Death in Venice

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Aschenbach actually knows little about Tadzio, a fourteen year-old Polish boy vacationing with his family in Venice, but idealizes and fantasizes about him endlessly. Aschenbach is taken by Tadzio’s youthful, “godlike” beauty and continually compares the young boy to Greek statues and mythological figures. Aschenbach thinks that Tadzio looks sickly, and guesses that he will die young. He thinks that Tadzio recognizes his interest in him (and perhaps doesn’t mind), but it is unclear whether this is only Aschenbach’s fantasy or reality. At the end of the novella, Aschenbach sees Tadzio as a “psychagogue,” a role of the Greek god Hermes, who transported souls to the underworld.

Tadzio Quotes in Death in Venice

The Death in Venice quotes below are all either spoken by Tadzio or refer to Tadzio. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Art and the Artist Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Dover Publications edition of Death in Venice published in 1995.
Chapter 3 Quotes

With astonishment Aschenbach observed that the boy was perfectly beautiful. His face, pale and charmingly secretive, with the honey-colored hair curling around it, with its straight-sloping nose, its lovely mouth and its expression of sweet and divine earnestness, recalled Greek statues of the noblest period, and, along with its extremely pure perfection of form, it was of such unique personal charm that the onlooker thought he had never come across anything so felicitous either in nature or in art.

Related Characters: Gustav von Aschenbach, Tadzio
Page Number: 20
Explanation and Analysis:

Here we're introduced to one of the key characters of the novella, Tadzio. Gustav has just arrived in Venice, and he sees Tadzio, a stunningly beautiful child, running along. Gustav is immediately taken with Tadzio--but it's important to understand the nature of his attraction.

It's tempting to state that Gustav's initial attraction to Tadzio is rooted in Gustav's own repressed homosexual desires. This is left ambiguous at this point, however, and for now Gustav mostly seems drawn to Tadzio on a purely aesthetic level. Mann describes Tadzio as embodying the beauty of a Greek statue--in other words, Tadzio seems not only beautiful and pure, but also like the perfect symbol of the European tradition Gustav has spent his life studying. For most of his life, Gustav has embraced the European tradition and yet held it at arms' length: in other words, he's felt passion for Greek culture, and yet he's tempered his own passion with rationality and discipline. In short, Gustav has always balanced his attraction to figures like Tadzio with order and self-control. Here in Venice, with no order to hold him back, Gustav seems to be on the verge of giving in to his attraction.

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“He is very delicate, he is sickly,” thought Aschenbach. “He probably won’t live to a ripe old age.” And he avoided accounting to himself for the feeling of satisfaction or consolation which accompanied that thought.

Related Characters: Gustav von Aschenbach (speaker), Tadzio
Page Number: 27
Explanation and Analysis:

Gustav thinks more about Tadzio, the beautiful boy he's discovered shortly after arriving in Venice. Tadzio is handsome, but his teeth are somewhat odd--they look pale and translucent, as if Tadzio is sickly or frail. When Gustav notices Tadzio's teeth, he's secretly pleased, though he doesn't want to admit this to himself.

Why is Gustav consoled by the thought of Tadzio's sickness? In part, Tadzio symbolizes beauty as its purest--beauty that can't last forever. Gustav has already experienced the horrors of old age--remember the disgusting old man he glimpsed on his boat, a reminder of how quickly beauty decays into ugliness. So Tadzio's early death (assuming that it's a reality) is a kind of blessing for someone (like Gustav) who appreciates Tadzio only as a symbol and aesthetic object--by dying early, Tadzio's beauty will never fade. And yet from a moral perspective, this seems monstrous and dehumanizing. In all, the passage reiterates the proximity of sex and death, desire and repulsion, art and reality. Gustav is attracted to Tadzio, a symbol of both youth and death.

But at that moment he felt this casual greeting die away and grow silent in the face of the truth that was in his heart; he felt the enthusiasm in his blood, the joy and pain in his soul, and realized it was for Tadzio’s sake that the departure had been so hard on him. . . Then he raised his head and with his two hands, which were hanging down limply over the armrests of the chair, he made a slow turning and lifting motion, bringing the palms upward, as if he were opening his arms and holding them out. It was a gesture that bespoke an open welcome, a calm acceptance.

