Death in Venice

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Themes and Colors
Art and the Artist Theme Icon
Repression, the Mind, and the Self Theme Icon
Beauty Theme Icon
Youth, Age, and Time Theme Icon
Travel, Geography, and Climate Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Death in Venice, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Art and the Artist Theme Icon

One often thinks of a writer’s life and work as two very different, separate things. Death in Venice, however, shows that there is a close connection between an artist’s lived experience and work. As the narrator explains, for example, the heroism of many of Aschenbach’s characters has a close connection to his own disciplined self-restraint. His writing takes a real toll on his own body, as his wearied face shows. Aschenbach’s readers only see his finished products, and don’t realize the links between his writing and his life, as with Aschenbach’s well-received essay that he writes while in Venice. The beauty of its writing is owed to his fascination with Tadzio’s physical beauty and form. The public’s ignorance of the circumstances of Aschenbach’s writing, the narrator suggests, is a good thing: the inspiration of Aschenbach’s writing in his desire for Tadzio would mar the final product. Unlike his readers, though, Aschenbach cannot separate his writing from his life. He often blurs the distinctions between life and art, as when he imagines himself into the Platonic dialogue Phaedrus as Socrates, or when he sees Tadzio as a work of art. Mann’s novella thus explores how the categories of life and art, truth and fiction, cannot be kept separate for the artist. The autobiographical resonances of the story (Mann actually vacationed in Venice with his wife once, where he became fascinated by a young Polish boy) further blur these distinctions between art and the artist.

In addition, Mann examines more generally the artistic temperament through his representation of Aschenbach. In this, he was heavily influenced by the ideas of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche about the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Inspired by the Greek gods Apollo and Dionysus, Nietzsche saw these categories as the two essential tendencies of art. The Apollonian is associated with rationality, order, and harmony, whereas the Dionysian is associated with intoxication, ecstasy, and revelry. Aschenbach begins the story as an extremely Apollonian character, who practices writing with discipline and self-restraint, and never indulges much in pleasure. By the end of the story, however, he becomes excessively Dionysian and is consumed by passion, emphasized in his intense dream of a wild, orgiastic crowd (which is reminiscent of scenes of ancient worshippers of Dionysus). Rather than attaining a healthy balance between the Apollonian and Dionysian, Aschenbach tries too hard to suppress his Dionysian side, with the result that it eventually overcomes him entirely, leading to his death. In exploring these contradictory sides of Aschenbach’s personality, Mann presents Nietzsche’s duality as governing not only art, but the artist, as well.

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Art and the Artist Quotes in Death in Venice

Below you will find the important quotes in Death in Venice related to the theme of Art and the Artist.
Chapter 1 Quotes

Overstrained by the difficult and dangerous labor of the morning hours, which precisely at this moment called for extreme circumspection, discretion, forcefulness and exactitude of the will, even after the noon meal the writer had been unable to restrain the continued operation of the productive machinery within him—that motus animi continuus in which, according to Cicero, the nature of eloquence consists—and had not found the relieving slumber that, with the increasing tendency of his strength to wear out, was so necessary to him once in the course of the day. And so, soon after tea, he had sought the outdoors, in hopes that the fresh air and activity would restore him and help him have a profitable evening.

Related Characters: Gustav von Aschenbach
Page Number: 1
Explanation and Analysis:

As we're introduced to Gustav von Aschenbach, we get the sense that his mind is slowly breaking down, no matter how hard he tries to control it. Aschenbach is a talented, famous writer, whose eloquence and ingenuity have been widely praised. But here, Mann creates the strange impression that Aschenbach's mind and eloquence are too powerful and too productive. It's as if Aschenbach's mind is a machine in perpetual motion--even when Aschenbach is exhausted, he can't quite "turn off" his brain.

Critics have interpreted the scene as a metaphor for the Nietzschean division between the Dionysian (the realm of the libido, chaos, and the aggressive instinct) and the Apollonian (the realm of order, structure, and tradition). Aschenbach is a hyper-cultivated artist, but at what cost? He's given up half of his humanity: he represses all passion, sexuality, or aggression.


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Too occupied with the tasks set for him by his own ego and by the European spirit he represented, too burdened with the obligation to create and too undisposed to diversions to be a proper admirer of the colorful outside world, he had been perfectly satisfied with the view of the earth’s surface that anyone can acquire without venturing far away from his own circle of interests, and he had never even been tempted to leave Europe.

