Death in Venice

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Art and the Artist Theme Icon
Repression, the Mind, and the Self Theme Icon
Beauty Theme Icon
Youth, Age, and Time Theme Icon
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Beauty Theme Icon

Mann’s novella is entitled Death in Venice for obvious reasons, but it is as much about love and desire as about death. Aschenbach wastes away while becoming increasingly obsessed with his desire for Tadzio, whom he sees as the very personification of beauty itself, and most of the work follows Aschenbach’s obsession with his beauty. The importance of beauty in the novella is often shown through its focus on Aschenbach’s voyeuristic gaze. It is of course through sight that Aschenbach apprehends Tadzio’s beauty, and he spends much of the novel staring surreptitiously at the boy. At first, Aschenbach tries to appreciate Tadzio’s beauty in a detached, aesthetic way, appreciating him like a work of art. However, he is unable to maintain this distance for long, and soon his artistic infatuation with Tadzio’s physical appearance turns into an intense erotic desire for the boy.

As Aschenbach is completely overcome by Tadzio’s beauty, the novella asks whether beauty (and, by extension, desire) is a good or bad thing. This question is primarily raised through allusions to the Phaedrus, a work by the Greek philosopher Plato in which Socrates and Phaedrus debate whether love is good or bad. In this work, Socrates argues that beauty inspires the lover because it reminds his soul of heaven. Beauty is, for Socrates, a path to virtue. This may all work very well in theory, but in practice this does not seem to be the case for Aschenbach. When Aschenbach has a vision of the Phaedrus, he re-imagines Socrates as using his elaborate theory simply to try to woo the young, attractive Phaedrus. Far from bettering Aschenbach, his experience of beauty in Tadzio seems to harm him. It makes him into a ridiculous, pathetic character—an old man wearing makeup who stalks a young boy—and even contributes to his own death. Aschenbach’s obsession with Tadzio’s beauty even leads him to wish for harm to Tadzio: he is happy when he thinks that Tadzio might die young, because this means his beauty will not fade with age.

Mann’s novella illustrates the crucial difference between writing about beauty and desire, and experiencing it. For much of his life, Aschenbach wrote beautifully and thought about beauty and form in an abstract way. Similarly, Plato is able to justify desire for beauty philosophically in the Phaedrus. However, when Aschenbach actually experiences beauty in the flesh, he is overwhelmed and consumed by passion. Mann does not completely condemn beauty, though. It is possible that Aschenbach is simply too obsessed with Tadzio’s beauty, and that it is still possible to appreciate beauty and submit to desire in a more moderated, healthy way. When Aschenbach deliriously speaks near the end of the novella as if he were Socrates, he tells Phaedrus that he leaves it up to him to decide whether beauty leads to wisdom or whether it is “truly a path of error and sin.” Similarly, Mann leaves this question open-ended for his readers: does beauty always lead to one’s downfall, or can we fall in love with beautiful people or things without succumbing to Aschenbach’s fate?

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Beauty Quotes in Death in Venice

Below you will find the important quotes in Death in Venice related to the theme of Beauty.
Chapter 2 Quotes

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.


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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 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

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.)

For beauty, Phaedrus, take note! beauty alone is godlike and visible at the same time, and thus it is the path of the sensual man, young Phaedrus, the artist’s path toward intellectuality. . . . Or do you believe instead (I leave the decision to you) that this is a path of dangerous charm, truly a path of error and sin, which necessarily leads one astray?

Related Characters: Gustav von Aschenbach (speaker)
Page Number: 59-60
Explanation and Analysis:

At the tail end of the novella, Gustav begins to contemplate the relationship between beauty and morality, citing the Platonic dialogue Phaedrus, in which the philosopher Socrates argues with a handsome young man named Phaedrus. Gustav wonders if physical beauty is good or bad for the philosopher. Socrates, the protagonist of the Platonic dialogue, believed that beauty can lead a man along the path to wisdom and enlightenment. And yet Gustav doesn't necessarily agree. For him, (at least based on recent personal experience) physical beauty is a deterrent from intellectual enlightenment, and instead leads to "error and sin." Tadzio's (or Phaedrus's) beauty distracts him from his writing and his work, leaving him feverish and frantic. In short, the passage sums up Gustav's great conflicts in the novella--the conflicts between erotic desire and the life of the mind, between aesthetic purity and vulgar immorality.

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.