In the fourth week of his stay in Venice, Aschenbach noticed that the number of guests at the hotel seemed to be decreasing. His barber one day mentioned something about a disease, but when Aschenbach asked him more about it, he wouldn’t say anything. That afternoon, having tea in the city, Aschenbach noticed the medicinal smell of a germicide in the air. He asked a shop owner about it, who said that it was a preemptive measure against illness that the bad weather might lead to.
The disease provides a possible metaphor for Aschenbach’s own affliction, whether one regards this as his perverse desire for Tadzio or his over-indulgence in his unconscious and repressed desires.
Aschenbach looked in some newspapers and found rumors of a possible illness spreading in Venice, but nothing substantiated. His only worry was that Tadzio might leave. He followed Tadzio’s family to church one Sunday and saw Tadzio, who also caught sight of him. He hid from Tadzio’s sight, though, and followed the boy and his family as they left church. Aschenbach felt that his “head and heart were drunk.”
Aschenbach is so obsessed with the beautiful Tadzio that he cares more about him leaving than his own health. As Aschenbach becomes more and more controlled by his repressed Dionysian side, he becomes “drunk” and intoxicated by his desires and by Tadzio’s beauty.
Tadzio and his family got into a gondola, and Aschenbach followed them at a distance in another one. He rode through the city, “half fairy tale, half tourist trap,” caring only about his “pursuit of the object that set him aflame.” Aschenbach’s intoxication got him carried away, and once he stood by the door to Tadzio’s hotel room and leaned his head against the door.
There were some moments when Aschenbach came to his senses. He wondered what his ancestors, with their “dignified severity” would think of his “exotic extravagances of emotion.” He had devoted his life to art in “an exhausting struggle,” and now after such an abstemious life he felt under the control of desire. But he justified this to himself by thinking that many brave ancient heroes had been in thrall to love.
Aschenbach still has some of the rigid, disciplined side of his personality and is conscious of how excessive his indulgence in his emotions and desires has become. However, he is not willing to change his behavior; the power of Tadzio’s beauty and the attraction of Venice are too great.
Aschenbach thus defended his behavior to himself. He was very interested in the news of a possible disease spreading around Venice and read about it in newspapers, though no one seemed to be certain about the disease. He asked the hotel manager about it, but could find out nothing more.
Aschenbach is increasingly concerned about the disease, which is ironic, as he should perhaps be more concerned with the “disease” of excessive desire that is beginning to overwhelm his mind.
One night, a group of street performers came to the hotel. Aschenbach watched the vulgar performance, “because passion deadens one’s taste,” but was mostly focused on Tadzio, who was standing near him, watching the show. Tadzio occasionally looked over his shoulder toward Aschenbach. Aschenbach thought he had noticed on several occasions Tadzio’s family calling him away when he seemed to get too near to him, so he tried to disguise his interest in the boy.
Consumed by passion and desire, Aschenbach has lost some of his artistic taste, enjoying the vulgar performance. Aschenbach is so obsessed with Tadzio’s beauty that he becomes slightly paranoid, thinking that Tadzio’s family is trying to keep the boy from him. His interest in Tadzio has become much more than simple admiration of the boy’s beauty.
One of the performers, a kind of comedian, started an entertaining, popular guitar solo. Through the guitarist’s winks, suggestive gestures, and “licking the corners of his mouth licentiously,” the song became “salacious” and vulgar. Aschenbach watched the guitarist curiously, whom he noticed smelled like the germicide in the city air. After the performance, the guitarist made his way through the audience, asking for money.
The guitarist’s performance is an example of someone unable or unwilling to restrain emotions, something Aschenbach would have previously hated but is now increasingly coming to exemplify himself.
When the guitarist got to Aschenbach, Aschenbach asked him why Venice was being disinfected. The guitarist said it was merely a preventative measure because the sirocco (a warm wind) could be bad for people’s health. He said there was no disease in Venice. But immediately after this conversation, he was accosted by two hotel employees who asked him questions about what he’d revealed. He assured them he had been discreet about the disease.
The guitarist appears to be lying about the mysterious disease, but his answer suggests a link between Venice’s weather and people’s health, emphasizing the link between external climate and people’s inner states. For Aschenbach, for example, the warm weather seems to have contributed to his excessive desire for Tadzio.
The guitarist gave one last performance with a refrain in which the whole performing troupe laughed hysterically. The laughter was contagious and soon the entire audience was laughing, as well. Aschenbach got up, as if to run away from the contagious laughter, but found he was under a “dreamy spell” from the nearness of Tadzio. He looked at Tadzio, who returned his gaze, and he again thought that the boy looked sickly, and wouldn’t live into old age.
Aschenbach is troubled by the apparently contagious laughter, which is an example of unrestrained emotion. However, he is increasingly under the “spell” of Tadzio’s intoxicating beauty, and seemingly unable to control his own behavior. The "contagion" of emotion has caught him, too. Aschenbach again thinks of Tadzio dying young, before his beautiful body becomes old and wearied.
Aschenbach stayed and sat where he was for a while after the performance was over. He thought of an hourglass that used to be at his parents’ home, and thought of the sand slipping through the middle of the glass. The next day, Aschenbach went to a British travel agency in Venice and asked an Englishman about the possible disease in Venice. The man said the germicide was simply a preventative measure, but then said that this was only the official explanation.
Aschenbach’s vision of his parents’ hourglass suggests that his own time is running out—he has already lost his youth, and can never recapture the past. In order to compensate for this, he has become obsessed with Tadzio, who, to Aschenbach, epitomizes youth.