Related Characters: Gustav von Aschenbach
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Mann makes a clear link between Gustav the European and Europe itself. Gustav is Europe as its best (and worse): "civilized," educated, disciplined, etc. Gustav has had the best education his country can provide, and he's studied the work of all the best European writers and thinkers.

And yet Europe has also made Gustav complacent--he's never had any desire to leave, or any curiosity about the wider world, until now. Since his encounter with the red-haired stranger, however, Gustav feels strangely "crushed" by the weight of his own education; Mann even characterizes Gustav's artistic practice as an onerous "burden" that Gustav tries to escape. Gustav has been too educated and too cultured--now he has an urge to escape.

But where can Gustav go? As Mann makes clear, Gustav has never left Europe; his world is so firmly defined by European art and culture that he literally can't conceive of another place to travel. Mann's novel is about Europe and the European culture, so Gustav's struggle for freedom plays out in a totally European setting--Venice--but also one that is defined by its "Southern-ness" and dream-like qualities, as opposed to the colder and more austere Germany and North.

To be sure, ever since he was a young man this kind of dissatisfaction had meant to him the essence and inmost nature of talent; and it was for its sake that he had curbed and chilled his emotions, because he knew that emotions tend to be satisfied with a happy approximation and with less than perfection. Were his enslaved emotions now taking their toll by abandoning him, by refusing to further his art and lend it wings, by taking away with them all his delight in form and expression?

Related Characters: Gustav von Aschenbach
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Mann draws a key distinction between the two sides of Gustav's personality--his emotions and his thoughts. On one hand, Gustav is a creature of thought: he's a talented writer who uses his immense intellect to study the great writers of the past and translate their ideas into new literature. And yet Gustav isn't just a creature of intellect--he has emotions and drives too. Up until now, Gustav's emotions have been strictly "curbed," existing only to support and enhance the quality of his literary creations. Now, however, Gustav's emotions are "rebelling" against his own mind, forcing him to travel and search for new stimulation.

In short, the passage reiterates the divide within Gustav's own character (a divide that has been analyzed in Freudian and Nietzschean ways--see Background Info). Gustav's emotions are about to launch a full-scale war with Gustav's more reasonable, controlled side.

Chapter 2 Quotes

His forebears had been officers, judges, bureaucrats, men who had led their disciplined, respectable and frugal lives in the service of king and state. Deeper intellectuality had embodied itself among them on one occasion, in the person of a preacher; more swiftly flowing and sensual blood had entered the family in the previous generation through the writer’s mother, daughter of a Bohemian orchestra conductor. It was from her that he derived the signs of foreign ancestry in his appearance. The marriage of sober official conscientiousness with darker, more ardent impulses produced an artist, this particular artist.

Related Characters: Gustav von Aschenbach
Page Number: 6
Explanation and Analysis:

At the beginning of Chapter 2, Mann tells us more about Aschenbach's childhood and his family history. We're informed that Gustav comes from a long lineage of orderly, proper people: his ancestors were judges, officers, and other people trained to obey orders at all times. And yet there's something slightly "off" about Gustav's own character. He is equally a product of his musical mother, and thus seemingly a gentler, softer figure than his father or grandfathers--but also one more at war with himself. And yet this divide between father and mother, between reason and passion, has produced all of his success as an artist.

The "marriage" of order and "ardent impulse" in Gustav's character again suggests a Freudian influence on Mann's novella. Like Freud, Mann believes that a man can only be understood fully by analyzing his relationship with his mother and father. Thus, we get a lot of explicit information about how Gustav got along with his parents.

And fortunately discipline was his inborn inheritance from his father’s side. At forty, at fifty—just as he had in years past, at an age when others are spendthrift daydreamers, blithely postponing the execution of great plans—he began his day early with jets of cold water over his chest and back, and then, a pair of tall wax candles in silver sticks shining over his manuscript, for two or three fervently conscientious morning hours he would sacrifice upon the altar of art the strength he had garnered during his sleep.

