Death in Venice

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Repression, the Mind, and the Self Theme Analysis

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Repression, the Mind, and the Self Theme Icon

At the time Thomas Mann was writing Death in Venice, Sigmund Freud had recently published some of his seminal writings on the unconscious. Mann was a reader of Freud, and was highly influenced by some of his ideas. While his story is not simply a disguised demonstration of Freud’s theories, Freudian ideas play a significant role in the novella: in particular, the idea of the unconscious, and the concept of repression. Aschenbach is a highly repressed individual, ignoring and denying many of his inner desires. These desires do not simply go away, however. They linger in his unconscious, the part of his mind or psyche of which he is unaware. According to Freud, repressed desires “return” at later times, causing psychological problems for repressive individuals. This seems to happen for Aschenbach. He represses his emotions and desire for pleasure for so long, that when they come back to haunt him, he is utterly overwhelmed by them. And his vision of the strange red-haired foreigner in Munich, for example, awakens a latent, long-repressed desire to travel, which he is absolutely powerless to resist.

Aschenbach’s trip to Venice can even be seen as a kind of psychological journey to his unconscious. The city is often described as dream-like (and it is in dreams that the unconscious comes to the surface), and Aschenbach exists in a delirious, only half-awake state there. Moreover, the sea—in its immensity and incomprehensibility, its unknown depths—is often an image for the psyche, with the unknown depths of the unconscious. Half-submerged in the sea, Venice is, symbolically, a city bathed in the unconscious. There, Aschenbach must confront the intense desires that he has repressed for so long, mostly through the figure of the beautiful Tadzio.

Mann’s novella shows the danger of extreme repression. However, it is also interested more generally in issues of the self. Aschenbach thinks that he knows himself at the beginning of the story, but quickly changes and finds new (terrifying) dimensions of himself in Venice. The story demonstrates through Aschenbach that the self is often inconsistent and contradictory. We may think we are one kind of person, only to find that we have other sides to ourselves, or only behave a certain way because we are ignorant of or repress the bundle of contradictory impulses, desires, and instincts at war deep within our psyche. Considering Aschenbach’s austere, disciplined behavior for most of his life, one could say that Aschenbach is not himself while in Venice. However, Mann encourages the reader to understand this deviation from his normal behavior more as the revelation of other sides of Aschenbach’s personality. Beyond its illustration of particular Freudian ideas about repression, then, the largest psychoanalytical lesson to be learned from Death in Venice might simply be that we do not always know ourselves as well as we would like to think—and perhaps we never can.

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Repression, the Mind, and the Self Quotes in Death in Venice

Below you will find the important quotes in Death in Venice related to the theme of Repression, the Mind, and the Self.
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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He was most surprisingly conscious of an odd expansion within himself, a kind of roving unrest, a youthfully ardent desire for faraway places, a feeling so intense, so new or at least unaccustomed and forgotten for so long, that he stopped short as if rooted to the spot, his hands clasped behind him and his eyes fixed on the ground, in order to examine the nature and purpose of this sensation. It was an urge to travel, nothing more; but it presented itself in the form of a real seizure, intensified to the point of passionateness; in fact, it was like a delusion of the senses.

Related Characters: Gustav von Aschenbach
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:

Gustav meets a man with red hair, and the man provokes a strange reaction in Gustav: he makes Gustav feel a strong and sudden desire to travel and see the world.

Some have interpreted the red-haired man as a symbol of death and destruction (red hair has been associated with the devil for centuries), suggesting that Gustav is motivated by a sense of his own mortality. Gustav knows that he's aging, and not long for this world, so he feels a deep, desperate desire to "cheat death" by cramming in as much travel as possible before he cashes in his chips. Mann suggests the psychological dimensions of Gustav's experience by characterizing Gustav's desire to travel as a "delusion of the senses"--i.e., a subconscious desire that has no rational explanation. It's suggested that this is the first breakthrough of the "Dionysian" into the usually restrained, well-ordered "Apollonian" facade of Aschenbach's life.

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.

When, at about the age of thirty-five, he fell ill in Vienna, a shrewd observer said of him at a social gathering: You see, for years now Aschenbach has only lived like this”—and the speaker closed the fingers of his left hand into a tight fist—“never like this”—and he let his open hand dangle at ease from the armrest of the chair.

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

Mann reiterates Gustav's devotion to order and discipline. For decades, Gustav has worked hard as a writer and a man of letters--doing so runs in his family (which is comprised of various bureaucrats and judges accustomed to hard work).

The question is: will Gustav be able to keep up his lifestyle forever? One gets the strong sense that Gustav is finally beginning to crack under the pressure of so much hard work and orderliness. He's written plenty of great books, but now it's time for him to go on vacation, and also to take a more psychological vacation from his mental discipline and repression. Mann offers a suggestive image: Gustav has been living like a tense, curled-up fist. Now, Gustav is about to release all this tension and disclose his true, hidden self.

