Death in Venice

Gustav von Aschenbach Character Analysis

The main character of the novella, Aschenbach is a successful, celebrated German writer who lives in Munich. An old man, he has lived an austere, disciplined life dedicated to his writing. He rarely indulges in any leisure or pleasure, and is a highly repressed individual, denying most desires in order to dedicate himself fully to his work. The sight of the red-haired man, however, awakens a latent desire in him to travel, and he ends up taking a vacation in Venice. There, he undergoes a rapid transformation, as he confronts the repressed side of his personality and his inner desires. He becomes obsessed with the young boy Tadzio, first as a kind of work of art—a perfect example of youthful beauty—and then as an object of his erotic affections. Aschenbach becomes increasingly intoxicated with the licentious atmosphere of Venice and dies a very different man from who he was in Munich, ignoring his work in order to pursue his desire for Tadzio, whose youth and beauty he idolizes at the expense of everything else.

Gustav von Aschenbach Quotes in Death in Venice

The Death in Venice quotes below are all either spoken by Gustav von Aschenbach or refer to Gustav von Aschenbach. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Art and the Artist Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Dover Publications edition of Death in Venice published in 1995.
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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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What was here prepared, in fact already accomplished, was that “miracle of reborn naïveté” that the author mentioned expressly somewhat later in one of his dialogues, not without a mysterious emphasis. Strange connections! Was it an intellectual consequence of this “rebirth,” of this new dignity and severity, when at about the same time one could observe an almost immoderate strengthening of his feeling for beauty, that noble purity, simplicity and evenness of form that henceforth lent his productions such a striking, indeed conscious, stamp of mastery and classicism?

Related Characters: Gustav von Aschenbach
Page Number: 9-10
Explanation and Analysis:

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Significant destinies seemed to have left their mark on his head, which usually leaned sideways as if in pain; and yet it was art that had here undertaken that task of forming the features which is usually the work of a difficult, agitated life. . . Yes, even on a personal basis art is an enhancement of life. It makes you more deeply happy, it wears you out faster. It engraves on the face of its servant the traces of imaginary, intellectual adventures, and with time, even when his external existence is one of cloisterlike calm, it makes him spoiled and fastidious, producing a weariness and nervous curiosity that could hardly be generated by a lifetime full of extravagant passions and pleasures.

Related Characters: Gustav von Aschenbach
Page Number: 11
Explanation and Analysis:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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“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:

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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:

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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:

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“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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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Gustav von Aschenbach Character Timeline in Death in Venice

