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.
Youth, Age, and Time Theme Icon

Aschenbach is an old man, and part of why he decides to go to Venice when he does is because he feels his time is running out. He misses his youth, and this is part of why he becomes so obsessed with Tadzio. Youth is associated with beauty in Mann’s novella, and as an artist, Aschenbach adores the beauty of youth, which inevitability fades with age. As this may suggest, Aschenbach’s obsession with youth becomes a bit perverse and extreme. He originally views the old man with dentures and makeup on the boat to Venice as a pathetic, grotesque character. However, he himself essentially becomes this man by the end of the novel, as he tries to appear younger, disgusted with his aged appearance.

Time is also important on a larger scale in Death in Venice. When Aschenbach boards the boat to Venice, he feels that he loses track of time. Several times in Venice, Aschenbach becomes temporally disoriented and envisions himself in ancient times. He imagines that he is Socrates, talking to Phaedrus outside of classical Athens, and also has an intense dream of an ancient Dionysian orgy. Classical antiquity is an important site of fantasy for Aschenbach. He often compares Tadzio to mythological characters or classical sculptures, idealizing the ancient past as a world full of beauty. And indeed, much ancient Greek writing puts great importance on beauty and love (for example, Plato’s Phaedrus). In 5th-century Athens, there was also a widespread practice of pederasty, sexual relationships between younger and older men. So, Aschenbach’s visions of the ancient past can also be seen as a desire for the supposedly more licentious sexual practices of antiquity. The degree to which Aschenbach’s desire for Tadzio is explicitly sexual is slightly ambiguous. He longs both for his own youth and for the “younger” historical period of ancient times, and projects both of these ideals onto Tadzio. Through the character of Tadzio, then, Aschenbach lusts after the idea of youth itself. However, this cannot be completely disassociated from Aschenbach’s love for the particular young character of Tadzio.

Through Aschenbach, Mann shows the destructive, often perverse consequences of an excessive idealization of youth. Aschenbach not only becomes a grotesque figure and perishes from his intense passion, but even wishes harm for Tadzio (hoping that he will die young). Youth is always fleeting, and time is always flying. Perhaps then we cannot help but have some nostalgia for earlier times. Aschenbach demonstrates, though, what can happen when someone indulges in extreme versions of this desire for youth and for the past.

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Youth, Age, and Time ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Death in Venice related to the theme of Youth, Age, and Time.
Chapter 2 Quotes

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.


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Chapter 3 Quotes

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.

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.

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.

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

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.