About two weeks after his walk in Munich, Aschenbach took a trip to an island in the Adriatic. It had “beautifully eroded cliff scenery,” but too much rain and too many Austrian tourists. He wanted to go somewhere else, somewhere “different as a fairy tale,” and suddenly realized that he should go to Venice.
Aschenbach’s desire to travel is more than a need for mere vacation. He wants to go somewhere “different as a fairy tale,” suggesting that he wants a kind of mysterious, symbolic vacation from his normal life.
Aschenbach boarded an old Italian ship bound for Venice. An old sailor welcomed him aboard and told him that Venice was an attractive destination for both its history and its “present-day charms.” Aschenbach examined some of the boat’s other passengers and saw what looked like a young man in a stylish suit and hat. but then he suddenly realized that it was actually an old man with wrinkles trying to affect a “youthful impression.”
Venice continues to gain strange associations as a destination, with its “charms.” The old man shows an extreme perversion of an obsession with youth. Aschenbach looks down on this man who has given up all self-control and dignity, but the man can be seen as a version of Aschenbach’s own repressed desire for youth, which will overtake him later.
The old man was wearing makeup, a wig, and dentures. Aschenbach regarded this old man with horror, and felt slightly like he was in a dream. Out at sea, Aschenbach lost track of time and daydreamed. After eating a meal, he looked out to see if he could see Venice yet but he couldn’t see through the gray rain and mist. On previous visits he had always seen Venice in the sun, and now accepted that he would arrive “at a different Venice by sea route,” than by land, as he had previously traveled.
Aschenbach’s travel comes to resemble a dream, the state in which one is most in touch with one’s unconscious. The sea can be seen as a symbol of the vast, incomprehensible depths of the unconscious. Aschenbach’s dream-like travel allows him to lose track of time. Arriving in Venice by sea, instead of by land as before, heightens the sense of this trip as something more than physical travel.
Aschenbach gazed into the distance and at last the coastline of Venice began to emerge. All the boat’s passengers were excited to arrive, and Aschenbach saw with disgust that the old man dressed up as a youth was “pitifully drunk.” Aschenbach delighted in all the buildings and architecture of Venice and realized that coming by sea was the only proper way to arrive in “that most improbable of cities.”
Aschenbach continues to view the old man with disgust, but he will later come to resemble him, as he becomes more and more controlled by his own long-repressed desires. Seemingly submerged in the sea, Venice is an almost mystical location for Aschenbach.
While preparing to board a gondola, Aschenbach was forced to stand around next to the strange old man, who was blabbering on drunkenly—until his upper denture fell out of his mouth. Aschenbach felt a little trepidation on getting onto his gondola, whose black color reminded him of a coffin and of death itself. The gondola’s seat was “the softest, most luxurious and enervating seat in the world.”
The old man continues to represent a pathetic version of old age. The gondola, reminiscent of death, emphasizes the strangeness of Venice and the intoxicating, but perhaps dangerous luxury of Aschenbach’s vacation.
Aschenbach felt calm and at ease in the gondola. He was troubled, though, when he noticed they were going out to sea, not to the vaporetto stop from where he wanted to go to his hotel. His gondolier informed him that he could not take the vaporetto with luggage and so the gondola would go all the way to the hotel. Aschenbach sank into a dreamy calm. He asked how much the gondola ride would cost, but all the gondolier would say was, “You will pay.”
As Aschenbach arrives in Venice, he almost immediately finds himself not in control, just as he will later not be able to control his own unconscious desires. The strange gondolier recalls Charon, who ferried souls into the underworld in Greek mythology. Venice is thus already associated with a strange timelessness and otherworldly quality, as well as with death.
Aschenbach arrived at his hotel and went to the front desk to get some change in order to pay his gondolier. When he returned, though, the gondolier had gone. An old man told him that his gondolier was “a bad man, a man without a license.” Aschenbach went into his hotel and looked out at the beach.
The mysterious gondolier heightens the strangeness of Aschenbach’s destination, suggesting that there is something more than a literal vacation going on.
