested aesthetic contemplation, but his wild dreams of tigers and swamps suggest a very different interpretation. Aschenbach is visibly relieved to cast off his lifelong habit of self-repression. Soon, stalking Tadzio around Venice takes precedence over self-preservation. Aschenbach is well aware that there is a cholera outbreak in Venice, but he stays and catches the disease. No sexual acts actually occur. Instead the novella delivers a compelling description of Aschenbach’s descent into obsession, as we witness his gradual moral and physical collapse. Aschenbach is a composite figure: he is partly a hypothetical version of Mann himself, who experienced comparable emotions whilst staying in Venice in May-June 1911; however Aschenbach also alludes to the aged Goethe’s infatuation with the teenage Ulrike von Levetzow. Aschenbach’s first name and his appearance are drawn from the composer Gustav Mahler (in the Visconti film version, Aschenbach is a composer and not a writer). According to Wolfgang Koeppen this is Thomas Mann’s best work, because of the pain of love which it communicates (see reading list below, p. 116).
The mythological framework draws on Nietzsche’s Die Geburt der Tragödie; The Birth of Tragedy: Aschenbach is an Apollonian artist who descends into Dionysian excess. But the novella begins and ends with an image of Hermes: the final page describes Tadzio as the god Hermes in his role as psychagogue, leader of the souls of the dead through the underworld. This mythic framework gives the text a timeless aspect, although Todd Kontje argues convincingly that the novella exposes its own myth-making procedures (see Kontje, reading list below, p. 51). Der Tod in Venedig has a political dimension too: it begins by referring to a month-long threat to the entire European continent, and this suggests that Aschenbach’s personal crisis is linked to imperial tensions around 1912. As the narrator says in Chapter 2, if an artwork is capable of having a wide and deep effect, then there must be an intimate connection between the personal fate of the author and the general fate of the public. If Aschenbach’s rejection of psychological insight has found favour with the establishment and the general public, then this implies that it is not only Aschenbach who has started to abandon his critical faculties, but German society in general.
The atmosphere of the novella is indebted to the Venetian Sonnets of August von Platen.
In Chapter 1, Gustav von Aschenbach is standing by tram stop opposite a cemetery in a suburb of Munich when he sees a red-haired stranger standing in the doorway of the chapel. He realises that the stranger is staring at him and he turns away. Suddenly Aschenbach feels the desire to travel, and he imagines a tropical swamp populated with tigers.
In Chapter 2 there is a list of Aschenbach’s books, which are modelled on Thomas Mann’s own unfinished projects; there is a detailed description of Aschenbach as a writer, his ethos of self-control, his resemblance to Saint Sebastian (a homoerotic saint); his willed classicism; his role as a public authority.
In Chapter 3, on the boat to Venice, Aschenbach sees a group of young men, and he is shocked to realise that one of them is fake – he is old and wrinkled, with dyed hair and wearing make-up. Aschenbach takes a gondola and is disconcerted when the gondolier starts taking him directly to the Lido, instead of to the steam boat. Once the ride is over, Aschenbach goes off to look for change; when he returns the gondolier has disappeared, because the man had no licence to operate a gondola. Aschenbach enters the hotel and sees a long-haired boy of fourteen who is ‘perfectly beautiful’. The next day Aschenbach watches Tadzio on the beach. He feels feverish and realises that the climate, with its hot wind (scirocco) is bad for his health. He decides to leave the hotel and heads for the railway station, where he is relieved to discover that his baggage has been sent to Como by mistake – he cannot leave Venice after all.
In Chapter 4, Aschenbach spends his mornings on the beach watching Tadzio. He writes one and a half pages of prose which are modelled on Tadzio. He longs to speak to Tadzio but does not dare. Occasionally they gaze into each other’s eyes. One evening Aschenbach sees Tadzio on the hotel terrace; Tadzio smiles at Aschenbach, who hurries away and collapses on a bench, whispering ‘Ich liebe dich!’
In Chapter 5, official health warnings about gastric flu are posted, but the German press contains rumours that the infection is something worse. Aschenbach is glad that the Venetian authorities are denying these rumours because he would hate Tadzio and his family to leave. He follows Tadzio around Venice; that evening there is a musical performance on the hotel terrace. The next day a British travel agent tells Aschenbach that there has been an outbreak of cholera and advises him to leave Venice at once. Aschenbach considers warning Tadzio’s family but decides not to. That night he dreams of Dionysian revelry and the next day he has his hair dyed. Soon Aschenbach grows feverish and starts mumbling quotations from Plato’s Phaedrus. The novella ends as Aschenbach expires in his chair whilst staring at Tadzio walking at the water's edge.
Alan Bance, ‘“Der Tod in Venedig” and the Triadic Structure’, Forum for Modern Language Studies 8 (1972), 148-61
Jeffrey B. Berlin (ed.), Approaches to Teaching Mann’s ‘Death in Venice’ and Other Short Fiction (New York: MLA, 1992)
Elizabeth Boa, ‘Global Intimations: Cultural Geography in Buddenbrooks, Tonio Kröger, and Der Tod in Venedig’, Oxford German Studies 35 (2006), 21-33
Edward S. Brinkley, 'Fear of Form: Thomas Mann's Der Tod in Venedig', Monatshefte 91:1 (1999), 2-27
Dorrit Cohn, 'The Second Author of Der Tod in Venedig', in Probleme der Moderne: Studien zur deutschen Literatur von Nietzsche bis Brecht. Festschrift für Walter Sokel, ed. by Benjamin Bennett, Anton Kaes and William J. Lillyman (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1983), pp. 223-45; reprinted in Critical Essays on Thomas Mann, ed. by Inta M. Ezergailis (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988), pp. 124-43
André von Gronicka, ‘“Myth plus Psychology”: a style analysis of Death in Venice’, Germanic Review 31 (1956), 191-205
Todd Kontje, The Cambridge Introduction to Thomas Mann (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011)
Heidi M. Rockwood and Robert J. R. Rockwood, ‘The Psychological Reality of Myth in Der Tod in Venedig’, Germanic Review 59 (1984), 137-41
T. J. Reed (ed.), Der Tod in Venedig (London and Bristol: Blackwell, 1996)
T. J. Reed, Death in Venice: Making and Unmaking a Master (New York: Twayne, 1994)
T. J. Reed, ‘The Frustrated Poet: Homosexuality and Taboo in Der Tod in Venedig’, in Taboos in German Literature, ed. by David Jackson (Oxford and Providence, RI: Berghahn, 1996), pp. 119-34
Ritchie Robertson, ‘Classicism and its pitfalls: Death in Venice’, in The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Mann, ed. by Ritchie Robertson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 95-106
Richard Sheppard, ‘Tonio Kröger and Der Tod in Venedig: From Bourgeois Realism to Visionary Modernism’, Oxford German Studies 18-19 (1989-90), 92-108
Ellis Shookman, Thomas Mann's Death in Venice: A Novella and its Critics (New York: Camden House, 2003)
Further Reading in German
Wolfgang Koeppen, ‘Thomas Mann: Die Beschwörung der Liebe’, in Koeppen, Die elenden Skribenten. Aufsätze (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1984), pp. 110-18