Related Characters: Gustav von Aschenbach
Page Number: 7
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Mann uses some Freudian imagery to suggest the strength of Gustav's devotion to order and law. Even as a man of 50, Gustav remains incredibly orderly in his life. He wakes up every day at the same time and works for many hours, never stopping for rest. Mann notes that Gustav works under the light of tall wax candles--a Freudian image of the phallus, which Freud associated with law and order. The implication is that Gustav has been trained by his father and grandparents to obey the "laws" of personal responsibility and hard work--laws that are intimately tied to a heteronormative model of sexuality. (There's a lot of this kind of psychoanalytic symbolism in the novella--and much of it is hard to take seriously by 21st century standards, considering how far from favor Freud has fallen.) Mann also notes the religious element of Gustav's existence--he's like a cloistered monk, religiously studying his "holy books" every day.

What was here prepared, in fact already accomplished, was that “miracle of reborn naïveté” that the author mentioned expressly somewhat later in one of his dialogues, not without a mysterious emphasis. Strange connections! Was it an intellectual consequence of this “rebirth,” of this new dignity and severity, when at about the same time one could observe an almost immoderate strengthening of his feeling for beauty, that noble purity, simplicity and evenness of form that henceforth lent his productions such a striking, indeed conscious, stamp of mastery and classicism?

Related Characters: Gustav von Aschenbach
Page Number: 9-10
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we get a sense for what Gustav's contemporaries like about his writing. Gustav writes novels and poems in which his heroes embody a strong classical ideal--i..e, an ideal rooted in Roman and Greek antiquity. Critics and readers celebrate Gustav for reviving what they see as Europe's vanished cultural tradition with so much "mastery."

The passage suggests Gustav as a late Romantic, or possibly neoclassical figure. During the late 19th and early 20th century, Europe turned to the study of Greek and Roman culture. In art and literature, Greek mythology became an important influence--even the word "Romantic" is a clear sign of the influence of antiquity on writers of the era. Figures like Rousseau, Shelley, Millais, and others saw themselves as reviving classical ideals with a newfound sense of nostalgia. By the same token, Gustav seems to be popular among his peers for appealing to a sense of greatness and beauty that is deeply rooted in European tradition and history.

Significant destinies seemed to have left their mark on his head, which usually leaned sideways as if in pain; and yet it was art that had here undertaken that task of forming the features which is usually the work of a difficult, agitated life. . . Yes, even on a personal basis art is an enhancement of life. It makes you more deeply happy, it wears you out faster. It engraves on the face of its servant the traces of imaginary, intellectual adventures, and with time, even when his external existence is one of cloisterlike calm, it makes him spoiled and fastidious, producing a weariness and nervous curiosity that could hardly be generated by a lifetime full of extravagant passions and pleasures.

Related Characters: Gustav von Aschenbach
Page Number: 11
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Mann focuses on Gustav's face. Gustav has lived a long, hard life--he hasn't been a soldier or a traveler, but he has spent most of his time sitting in a quiet room, writing. Strangely, Mann suggests, Gustav's sedentary lifestyle has worn him out far quicker and more completely than a life of travel and adventure would have. Writing has sapped Gustav of his energy and strength--he's put all this strength into his books.

Mann subtly portrays writing as the most personal of activities--an act in which the artist must sacrifice his entire soul to his craft. A life of passion, by contrast, requires no great sacrifice. Only the life of the artist can truly sap a man of his strength and his spirit--as evidenced by Gustav's constantly furrowed brow and leaning head.

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.

He loved the sea for deep-seated reasons: because of the hard-working artist’s yearning for repose, his desire to take shelter in the bosom of undifferentiated immensity from the demanding complexity of the world’s phenomena; because of his own proclivity—forbidden, directly counter to his life’s work, and seductive for that very reason—for the unorganized, immoderate, eternal: for nothingness.

Related Characters: Gustav von Aschenbach
Related Symbols: The Sea
Page Number: 24
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Mann examines Gustav's complicated relationship with the sea. For Gustav, the sea seems to represent the usually-repressed "Dionysian" aspect of his self--the "undifferentiated immensity" of life and reality. Gustav knows that his "life's work" involves holding this immensity at bay and giving it shape, but he also enjoys taking a "vacation" in that immensity. Thus this trip to Venice is presented in physical terms--the rigidly disciplined artist seeking out the chaotic, unfathomable sea--and in psychological terms--the repressed mind trying to take a "vacation" by letting some of its darker desires run free. (In Freudian psychoanalysis, a major influence on Mann's career, the sea is also often associated with freedom and disorder.)

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.

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.)

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.