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.

Chapter 3 Quotes

If you wanted to reach someplace overnight that was incomparable, different as a fairy tale, where would you go? But that was obvious! . . . A week and a half after his arrival on the island, in the early morning haze, a swift motor launch carried him and his luggage back across the waters to the naval base, where he went on land only long enough to ascend a plank gangway onto the damp deck of a ship that lay under steam and was heading for Venice.

Related Characters: Gustav von Aschenbach
Related Symbols: The Sea
Page Number: 12
Explanation and Analysis:

At the beginning of Chapter 3, Gustav comes to the conclusion that he should travel to Venice. Gustav thinks that he needs a place where life is like a fairy tale--where everything is exotic, exciting, and unfamiliar. Venice, Gustav thinks, is the place for him.

Why Venice? Venice, Mann is well aware, is a city of art and culture--a place where the greatest Renaissance artists went to study and practice their craft. Strangely, then, Venice seems to symbolize everything that Gustav is trying to escape. And yet Venice is also a longstanding symbol of sexual and creative freedom--a place in which one's natural instincts can run wild, rather than being controlled by laws and rules. Furthermore, Venice is surrounded and interlaced by water, making it like an island, somehow separate from the rest of the world, and partly submerged in the symbolically restless, dynamic sea.

It's a little unusual that Gustav chooses to travel to another European city in his search for total freedom (one wonders why he doesn't go to Africa, or South America, or America instead). Perhaps the reason is that Gustav--the very embodiment of European ideals--wants a place where he can better understand himself, not just meet some new people. A European city, then, is the ideal place for him to practice this elaborate self-exploration (while also flirting with his own repressed desires).

One of these passengers, in a light yellow summer suit of an extravagantly stylish cut, red tie and jauntily uptilted Panama hat, outdid all the rest in jollity with his squawky voice. But scarcely had Aschenbach taken a closer look at him, when with a sort of terror he realized that the youthful impression was spurious. This was an old man, there could be no doubt. Wrinkles surrounded his eyes and mouth. The faint crimson of his cheeks was rouge; the brown hair beneath the straw hat with its colorful band was a wig; his neck was scraggy and sinewy; his little stuck-on mustache and the tiny beard on his chin were dyed; the complete set of yellow teeth, which he displayed as he laughed, was a cheap denture; and his hands, with signet rings on both index fingers, were those of an old, old man. With a feeling of horror Aschenbach watched him and his intercourse with his friends.

Related Characters: Gustav von Aschenbach, The Old Man
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

In this famous passage, Gustav has a nightmarish experience. He sees someone who appears to be young and cheerful--someone who's wearing brightly-colored clothing and a flamboyant hat. With horror, Gustav realizes that the man is actually extremely old--he's just covered his entire face in grotesque makeup designed to fool people into thinking that he's young.

What does this surreal episode symbolize? Some have argued that the young-old man is Europe itself--vainly trying to revitalize itself in spite of its gradual decay. Others have pointed to the Freudian dimensions of the scene: Gustav seemingly has (as we'll later see) repressed desires for men, and yet for now, he recoils in fear and disgust. Perhaps most importantly, the man foreshadows what Gustav himself will become later in the story, as he becomes disgusted by his own age and tries to cover it with make-up, hair-dye, and fashionable clothing. His repulsed reaction to the man at this point shows just how much his experience in Venice will change Gustav.

Who could avoid experiencing a fleeting shudder, a secret timidity and anxiety upon boarding a Venetian gondola for the first time or after a long absence? The strange conveyance, handed down without any change from ages of yore, and so peculiarly black—the only other thing that black is a coffin—recalls hushed criminal adventures in the night, accompanied only by the quiet splashing of water; even more, it recalls death itself, the bier and the dismal funeral and the final taciturn passage. And have you observed that the seat in such a boat, that armchair painted black like a coffin and upholstered in a dull black, is the softest, most luxurious and enervating seat in the world? Aschenbach noticed this when he sat down at the gondolier’s feet opposite his luggage, which was arranged neatly at the prow.

Related Characters: Gustav von Aschenbach, The Gondolier
Page Number: 16
Explanation and Analysis:

Gustav here prepares to arrive in Venice by gondola--the famed style of boat that's used to paddle between buildings in the city. As Gustav enters a gondola, he feels a strange twinge of anxiety and reflection. As Mann suggests, Gustav's anxiety is rooted in his own fear of death. The gondola is clearly depicted as a symbol of death--it's black like a coffin, and about the same size, too. The irony, then, is that even as Gustav enters Venice with hopes of reclaiming his youth and his life-force, he's surrounded by symbols that suggest death and destruction. The struggle for life, as Mann (a disciple of Freud) believed, is inseparably bound up with a repressed desire for death.

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.)

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.

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 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.

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.