Related Characters: Gustav von Aschenbach, Tadzio
Page Number: 32
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of Chapter 3, Gustav reaches a strange truce with his own desires. He's been trying to leave Venice and stay in Venice at the same time. But here, he comes face-to-face with his own desires: he admits that he chose to stay in Venice because he wanted to see more of Tadzio, the beautiful boy for whom Gustav can barely repress his fascination. Gustav admits his attraction to Tadzio--as symbolized by his gesture of calm acceptance. (Opening his hands in "welcome" also calls back to the earlier image of Gustav's old life as a clenched fist.)

Furthermore, Gustav's gesture seems to suggest that he's coming to terms with his own mortality. Tadzio is a symbol of life and vitality, but he is also a symbol of death and finality (you can't have one without the other, Mann suggests). Thus the end of the chapter foreshadows the end of the novella, in which Gustav's desire for youth and life merges with his own inevitable death.

Chapter 4 Quotes

Soon the observer knew every line and pose of that body which was so elegant, which offered itself so freely; with joy he greeted anew each already familiar detail of his beauty; there was no end to his admiration, his delicate sensual pleasure. . . His honey-colored hair curled close to his temples and down his neck; the sun illuminated the down at the top of his spine; his finely delineated ribs, his well-formed chest were readily visible through the scanty covering of his torso; his armpits were still as smooth as a statue’s; his knee hollows shone, and their bluish veins made his body look as if it were formed of some more pellucid material. What breeding, what precision of thought were expressed in this outstretched body, perfect in its youthfulness! But the severe and pure will, which, operating obscurely, had managed to bring this godlike image into the light of day—was it not well known and familiar to him, the artist? Was it not operative in him as well when, full of sober passion, he liberated from the marble block of language the slender form which he had seen in his mind and which he presented to the world as an icon and mirror of intellectual beauty?

Related Characters: Gustav von Aschenbach, Tadzio
Page Number: 35-36
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, we begin to see the problem (philosophically and aesthetically) with Gustav's desire for Tadzio. Gustav came to Venice to escape the suffocating influence of his own professionalism--he wanted to escape the "weight" of European tradition and his artistic discipline in a place where he could be free and relaxed. And yet Gustav hasn't really escaped discipline. On the contrary, right now he sees Tadzio as the very embodiment of the "intellectual beauty" of Classical tradition--the incarnation of everything that he's been studying and writing about for the last couple decades. To bring in some more Nietzsche, Gustav is still too Apollonian--he thinks that he can live in a world of order and structure, even as he's already unleashed his Dionysian desires.

Furthermore, it's now clear that Gustav's fascination with Tadzio has become very unhealthy. He still thinks of the boy as an art object, but has also become essentially addicted to watching him, and is more and more focused on the physical, sensual details of his body. Thus Gustav's desires again transition from being repressed and aesthetic to being uncontrollable and sexual.

Often, when the sun went down behind Venice, he sat on a bench in the park to watch Tadzio, who, dressed in white with a sash of some bright color, was enjoying himself playing ball on the rolled gravel court; and it was Hyacinth whom he thought he saw, Hyacinth, who was fated to die because two gods loved him. Yes, he felt Zephyr’s painful jealousy of his rival, who forgot his oracle, his bow and his cithara so that he could constantly sport with the beautiful boy; he saw the discus, directed by cruel jealousy, striking the lovely head; turning pale himself, he caught the limp body, and the flower that blossomed from the sweet blood bore the inscription of his unending lament.

Related Characters: Gustav von Aschenbach, Tadzio
Page Number: 40-41
Explanation and Analysis:

Over the course of this chapter, Gustav's intellectual appreciation for Tadzio's beauty transforms into a barely-restrained erotic desire for the boy. Gustav thinks of Tadzio in Grecian terms--he sees Tadzio as an ancient Greek athlete, embodying the best that the human body is capable of. He also associates Tadzio with the Greek mythological figure of Hyacinth.

Hyacinth's story adds an important dimension to Gustav's relationship with Tadzio. Hyacinth was a beautiful youth who was a lover of the powerful sun-God Apollo (the same one Nietzche's "Apollonian" is a reference to). But Zephyr, the god of the west wind, also fell in love with Hyacinth's beauty. One day Apollo was playing sports with Hyacinth, throwing the discus. Hyacinth ran to catch the discus, but the jealous Zephyr stirred up a wind to blow the discus so that it struck and killed Hyacinth. Where Hyacinth's red blood stained the ground, the gods made "hyacinth" flowers spring up. (A different kind of flower than that known by the name hyacinth today.) Gustav thinks about different aspects of the myth as he ruminates on Tadzio, and so it's important to recognize all the elements Hyacinth's story adds to the novella--the fact that Gustav's desire for Tadzio is inherently linked to jealousy (he doesn't state who Tadzio's "true lover" is, but it could be youth, life itself, or death), and also that Gustav's sexual desire for Tadzio is connected to his (Freudian) "death-drive," as we saw in the satisfaction Gustav derived from thinking of Tadzio's early death. Once again, sex and death are closely intertwined, as in Mann's two important influences--both the darker Dionysian desires of Nietzschean philosophy, and the subconscious of Freud's theories.

