Death in Venice

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Travel, Geography, and Climate Theme Analysis

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
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Travel, Geography, and Climate Theme Icon

In terms of plot, Death in Venice is primarily a story of travel. Aschenbach’s journey to Venice can be seen as operating on multiple levels. Not only does he physically, literally travel to Italy, but he also travels symbolically to the realm of his unconscious and temporally to ancient Greece through his visions and dreams. Venice is continually described as a hazy, dreamlike city, part fantasy and part reality, heightening the sense of Aschenbach’s travel as highly symbolic. It is particularly important that Aschenbach travels south. Mann’s novella takes advantage of some stereotypical associations of particular regions of Europe. Aschenbach is from Germany, in northern Europe, which is associated with a cold, austere, disciplined lifestyle. His trip to Italy is a journey to a more relaxed, warm, indulgent place. The climate of Venice often symbolically reflects Aschenbach’s inner state, with its oppressive heat and haze mirroring the heat of Aschenbach’s desire and his intoxication with Tadzio’s beauty.

The idea of travel is thus full of symbolic weight in Mann’s story. By leaving his home, Aschenbach seeks not only a foreign locale, but also a change of lifestyle. Importantly, Aschenbach hopes to travel only temporarily. He only wants a vacation in Venice, a temporary respite from his normal life, his normal climate, and his normal self. However, the novella shows that taking a short trip to one’s unconscious, the realm of one’s fantasies and inner desires, can be dangerous. Aschenbach is overwhelmed by the climate of his destination and the inner state it seems to encourage in him. As his downfall shows, the journey to one’s inner desires and unconscious fantasies can be dangerous, and is often a one-way trip.

Travel, Geography, and Climate ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Travel, Geography, and Climate appears in each chapter of Death in Venice. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Travel, Geography, and Climate Quotes in Death in Venice

Below you will find the important quotes in Death in Venice related to the theme of Travel, Geography, and Climate.
Chapter 1 Quotes

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.


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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.

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).

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.

“What do you charge for the ride?”
And, looking past him, the gondolier answered:
“You will pay.”

Related Characters: Gustav von Aschenbach (speaker), The Gondolier (speaker)
Page Number: 18
Explanation and Analysis:

Mann here further reinforces the link between the gondola and death. Gustav has rented a gondola to travel to the place where he's staying. The gondolier rows Gustav into the depths of Venice, but refuses to accept any payment from Gustav--instead, he cryptically insists that Gustav will pay later.

The gondolier's words seem laced with symbolic meanings. In Greek mythology, the shadowy boatman Charon paddled dead spirits across the river Styx into Hell (in exchange for a coin). Here, the gondolier takes on the attributes of Charon, rowing Gustav into a city of death, and suggesting that Gustav will "pay" not with a coin but with his life itself. In short, the gondolier prophesies Gustav's death (a death that we're meant to see coming--it's even in the title--and that thus hangs over all the opening actions of the tale).

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

Day after day now the god with the glowing cheeks, nude, steered his fiery team of four through the regions of the sky, his yellow tresses floating behind him in the east wind that was also vigorously blowing. A whitish silky sheen covered the expanse of the indolently rolling pontos. The sand burned. Beneath the silvery, glittering blue of the aether, rust-colored canvases were spread in front of the cabanas, and in the sharply outlined patch of shade that they afforded people spent the morning hours. But the evening was also delicious, when the plants in the park emitted a balmy fragrance, the heavenly bodies up above went through the paces of their round dance, and the murmuring of the benighted sea, quietly rising, cast a spell over the soul.

Page Number: 33
Explanation and Analysis:

As we greet Gustav at the beginning of Chapter 4, he's living the dream in Venice. Life is easy for him, and he seemingly has free reign to give in to his long-repressed desires of passion and homoeroticism. As he sits on the water or walks through the city, Gustav feels a constant sense of exhilaration, and the passage overflows with sensual language ("vigorously," "burned," "delicious," "heavenly," the sun described as a naked god, etc.).

And yet this sense of exhilaration simply cannot last, or cannot last and remain controlled. Every act of joy and freedom that Gustav experiences is like an aspect of the Dionysian, the life force he has long repressed--but the other side of the Dionysian is chaos and death. Once primeval passions and desires are unleashed, they inevitably end in destruction. In short, the passage represents Gustav's "last hurrah" of joy before he starts his downward spiral into mortality.

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 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.