The Englishman then explained that Indian cholera had spread throughout the Mediterranean. Having begun in “the hot swamps of the Ganges delta,” it had now reached Venice, and an Austrian tourist had died from it. It seemed as though food had been infected, and an epidemic was likely. However, fearing the loss of tourism, the city was maintaining silence about the disease.
The disease is symbolically linked to the hot climate of India, possibly suggesting that it represents Aschenbach’s affliction of excessive desire, hot in another sense. Exotic, southern locales like India are associated in the novella with sensual decadence, heat, and primal desires.
The crisis in Venice had led to an increase in crime on the streets. The Englishman told Aschenbach that he should leave Venice immediately for his own safety. Aschenbach thought of perhaps warning Tadzio’s family about the disease (and using that opportunity to “lay his hand in farewell” on Tadzio’s head. He suddenly thought of the strange red-haired man he had seen in Munich, though, and then was disgusted by the thought of leaving Venice.
Aschenbach is so obsessed with the beautiful Tadzio that he is again less concerned with his own safety than with the young boy, His thought of the red-haired man could represent his unconscious impetus for desiring exotic travel. He now has no interest in resisting this desire, and wants to stay in Venice at all costs.
That night, Aschenbach had an intense dream, which he felt “totally destroyed and annihilated” his existence and “lifetime’s accumulation of culture.” “Night reigned” in the dream, as a loud, chanting, orgiastic crowd “came rolling and plunging down in a whirlwind,” in a mountainous landscape. There were women holding snakes and men with horns, all dancing to flute music. Aschenbach’s “soul tasted the lewdness and frenzy.”
In his dream, Aschenbach confronts, and is overwhelmed by, his unconscious. The scene is highly reminiscent of ancient Greek scenes of Dionysian revelry and worship, representing the Dionysian side of Aschenbach’s artistic personality.
When Aschenbach awoke, he was fully devoted to his desire for Tadzio and had no more shame. As more and more guests left the hotel in fear of the cholera, Aschenbach pursued and followed Tadzio more openly. Aschenbach fantasized that everyone would gradually flee Venice, leaving only Tadzio and him. Looking at Tadzio’s young body, he began to hate his own aged body.
Aschenbach is now completely controlled by the desires and parts of his personality he had repressed for so long. His obsession with Tadzio now consumes him (not unlike the disease spreading through the city), and his admiration for Tadzio’s youth has led him to hate his own old age.
Aschenbach went to the hotel barber and dyed his gray hair. He put on all sorts of cosmetics and makeup, and dressed in bright clothes. One afternoon, Aschenbach was following Tadzio through the streets of Venice. Tadzio looked behind him periodically, to see if Aschenbach were still following him. Aschenbach was “intoxicated by this knowledge” that Tadzio knew he was following and did not try to stop him. He lost sight of Tadzio, though, and went to a grocer, where he bought some strawberries.
Intoxicated by Tadzio and his beauty, Aschenbach despises his aged appearance so much that he is reduced to a pathetic figure, wearing makeup to try to seem younger. He has turned into the very old man he hated so much on the boat ride to Venice, who can now be seen as representing a repressed part of Aschenbach himself.
Aschenbach sat in a city square and looked at the buildings around him, as “hot gusts of wind carried the smell of carbolic acid to him.” Aschenbach, “the master, the artist who had attained dignity. . . the man who had ascended the heights,” now sat looking pathetic. He had a “half-slumbering brain,” and began to talk to himself as if he were Socrates in Plato’s Phaedrus. He asked Phaedrus whether he thought beauty was the path to wisdom, or whether it was “a dangerous charm, truly a path of error and sin.” Continuing to speak as Socrates, Aschenbach said that knowledge only leads to desire, which leads to “the abyss.”
The hot gusts of wind mirror the feverish heat of Aschenbach’s desire. His Dionysian intoxication with Tadzio’s beauty makes him delirious, and he again travels mentally through time, thinking that he is Socrates in ancient Athens. It is left ambiguous as to whether beauty is a good or bad thing. It can inspire an artist to intellectual wisdom, as it did for Aschenbach, but it seems also to have utterly destroyed Aschenbach’s own life, leading him near to the “abyss” of death.
A few days later, Aschenbach was feeling ill. He learned from a hotel employee that Tadzio’s family was leaving after lunch. He went to the beach and sat down, watching Tadzio play with some of his young friends. Jaschu tackled him playfully and pinned him down in the sand. Aschenbach almost got up to help Tadzio, but Jaschu let him go. Tadzio walked off angrily and went into the water.
Aschenbach’s psychological affliction is now manifesting itself as well as a physical disease. He is especially desperate as this may be his last chance to gaze upon Tadzio’s beauty.
Aschenbach watched Tadzio wade into the sea. Tadzio looked back, and Aschenbach thought he saw Tadzio beckoning him to come, as a “pale, charming psychagogue,” and Aschenbach followed him. The narrator says that Aschenbach had actually slumped over in his chair, delirious. He was carried to his room where he died before the day was over, and “a respectfully shocked world received the news of his death.”
Tadzio beckons Aschenbach to go out into the sea; in symbolic terms, he encourages Aschenbach to submerge himself entirely in his unconscious. Aschenbach compares the boy to a “psychagogue,” which is the Greek god Hermes’ role in transporting souls to the underworld. And in fact Aschenbach has descended, or crossed over, completely into his subconscious, as the image of Tadzio beckoning to him and of him joining Tadzio occurs entirely in Aschenbach's fantasy, even as Aschenbach himself dies. The literary world that admires Aschenbach’s writing is completely ignorant of the repression that his life involved. The world saw what he presented to it, through his art. But it did not see or understand him, and would not even in his death.