It was the smile of Narcissus bending over his reflection in the water, that profound, enchanted, long smile with which he holds out his arms to the mirror image of his own beauty—a very slightly twisted smile, twisted by the hopelessness of his endeavor to kiss the lovely lips of his reflection, coquettish, curious and quietly tormented, deluded and deluding. He who had received this smile dashed away with it as with some fatal gift. . . . He threw himself onto a bench; beside himself, he inhaled the nighttime fragrance of the plants. And, leaning back, with arms dangling, overcome and repeatedly shuddering, he whispered the standard formula of longing—impossible in this case, absurd, perverse, ludicrous and yet even here still sacred and respectable: “I love you!”

Related Characters: Gustav von Aschenbach, Tadzio
Page Number: 42
Explanation and Analysis:

Here at the end of the chapter, Gustav finally says what we'd already guessed: he loves Tadzio. But what is the nature of Gustav's love for this boy, with whom he hasn't even spoken? This is one of the primary questions occupying the novella. Gustav's love seems to contain intellectual elements (he sees Tadzio as the embodiment of a Greek ideal, appealing to the writer and scholar in Gustav) as well as some undeniable erotic edge (he thinks Tadzio is really beautiful, and wants him physically).

And yet there's still something impotent and pathetic in Gustav's love for Tadzio. We can imagine that Tadzio, in real life, is a loutish, arrogant kid--definitely not worthy of Gustav's idealized affection. But Gustav has no idea what kind of person Tadzio is, because they're never talked. Gustav is more interested in Tadzio as an idea--whether the idea of artistic perfection, Greek tradition, or simply a beautiful, sensual boy--than as a reality.

Chapter 5 Quotes

His head, leaning on the back of the chair, had slowly followed the movements of the boy who was walking far out there; now it rose, as if to meet that gaze, and fell onto his chest, so that his eyes looked up from below, while his face took on the limp, intensely absorbed expression of deep slumber. But it seemed to him as if the pale, charming psychagogue out there were smiling to him, beckoning to him; as if he were raising his hand from his hip and pointing outward, floating before him into a realm of promise and immensity. And, as he had done so often, he set out to follow him. Minutes went by before people hastened to the aid of the man who had slumped sideways in his chair. He was carried to his room. And, before that day was over, a respectfully shocked world received the news of his death.

Related Characters: Gustav von Aschenbach, Tadzio
Page Number: 62
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of the novella, Gustav joins Tadzio in the sea--a symbol of Gustav's new liberation and freedom. And yet we learn that Gustav's liberation is purely imagined. He's actually died in his chair, having never spoken to Tadzio or interacted with him in any way, except receiving a smile from him. (Whether Tadzio is even real or not is a fair question.)

So in the end, Gustav never truly gives into his repressed erotic desires. Yet Mann suggests that there's a close link between forbidden desire and death--it's as if Gustav has caused his own death by avoiding his writerly responsibilities and falling for Tadzio, allowing his "Dionysian" side to run wild and destroy him. (We can see also this in Mann's description of Gustav's journey into the sea, a symbol of both life and death.)

Mann makes the final, poignant point that the people who knew Gustav's work well have no idea what was going through his head when he died. His Apollonian achievements (his novels) will survive him, and yet his inner conflict and struggle will be forgotten--but only in the world of the novella, of course, for in our world we're still reading about Gustav's inner conflict even almost a century later.

