Death in Venice explores the relationship between an artist, namely Gustave von Aschenbach, and the world in which he lives. Aschenbach, destined to be an artist from a young age, represents art, while his surroundings represent life.
As the story unfolds, Aschenbach endeavors on a journey in an attempt to relinquish his position in society as an artist. Aschenbach wants to experience life, as opposed to merely reflecting upon it, as he has done for so many years. This attempted change of lifestyle can also be interpreted as a transition from the ways of Apollo to those of Dionysus, an archetype dating back to Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy. Aschenbach’s journey throughout Death in Venice can be seen as an artist’s attempt to live life free from artistic interpretations. In the end, however, Aschenbach fails and his death shows that art is transient. Because of Aschenbach’s failure to step down from his position as an artist and to become a part of life, it can be concluded that art is purely a reflection of life.
Aschenbach’s journey commences upon his encountering a stranger on a portico. “He was obviously not Bavarian.” (Mann, 4) Aschenbach, never having ventured far from home, is intrigued by this foreigner who fails to give him the respect and reverence that he is used to as a renowned artist. For the first time in his life, Aschenbach is challenged. “So now, perhaps, feeling, thus tyrannized, avenged itself by leaving him, refusing from now on to carry and wing his art and taking away with it all the ecstasy he had known in form and expression.” (Mann, 7) Aschenbach, acknowledging the challenge, resolves to travel. The new territory upon which he is to embark, t…
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…be an artist is shown throughout his life, including in his last moments on the beach when he fears Tadzio’s death. The irony of Ashenbach’s demise emphasizes that art, as a reflection of life, is transient. “And before nightfall a shocked and respectful world received the news of his decease.” (Mann, 73) Aschenbach has earned his place in history as an artist. But like all artists, he is replaced by his successors. Aschenbach’s transition from an Apollonian way of life to a Dionysian one shows that art reflects life. In his case, art is nothing more than a reflection, and although beautiful and appreciated, it is not an essential element of life itself.
“Mann, Thomas.” Microsoft(r) Encarta(r) 98 Encyclopedia. 1993-1997.
Mann, Thomas. Death In Venice. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.
Essay on Exploring Death in Death in Venice
Exploring Death in Death in Venice
Death in Venice by Thomas Mann, is a story that deals with mortality on many different levels. There is the obvious physical death by cholera, and the cyclical death in nature: in the beginning it is spring and in the end, autumn. We see a kind of death of the ego in Gustav Aschenbach’s dreams. Venice itself is a personification of death, and death is seen as the leitmotif in musical terms. It is also reflected in the idea of the traveler coming to the end of a long fatiguing journey.
It must also be noted there are no women in the story with prominent roles. The hero’s wife is long dead and his daughter has been married and gone for many years. Any women in the story are merely in the background, unnamed and colorless-totally insignificant. Mann has purposely left them out because they are life givers, the symbol of fertility and birth. (The only one scene where women have an active role is in the degrading and violently promiscuous dream.)
There are definite homosexual overtones evident almost from the moment Aschenbach sees Tadzio-the object of his obsession.
By far the most important level of death appears in the crumbling of Aschenbach’s life principles: the giving up and letting go of all those ideals that molded his character and had shaped his work and guided every aspect of his entire life. It is a complete handing over of oneself to all that was heretofore anathema to him. The mind, reason, rationality, and all that goes with it: service, dignity, and restraint all buckle and die-all fall in the wake of the onslaught of passion and chaos.
Dreams play a major role in the story, and, throughout the history of literature, sleep has often been consid…
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…one can surmise perhaps Aschenbach’s shade would then have been rowed across the Styx (in a black gondola), or more possibly he would have followed Tadzio’s outwardly pointing finger and joined Poseidon’s ranks, plunging “into an immensity of richest expectation” (75) seeking “refuge . . . in the bosom of the simple and vast” [ocean] (31). Gustav thought of the boy as Phaeax, one of the sea god’s sons (29). He had seen this godlike creature “with dripping locks . . . emerging from the depths of sea and sky” (33).
What more fitting manner of leaving the earthly fray than by returning to “the birth of form . . . the origin of the gods” (33)?
Freud, Sigmund. Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. Chps. 9, 14.
Funk and Wagnalls New Encyclopedia Vol. 24, p. 388.
Mann, Thomas. Death in Venice. 1911. New York: Vintage, 1958.