The narrator reflects on solitude, which can produce both originality and perverseness. The solitary Aschenbach walked along the seaside promenade and then came back to the hotel. In the lounge, while waiting for dinner, he looked at some of the hotel guests and saw a variety of nationalities. He saw a group of three adolescent Polish girls and a boy of about fourteen with a governess. The boy was “perfectly beautiful,” with “honey-colored hair,” and a form reminiscent of Greek statuary.
Aschenbach’s solitude means that he will get in touch with the various sides of his personality and the various parts of his self. As an artist, he is immediately struck by the boy’s beauty as a kind of ideal. Continuing with his temporal confusion, Aschenbach idealizes the boy as reminiscent of an ancient Greek statue.
The Polish girls had “austere and chaste” attire in contrast to the boy’s “rich and pampered appearance.” A waiter announced that dinner was ready, and most of the hotel guests went to eat, but the Polish family kept waiting, and Aschenbach waited as well, sitting in a chair and watching them. The Polish children’s mother arrived, a stylish and elegant woman who Aschenbach imagined might be the wife of a high-ranking German government official.
Aschenbach is entirely fascinated by the beautiful appearance of the boy. At this point, it is unclear whether he is admiring the young boy’s beauty as an appreciative artist or as a desirous voyeur.
The family went off to dinner, and as the young boy was leaving, he stopped and turned around, briefly meeting Aschenbach’s gaze. Aschenbach went to go eat dinner, slightly disappointed not to be sitting near the Polish family. While eating, he thought of very abstract things, including the nature of beauty and the “general problems of form and art.” He went to bed early that night and when he woke the next day, the weather was still overcast.
Aschenbach’s interest in the Polish boy leads to abstract thoughts on beauty and art. But to what degree can his fascination with the boy’s beauty remain abstract and separate from an actual desire for him? The overcast weather could reflect the hazy, dreamlike quality of Aschenbach’s stay in Venice.
Aschenbach remembered when he had experienced similar weather in Venice once before and had to leave because the weather affected his health. He worried that a similar sickness was setting in now. He went down to breakfast and saw the Polish boy’s family without him. He smiled at the thought of the young boy sleeping in, and as Aschenbach was finishing breakfast the boy arrived.
Aschenbach continues his fascination with the boy’s youth and beauty. The link between weather and his health suggests that the climate and weather of Venice (often oppressively warm) can be seen as reflective of Aschenbach’s inner state.
Aschenbach was stunned by the boy’s “godlike beauty,” evident in his appearance and graceful walk. He thought the boy had the head of Eros and skin like marble. He regarded the boy with “that professionally cool approval in which artists sometimes cloak their rapture and ecstasy when face to face with a masterpiece.”
Aschenbach regards the boy as an artist who appreciates beauty. But the comparison of the boy to Eros (the Greek god of love) hints that there may be a growing element of desire to his obsession with the boy, as well. Aschenbach continually compares the boy to figures of classical antiquity.
After breakfast, Aschenbach went to the beach and enjoyed watching people having fun in the water. He started daydreaming and looked out at the “unorganized, immoderate, eternal” sea, which he was fond of for “deep-seated reasons.” He saw the Polish boy in the water and saw as the boy looked disapprovingly at a family of Russians on the beach.
Aschenbach drifts off into a dreamlike state, gazing at the sea, which is described in terms that recall the unconscious.
Aschenbach was delighted to see this, as for him it made the godlike boy more human. He listened as the boy played with some friends and thought he heard the friends call the boy Adgio or Adgiu. He kept listening to them as he worked on writing some letters. He couldn’t focus on the letters for long, though, and soon went back to looking at the sea and keeping an eye on the young Polish boy.
Aschenbach’s disciplined devotion to his work is beginning to slip as he becomes more and more in thrall to his interest in the boy and spends more and more of his time in leisure.