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Tadzio Character Timeline in Death in Venice

The timeline below shows where the character Tadzio appears in Death in Venice. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 3
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...a variety of nationalities. He saw a group of three adolescent Polish girls and a boy of about fourteen with a governess. The boy was “perfectly beautiful,” with “honey-colored hair,” and... (full context)
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The Polish girls had “austere and chaste” attire in contrast to the boy’s “rich and pampered appearance.” A waiter announced that dinner was ready, and most of the... (full context)
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The family went off to dinner, and as the young boy was leaving, he stopped and turned around, briefly meeting Aschenbach’s gaze. Aschenbach went to go... (full context)
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...similar sickness was setting in now. He went down to breakfast and saw the Polish boy’s family without him. He smiled at the thought of the young boy sleeping in, and... (full context)
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Aschenbach was stunned by the boy’s “godlike beauty,” evident in his appearance and graceful walk. He thought the boy had the... (full context)
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...immoderate, eternal” sea, which he was fond of for “deep-seated reasons.” He saw the Polish boy in the water and saw as the boy looked disapprovingly at a family of Russians... (full context)
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Aschenbach was delighted to see this, as for him it made the godlike boy more human. He listened as the boy played with some friends and thought he heard... (full context)
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Aschenbach watched the boy play with some other children, especially another Polish boy who appeared to be called Jaschu.... (full context)
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Aschenbach read on the beach, but was constantly thinking of Tadzio, who was lying on the beach nearby. He felt a “paternal kindness” toward Tadzio, like... (full context)
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...to lunch and afterwards found himself in the same elevator as some young children, including Tadzio. He was standing so close to Tadzio that he began to see him as a... (full context)
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...the man that he wanted to wait and eat breakfast slowly, though, and waited for Tadzio to come down to breakfast. The car was waiting for Aschenbach, so he sent his... (full context)
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Just as he was leaving, Aschenbach saw Tadzio, and he left the hotel full of regret. As Aschenbach went through Venice, he began... (full context)
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...in his room and thought the air outside seemed fresher and less oppressive. He saw Tadzio coming back from the beach and, with a combination of “joy and pain,” realized that... (full context)
Chapter 4
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...the earth, where the easiest possible life is the lot of mankind.” He often saw Tadzio around the hotel and watched him with “adoration and study.” (full context)
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...sun rose and the day got hotter and hotter, and from where he could watch Tadzio most days. He watched Tadzio play and overheard him talking with his family. Since Aschenbach... (full context)
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Aschenbach admired everything about Tadzio’s behavior and appearance, including his “honey-colored hair.” He thought of the boy, “What breeding, what... (full context)
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Aschenbach felt that gazing at Tadzio was like looking at beauty itself. Thinking of Plato’s Phaedrus (a work that discusses the... (full context)
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...“a certain important, burning issue of culture and taste.” He wrote in the presence of Tadzio, so that he could model his own writing on the beautiful form of Tadzio’s body.... (full context)
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Aschenbach saw Tadzio the next morning and decided to say hello and introduce himself in a friendly manner.... (full context)
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...who saw the waves crashing on the beach as Poseidon’s “steeds dash[ing] forward.” He compared Tadzio to Hyacinthus, a young man in Greek mythology who was loved by both Zephyrus (a... (full context)
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Tadzio would occasionally walk to his family by a route that meant he passed right by... (full context)
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One evening, Aschenbach saw Tadzio and his family returning from dinner in the city, and marveled at how Tadzio was... (full context)
Chapter 5
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...of a possible illness spreading in Venice, but nothing substantiated. His only worry was that Tadzio might leave. He followed Tadzio’s family to church one Sunday and saw Tadzio, who also... (full context)
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Tadzio and his family got into a gondola, and Aschenbach followed them at a distance in... (full context)
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...Aschenbach watched the vulgar performance, “because passion deadens one’s taste,” but was mostly focused on Tadzio, who was standing near him, watching the show. Tadzio occasionally looked over his shoulder toward... (full context)
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...the contagious laughter, but found he was under a “dreamy spell” from the nearness of Tadzio. He looked at Tadzio, who returned his gaze, and he again thought that the boy... (full context)
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When Aschenbach awoke, he was fully devoted to his desire for Tadzio and had no more shame. As more and more guests left the hotel in fear... (full context)
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...sorts of cosmetics and makeup, and dressed in bright clothes. One afternoon, Aschenbach was following Tadzio through the streets of Venice. Tadzio looked behind him periodically, to see if Aschenbach were... (full context)
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A few days later, Aschenbach was feeling ill. He learned from a hotel employee that Tadzio’s family was leaving after lunch. He went to the beach and sat down, watching Tadzio... (full context)
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Aschenbach watched Tadzio wade into the sea. Tadzio looked back, and Aschenbach thought he saw Tadzio beckoning him... (full context)