The timeline below shows where the character Gustav von Aschenbach appears in Death in Venice. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1
Art and the Artist Theme Icon
Repression, the Mind, and the Self Theme Icon
On an afternoon in May, in an unspecified year early in the 1900s, Gustav von Aschenbach, a well-regarded writer in Germany, went for a walk in Munich. He had spent the... (full context)
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It was unseasonably warm outside and after Aschenbach had walked for a while, he saw that a storm was approaching. He waited for... (full context)
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...to be foreign and “peered sharply and searchingly into the distance with colorless, red-lashed eyes.” Aschenbach couldn’t help but stare and soon found that the stranger was looking right back at... (full context)
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...It was like “a real seizure,” or “a delusion of the senses.” In his mind, Aschenbach imagined a lush tropical landscape with “lusty fern clusters,” and exotic plants and animals. Finally,... (full context)
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Up until this point, Aschenbach had never “been tempted to leave Europe,” because of his desire to work at writing... (full context)
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Aschenbach did not want to waste time vacationing when he was working on “the book he... (full context)
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After much internal debate, Aschenbach finally concluded that he needed some travel, “an exotic atmosphere.” He decided to spend “a... (full context)
Chapter 2
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Aschenbach had achieved fame and notoriety as a novelist, short story writer, and critic. His father’s... (full context)
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Aschenbach had always been “bent on fame,” and established a successful literary career early in his... (full context)
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Aschenbach grew up without any real friends, and always hoped to live a productive life. He... (full context)
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...reason why people “confer fame on a work of art.” In one of his works, Aschenbach had written that everything is “brought to completion despite distress and torment, poverty, abandonment, physical... (full context)
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An analyst wrote of Aschenbach that he often wrote of a hero that stood in for “an intellectual and youthful... (full context)
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Aschenbach had captured “passionate, absolutistic” youth in his early works, which questioned the nature of art... (full context)
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Aschenbach was short and dark-haired. His furrowed brow and face showed signs of wear not from... (full context)
Chapter 3
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About two weeks after his walk in Munich, Aschenbach took a trip to an island in the Adriatic. It had “beautifully eroded cliff scenery,”... (full context)
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Aschenbach boarded an old Italian ship bound for Venice. An old sailor welcomed him aboard and... (full context)
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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.... (full context)
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Aschenbach gazed into the distance and at last the coastline of Venice began to emerge. All... (full context)
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While preparing to board a gondola, Aschenbach was forced to stand around next to the strange old man, who was blabbering on... (full context)
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Aschenbach felt calm and at ease in the gondola. He was troubled, though, when he noticed... (full context)
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Aschenbach arrived at his hotel and went to the front desk to get some change in... (full context)
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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,... (full context)
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...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,... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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Aschenbach remembered when he had experienced similar weather in Venice once before and had to leave... (full context)
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Aschenbach was stunned by the boy’s “godlike beauty,” evident in his appearance and graceful walk. He... (full context)
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After breakfast, Aschenbach went to the beach and enjoyed watching people having fun in the water. He started... (full context)
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Aschenbach was delighted to see this, as for him it made the godlike boy more human.... (full context)
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Aschenbach watched the boy play with some other children, especially another Polish boy who appeared to... (full context)
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Aschenbach read on the beach, but was constantly thinking of Tadzio, who was lying on the... (full context)
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Around noon, Aschenbach went back to his room and looked at his gray hair and wrinkled face in... (full context)
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In the afternoon, Aschenbach went for a walk around the city of Venice. The air was thick and unpleasant,... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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Just as he was leaving, Aschenbach saw Tadzio, and he left the hotel full of regret. As Aschenbach went through Venice,... (full context)
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Aschenbach happily returned to his hotel and was given a new room there. He spent most... (full context)
Chapter 4
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...the sky and noting how plants in the park at evening “emitted a balmy fragrance.” Aschenbach decided to stay in Venice even after his luggage was returned to him. He had... (full context)
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Aschenbach had never been able to stay away from work for very long and never indulged... (full context)
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Every morning, Aschenbach got up early and was the first person on the beach, where he sat as... (full context)
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Aschenbach admired everything about Tadzio’s behavior and appearance, including his “honey-colored hair.” He thought of the... (full context)
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Aschenbach felt that gazing at Tadzio was like looking at beauty itself. Thinking of Plato’s Phaedrus... (full context)
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Aschenbach felt intoxicated by the sun and ocean and had a delirious vision. In the vision,... (full context)
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Aschenbach felt a sudden urge to write, and felt compelled to write about “a certain important,... (full context)
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Aschenbach saw Tadzio the next morning and decided to say hello and introduce himself in a... (full context)
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Aschenbach planned to stay in Venice indefinitely, and put all the energy and focus he used... (full context)
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The days were “mythically transformed” for Aschenbach, who saw the waves crashing on the beach as Poseidon’s “steeds dash[ing] forward.” He compared... (full context)
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...would occasionally walk to his family by a route that meant he passed right by Aschenbach, and Aschenbach took this as a sign that “his friendly feelings and attention were not... (full context)
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One evening, Aschenbach saw Tadzio and his family returning from dinner in the city, and marveled at how... (full context)
Chapter 5
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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... (full context)
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Aschenbach looked in some newspapers and found rumors of a possible illness spreading in Venice, but... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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There were some moments when Aschenbach came to his senses. He wondered what his ancestors, with their “dignified severity” would think... (full context)
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Aschenbach thus defended his behavior to himself. He was very interested in the news of a... (full context)
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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,... (full context)
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...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.... (full context)
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When the guitarist got to Aschenbach, Aschenbach asked him why Venice was being disinfected. The guitarist said it was merely a... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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Aschenbach stayed and sat where he was for a while after the performance was over. He... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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That night, Aschenbach had an intense dream, which he felt “totally destroyed and annihilated” his existence and “lifetime’s... (full context)
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When Aschenbach awoke, he was fully devoted to his desire for Tadzio and had no more shame.... (full context)
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Aschenbach went to the hotel barber and dyed his gray hair. He put on all sorts... (full context)
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Aschenbach sat in a city square and looked at the buildings around him, as “hot gusts... (full context)
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A few days later, Aschenbach was feeling ill. He learned from a hotel employee that Tadzio’s family was leaving after... (full context)
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Aschenbach watched Tadzio wade into the sea. Tadzio looked back, and Aschenbach thought he saw Tadzio... (full context)