Aschenbach watched the boy play with some other children, especially another Polish boy who appeared to be called Jaschu. It was very hot outside. Remembering some Polish, Aschenbach thought the boy’s name must be Tadzio. He saw Tadzio go swimming and then come back out of the water and was taken by the sight of the boy climbing out of the waves, which “inspired mythic ideas,” about “the birth of the gods.”
The beauty of Tadzio transports Aschenbach’s mind to ancient times and makes him think of classical mythology. At this point, Aschenbach’s interest in Tadzio is still very abstract, mixed up with his artistic “mythic ideas” of beauty.
Aschenbach read on the beach, but was constantly thinking of Tadzio, who was lying on the beach nearby. He felt a “paternal kindness” toward Tadzio, like “a man who through self-sacrifice creates the beautiful in his mind feels toward one who possesses beauty itself.”
Aschenbach becomes gradually less disciplined, losing focus on his work, in order to pursue Tadzio’s beauty. He idealizes Tadzio as beauty itself and, currently, doesn’t seem to desire the boy erotically.
Around noon, Aschenbach went back to his room and looked at his gray hair and wrinkled face in the mirror. He went to lunch and afterwards found himself in the same elevator as some young children, including Tadzio. He was standing so close to Tadzio that he began to see him as a human being, rather than as a beautiful work of art. He saw that Tadzio’s teeth looked brittle and translucent, as if he were sick, and concluded, with some delight, that Tadzio would not live to a very old age.
Aschenbach’s experience of Tadzio’s beauty causes him to be newly aware of his own aged appearance. In the elevator, he confronts Tadzio as a real person, rather than an ideal of beauty. Aschenbach idealizes youth so much that he is actually happy to think that Tadzio will die before his youthful beauty can fade with time.
In the afternoon, Aschenbach went for a walk around the city of Venice. The air was thick and unpleasant, Aschenbach began to feel feverish, and he decided to leave Venice. He was sure the weather was affecting his health, and planned to go to Trieste, rather than back home. He returned to the hotel, packed, and arranged to leave the next day.
The warm, unpleasant weather reflects the growing feverish desire in Aschenbach. He decides that he has had enough of this vacation from his normal climate and his normal self.
The next morning, the air was a little better, and Aschenbach wondered if he had decided to leave Venice too quickly. He had breakfast, and a man from the hotel told him that a car was ready to take him away. He told the man that he wanted to wait and eat breakfast slowly, though, and waited for Tadzio to come down to breakfast. The car was waiting for Aschenbach, so he sent his luggage ahead in it, and stayed at the hotel for a little longer.
Aschenbach regards his trip to Venice as a temporary vacation that he is free to end at any time. However, he is finding it much more difficult to put an end to his trip than he thought, due especially to his infatuation with the beautiful Tadzio. He, who has always been so disciplined, can't re-assert discipline over himself.
Just as he was leaving, Aschenbach saw Tadzio, and he left the hotel full of regret. As Aschenbach went through Venice, he began to realize he would miss the city’s “odor of sea and swamp.” He felt that he would never see Venice again and was greatly conflicted over whether to leave or stay. At the train station, a man from the hotel informed him that his luggage had been sent ahead to Como, by mistake, and Aschenbach gladly took this as an opportunity to stay in Venice, feeling that it was fate for him to remain.
Aschenbach is glad to have an excuse to extend his stay in Venice. The city’s “odor of sea and swamp” emphasizes its exotic, sensuous quality, as well as its symbolic link to the unconscious (via the sea).
Aschenbach happily returned to his hotel and was given a new room there. He spent most of the day in his room and thought the air outside seemed fresher and less oppressive. He saw Tadzio coming back from the beach and, with a combination of “joy and pain,” realized that it was because of Tadzio that he had been so reluctant to leave Venice. He sat in his room and lifted up his arms in “a gesture that bespoke an open welcome, a calm acceptance.”
Aschenbach’s gesture of “calm acceptance” is a kind of surrender: to the repressed parts of his personality now coming to the surface; to the intoxicating, seductive atmosphere of Venice; and to his desire for Tadzio, which is becoming more concrete and related to the boy himself, less abstract and related to art.