Death in Venice

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The Disease Symbol Analysis

The Disease Symbol Icon
As Aschenbach stays in Venice, he begins to notice that more and more guests are leaving his hotel. The hotel barber mentions something about a disease to him, but no one is willing to explain anything more to him. In the city, he smells the medicinal scent of a germicide in the air, and becomes increasingly curious about the possible disease. All the Venetians he talks to, however, insist that the germicide is simply a preventative measure, because the excessively warm weather can be bad for people’s health. However, Aschenbach finally learns the truth from an Englishman at a British travel agency. The Englishman explains that Indian cholera, which originated in “the hot swamps of the Ganges delta,” has spread throughout the Mediterranean and is now in Venice, having already killed some people. Originating in an exotic location, the disease is treated mysteriously for most of the novella and, while it is never specified, it is perhaps the cause of Aschenbach’s own illness and death.

The Disease Quotes in Death in Venice

The Death in Venice quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Disease. 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 5 Quotes

That was Venice, the obsequious and untrustworthy beauty—this city, half fairy tale, half tourist trap, in whose reeking atmosphere art had once extravagantly luxuriated, and which had inspired composers with music that gently rock you and meretriciously lulls you to rest. The adventurer felt as if his eyes were drinking in this luxuriance, as if his ears were being wooed by these melodies; he also recollected that the city was sick and was disguising the fact so it could go on making money; and he was more unbridled as he watched for the gondola that glided ahead of him.

Related Characters: Gustav von Aschenbach
Related Symbols: The Disease
Page Number: 45
Explanation and Analysis:

Gustav again rides through Venice via gondola, and as he rides, he considers some things about the city where he's been staying. Venice, Gustav realizes, is a deeply divided city: it's half fantasy and half vulgar reality. Furthermore, the fantastic party can only exist because of the vulgar, touristy part. This duality is further enhanced by the presence of the mysterious disease--Venise is "sick," but pretends it isn't.

Gustav's insight is very important, because the division he notices in Venice corresponds to the division in his own personality. Gustav is divided between his desire for order and abstract beauty and his desire for "vulgar" erotic pleasure. And yet these two sides of his personality are forever linked--there can't be one without the other. Gustav seems to be coming close to accepting his imperfect nature--and by the same token, his inevitable death. (Notice the return of the coffin-like gondola, an important symbol of mortality.)


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For several years, Indian cholera had shown an increasing tendency to spread abroad and travel. Engendered in the hot swamps of the Ganges delta, arising from the mephitic exhalations of that wilderness of primordial world and islands, luxuriant but uninhabitable and shunned by man, in whose bamboo thickets the tiger crouches, the epidemic had raged throughout Hindustan unremittingly and with unusual violence, had spread eastward to China, westward to Afghanistan and Persia, and, following the main caravan routes, had brought its horrors as far as Astrakhan and even Moscow. But while Europe trembled in fear lest the phantom might enter its territory from that point, and by land, it had been carried across the sea by Syrian merchants, had appeared in several Mediterranean ports simultaneously, had raised its head in Toulon and Malaga, had shown its mask repeatedly in Palermo and Naples, and seemed to be a permanent fixture throughout Calabria and Apulia. The north of the peninsula had been spared. But in the middle of May of this year the fearful vibrios had been discovered in Venice twice in the same day, in the emaciated, blackened corpses of a cargo-ship crewman and a female greengrocer. . . . In fact, it seemed as if the epidemic had experienced a revivification of its strength, as if the tenacity and fertility of the germs that caused it had redoubled.

Related Symbols: The Disease
Page Number: 52-53
Explanation and Analysis:

This is an important passages, because it captures and poeticizes the relationship between Europe and the rest of the world. When Gustav thinks of a place to go on vacation, he can only think of European capital cities--the idea of leaving Europe is as foreign to him as the idea of leaving the planet Earth. But here, Mann gives us some insight into the relationship between Europe and "the outside," symbolized by India. As Mann sees it, Europe has been too sheltered for too long. Now, the diseases of the "exotic East" are coming back to wreak havoc on Europe (as if in revenge for Europe's exploitation and oppression of the East). Mann further implies that Europe's recent tradition of health and good sanitation has made Europeans more susceptible to disease from India.

You could write a thesis about this passage alone. Mann's suggestion (which some critics, including Edward Said, have attacked for its racism or Orientalism) is that Europe is the land of the Apollonian, while India (and, by extension, the "uncivilized" parts of the world) symbolize the disorderly Dionysian--the passionate, chaotic, and deadly. Just as Gustav's lifelong repression from the Dionysian makes him particularly susceptible to it in Venice, Europe's centuries of repression from disease make disease particularly deadly now.

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The Disease Symbol Timeline in Death in Venice

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Disease appears in Death in Venice. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 5
Repression, the Mind, and the Self Theme Icon the hotel seemed to be decreasing. His barber one day mentioned something about a disease, but when Aschenbach asked him more about it, he wouldn’t say anything. That afternoon, having... (full context)
Repression, the Mind, and the Self Theme Icon
...defended his behavior to himself. He was very interested in the news of a possible disease spreading around Venice and read about it in newspapers, though no one seemed to be... (full context)
Travel, Geography, and Climate Theme Icon
...sirocco (a warm wind) could be bad for people’s health. He said there was no disease in Venice. But immediately after this conversation, he was accosted by two hotel employees who... (full context)
Youth, Age, and Time Theme Icon
...went to a British travel agency in Venice and asked an Englishman about the possible disease in Venice. The man said the germicide was simply a preventative measure, but then said... (full context)
Repression, the Mind, and the Self Theme Icon
Travel, Geography, and Climate Theme Icon
...was likely. However, fearing the loss of tourism, the city was maintaining silence about the disease. (full context)
Repression, the Mind, and the Self Theme Icon
Beauty Theme Icon
Travel, Geography, and Climate Theme Icon
...Venice immediately for his own safety. Aschenbach thought of perhaps warning Tadzio’s family about the disease (and using that opportunity to “lay his hand in farewell” on Tadzio’s head. He suddenly... (full context)