Study Guide

Death in Venice

By Thomas Mann

Death in Venice Introduction

We at Shmoop bring you only the very best in literature… and sometimes this includes the most scandalous in literature as well. Now, dear Shmoopers, is one of those times. Say hello to Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, a novella about a writer who falls in love with a young Polish boy, and that's been raising eyebrows ever since its publication in 1912. To be clear, when we say writer, we are referring to an adult one—which means this love is all kinds of forbidden.

Before you consider burning your copy of the book in outrage, though, consider this: This book is actually about art. And desire. And how art and desire are super entangled with each other. Is it a hot mess? Absolutely. Is it a totally captivating read because of this? You know it.

Mann, known as "the ironic German" (no seriously—there's even a book by that title), loves to pose moral values and cultural ideals as open questions instead of simple facts (they didn't give him the Nobel Prize in 1929 for nothing), and Death in Venice is his depiction of the modern artist, showing the way the artist's love of beauty is often hardly any different from erotic fixation. In other words, there's no beauty without sexual desire coursing below the surface.

Warning: You may feel a little uncomfortable calling things beautiful after you finish reading this book—it'll probably be a cool minute before you tell your mom she looks nice again. But if this is the case, then it just means Mann accomplished what he set out to do. So while it may be uncomfortable for us as readers, it's a job well done for Mann.

What is Death in Venice About and Why Should I Care?

Fellow seekers of Shmoop, we are gathered here to today to contemplate the immortal words of Haddaway: "What is love?"

Because while Death in Venice might continue to shock us all these years after its initial publication, it's still really all about the thing that makes the world go round: love. Or lust anyway, which arguably comes first. There's a whole lot of romantic yearning in the mix as Aschenbach transforms from well-respected writer to cholera-infected pedophile. And by yearning, we mean the super pervy variety, complete with orgiastic dreams. But here's the catch: Aschenbach becomes a better writer the farther he falls from the moral pedestal.

You've probably noticed that people care a whole lot about sex and sexuality—especially "perverse" forms. This is because sex and sexuality are all tied up with moral values and social norms. And here Death in Venice doesn't just nudge the envelope, Shmoopers, it pretty much pushes it over the edge of a cliff. In doing so, we're asked to take a good hard look at our ideals of love and beauty… and, in the process, the art they enable (or discourage) us from making.

Death in Venice Resources

WEBSITES

Death in Venice: the Book and the Movie
This blog entry is about Mann's novella, as well as the film version directed by Luchino Visconti. Check out Tadzio…

A Wiki about Death in Venice from Yale's "Modernism Lab"
This little wiki has useful background info about Mann's novella.

Mann's Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech
This website also includes a biographical sketch that Mann wrote about himself.

The Thomas Mann Archive in Zurich
Everything you could possibly need to know about Mann is probably here—it's kind of their job.

The Thomas Mann Museum
Make sure to swing by the next time you're in Lithuania.

MOVIE OR TV PRODUCTIONS

The Definitive Film Version
The 1971 film adaptation of Death in Venice, directed by Italian director Luchino Visconti, is a classic.

ARTICLES AND INTERVIEWS

An Interview with Mann from 1955
Thoughts from the Mann himself at the ripe old age of eighty.

A List of New York Times Articles about Mann
Oh Mann, that's a lot of articles. (We're really on a roll…)

A Review of the Visconti film
This is from 1971.

VIDEO

The Final Scene from Visconti's Death in Venice
Check this out.

The Opera
Guess what? There's a Death in Venice opera, too, thanks to Benjamin Britten.

AUDIO

The Radio Version
Peter Wolf made a BBC 4 radio version of Death in Venice in 1997.

IMAGES

Rocking the Sailor Suit
Take a look at Tadzio, played by the Swedish actor Björn Andrésen.

The Younger Years
Mann as a younger man.

Front Page Man
Check out this picture of Mann on the cover of Time Magazine in 1934.