Gustav von Aschenbach, a famous, well-respected German author, went for a walk one afternoon in Munich, tired from writing all morning. He noticed a strange-looking man standing on the portico of a church with red hair and an “unusual appearance.” Aschenbach stared at him, and the foreign-seeming man looked back at him. Embarrassed, Aschenbach walked away, but he found he had a sudden urge to travel faraway. He had always been extremely disciplined and worked hard at his writing, but now craved an escape from his work with some vacation. He decided he needed “an exotic atmosphere,” and planned to go somewhere in the south of Europe.
Aschenbach had achieved notoriety as a novelist, short story writer, and critic. His father’s side of the family had all lived “disciplined, respectable, frugal lives,” but his mother was the daughter of an orchestra conductor, so his personality was a “marriage of sober official conscientiousness with darker, more ardent impulses.” He lived an austere, hardworking life, and dedicated himself to his writing. The narrator writes that Aschenbach’s writing became so popular because his own life experience contributed to his portrayal of a certain kind of “elegant self-control that conceals the sapping of strength and biological decay,” and this kind of “heroism of weakness,” struck a chord with people of the time. In his old age, Aschenbach had attained a “dignity and severity” in his work and his life.
About two weeks after his afternoon walk in Munich, Aschenbach traveled to an island in the Adriatic. It was too crowded with Austrian tourists, though, so he decided to go to Venice, somewhere “different as a fairy tale.” On the boat bound for Venice, Aschenbach saw what looked like a young man in stylish clothing. He saw however that it was actually a pathetic old man wearing makeup, a wig, and dentures. At sea, Aschenbach began to feel dreamlike and lost track of time. He arrived in Venice and got on a black gondola that reminded him of a coffin. The gondolier would not tell him how much the ride would cost, and simply told him, “You will pay.” When he got to the hotel, the gondolier left before Aschenbach could try to pay him any money. While waiting for dinner at the hotel that night, Aschenbach saw a Polish family with a young boy, about fourteen years old, who was “perfectly beautiful.” He couldn’t help but stare at the boy, who briefly returned his gaze. Over dinner, Aschenbach thought about the nature of beauty, art, and form.
The weather was poor in Venice, and Aschenbach worried it might affect his health. He continued to watch the Polish boy around the hotel, and thought he had “godlike beauty.” The narrator says that Aschenbach looked at the boy as an artist looks at a masterpiece. Aschenbach tried to read and do work on the beach, but could not concentrate and kept looking at the boy, who was playing with friends near the water. He overhead some of the boy’s friends call him something that sounded like Tadzio. Aschenbach happened to find himself in an elevator with Tadzio, and saw him up close. He thought the boy looked sickly and concluded (with some delight) that the boy would probably die before he grew old.
Aschenbach walked around Venice, and noticed that the air was thick and unpleasant. He began to feel ill and decided to leave Venice. He made arrangements to leave the next day, but then regretted his decision the next morning. He stayed at breakfast as long as he could, trying to get a glimpse of Tadzio, and just before his train left, he learned that his luggage had been sent ahead to the wrong destination. So, to his relief, he had to stay in Venice. He saw Tadzio back at the hotel and realized that the boy was the reason he hadn’t wanted to leave Venice. He sat in his room with “a gesture that bespoke an open welcome, a calm acceptance.”
Aschenbach began to notice that the number of guests at the hotel seemed to be dwindling. The barber at the hotel mentioned something about a disease, but refused to elaborate. In town, Aschenbach noticed the smell of a kind of medicinal germicide in the air. He looked in newspapers and found some rumors about a possible disease spreading, and worried that Tadzio’s family might leave. One Sunday, he followed Tadzio to church and then pursued Tadzio and his family in a gondola through Venice, feeling that his “head and heart were drunk.” Aschenbach wondered what his austere ancestors might think of him now. He had long lived a disciplined life, but now felt completely in thrall to his desire for Tadzio. He tried to find out more about the possible disease in Venice, but no one at the hotel would tell him anything.
One night, a group of street performers came to the hotel. Aschenbach watched them, but was mostly focused on Tadzio, who was also in the audience. One performer, a clownish guitarist, performed in a salacious, vulgar way. During a pause between performances, Aschenbach asked him why Venice was being disinfected, and the performer said it was simply a preventative measure, because the bad weather could be bad for people’s health. The guitarist gave one more performance in which the whole troupe of entertainers laughed hysterically, and the audience began to laugh uncontrollably too, as if the emotion was contagious. The next day, Aschenbach went to a British travel agency in Venice, and an Englishman told him that there was a dangerous outbreak of Indian cholera spreading through the city. He advised Aschenbach to leave Venice because of the disease, but Aschenbach’s only concern was that Tadzio might leave. That night, Aschenbach had an extremely intense dream, where he was part of a wild, raucous, orgiastic crowd reveling in a mountain landscape, including men with horns and women holding snakes. Aschenbach’s “soul tasted the lewdness and frenzy,” and he awoke completely devoted to his desire for Tadzio, with no restraint.
Aschenbach began stalking Tadzio more openly. Looking at Tadzio’s young body, he began to despise his own aged appearance. He went to the hotel barber and dyed his grey hair. He put on makeup and new clothes in an attempt to appear younger. He followed Tadzio through the city one day, but lost sight of him and sat down in a city square. Feeling “hot gusts of wind” around him, he became delirious and imagined that he was Socrates from Plato’s Phaedrus. He asked Phaedrus whether he thought beauty was the path to wisdom, or led to “error and sin,” and didn’t provide an answer. A few days later, Aschenbach was feeling very ill. He learned that Tadzio’s family was planning to leave Venice, and he went to the beach to see Tadzio one more time. Tadzio was playing with his friends, and his rowdy friend Jaschu tackled him and pinned him to the ground. Tadzio was upset and walked off by himself into the sea. Delirious, Aschenbach watched Tadzio wade into the water and thought he looked like a “pale, charming psychagogue.” Aschenbach thought Tadzio was beckoning to him, so he followed the boy into the ocean. However, the narrator explains that Aschenbach had actually simply slumped over in his chair. He was brought to his hotel room, where he died within the day.