Let's be blunt: Death in Venice is a study in irony. We can't emphasize enough how super-duper important it is to be aware of the novella's ironic tone.
In "Symbols," we give you a rundown of the ways classical Greek antiquity and mythology occur in Death in Venice, all with the purpose of adding to its irony. What do we mean by that? Well, if ancient Greece represents a European ideal of civilization and refinement, Death in Venice is out to show the dark side of those and other ideals—think: repressed desires, violence, and all-around strangeness. And it does so, on the surface, by pursuing these very ideals. In doing so, it shows their limits.
Death in Venice presents Aschenbach as the ideal European artist of the 20th century. He holds firmly to the belief that discipline and duty are the keys to creating works of genius, and when the story opens, he's at the top of his game. But as the story unfolds, Aschenbach encounters desires within himself that challenge his steely self-control—just as he is infected with cholera, he also gets "infected" with a strange and unfamiliar lust for Tadzio. So as it turns out, ironically, his longing for beauty and artistic perfection is more than tinged with sexual desire.
Let's take a look at one little passage from the end of the novella:
There he sat, the master, the eminently dignified artist, the author of "A Wretched Figure," who had rejected bohemian excess and the murky depths in a form of exemplary purity, who had renounced all sympathy for the abyss and reprehended the reprehensible, climbed the heights, and, having transcended his erudition and outgrown all irony, accepted the obligations that come with mass approbation, a man whose fame was official, whose name had been made noble, and whose style schoolboys were exhorted to emulate—there he sat, his eyes closed, with only an occasional, rapidly disappearing sidelong glance, scornful and sheepish, slipping out from under them and a few isolated words issuing from his slack, cosmetically embellished lips, the result of the curious dream logic of his half-slumbering brain. (5.50)
Here, the narrator steps back for a second, in order to give us the bigger picture of Aschenbach's situation. He's celebrated as "the master," who "rejected bohemian excess" and has "outgrown all irony," and yet here he is, at the end of it all, collapsed on the steps of some Venetian square, looking a whole lot like that old guy he sees on the boat to Venice (see 3.10-12).
Aschenbach might have "outgrown" irony in his previous life, but now, we're looking at a straight-up case of irony within the story. Mann's narrator is both respecting and mocking the ideal of the European artist, who wields beauty with precision and mastery. For Aschenbach, his love of beauty is anything but under control—in fact, it turns out to be pretty dangerous.
Death in Venice is an ironic portrait of the European artist at the beginning of the 20th century. But just because this novella is ironic, doesn't mean it has nothing serious to say. In fact, the novella's ironic tone runs parallel to the novella's philosophical (and psychological) take on art and creativity.
Let's talk about that passage about Socrates and Phaedrus in Chapter 5 (see 5.51). What's up with that? Aschenbach is sitting in his beach chair, watching Tadzio, and all of a sudden the narrator is quoting Socrates talking to Phaedrus. Well, we could interpret this as something Aschenbach is imagining in that moment; he daydreams about Socrates and Phaedrus once before in Chapter 4 (see 4.9). In any case, this part interrupts the story, introducing the voice of someone other than the narrator: Socrates.
Socrates's interruption and the way he is offset from the narrator's ironic portrayal of Aschenbach help indicate a shift in the narrative's tone. This passage reminds us that Death in Venice is not just about poking fun at Aschenbach—it's got some important bones to pick.
What Socrates says here about the artist's "bliss and shame" (5.51)—meaning that the love of beauty is never free of lust and sexual impulses—is meant as a genuine appraisal of artistic creativity. And remember: Aschenbach may fall from the pedestal he initially stands on, but he also enters into new territory as a writer; we're told:
Never had he experienced the pleasure of the word to be sweeter […]. (4.10)
In other words, with sex and lust openly in the mix, Aschenbach writes anew. He writes differently, and insofar as Death in Venice is a critique of the old ways, that he delights in the experience—though it ultimately kills him—is still an argument in his new way's defense.
The tone of the novella doesn't just expose the old artistic ideals, then, through using irony, it also takes a philosophical perspective to dismantle them piece by piece.
The title of this novella helps guide us toward the genre, so let's start there. In Death in Venice, who, or what, dies in Venice? That would have to be Aschenbach, obviously—dude is dead as they come at the end—but what does Aschenbach stand for? In other words: What dies with him in Venice?
We have more (like, way more) to say about Aschenbach in the "Characters" section, but here's the lowdown: Aschenbach starts out as the portrait of an ideal writer, a man who's reached his prime, and is able to exercise perfect, disciplined control over his creative faculties. Then he loses this control as he is overtaken by desires and impulses that lead to his destruction—but also produce some of his finest writing.
From this perspective, what dies in Death in Venice is not just Aschenbach (though he's totally dead at the end, too), but an idealized conception of the artist as the master of his talents. Ironically, that "death" also becomes the birth of a new and tragic creativity. And you know what genre is all about questioning the ideals of the past and finding paths toward the future? That would be modernism. So we can officially say hello to our genre.
But modernism also likes to mess with form. So what about form here? This is not a novella that develops highly innovative forms of writing—its theme and subject matter might be shocking, but it's not trying to be a "new" kind of literature. So Death in Venice is not necessarily modernist in form, though it is modernist in its particular use of irony, giving us the strange sense that "old" ideals are being both upheld and cleverly mocked.
Death in Venice is a pretty strange title for a work of fiction. Think about it: There's no article at the beginning, nothing to tell us whether it's a death in Venice—the singular death of a singular man—or just plain old death, the fact of dying, or even the figure of Death. (For all you linguistic sticklers out there: The original German title, Der Tod in Venedig, has an article but runs into similar problems.)
And now think about this: Death in Venice is the kind of title often found in journalism, when words like 'the' and 'a' are often left out for the sake of brevity. Death in Venice could very well be a headline in a newspaper. Can't you just see it bannering across the front page? So, what's up with that?
In fact, newspapers and news play a pretty important role in Death in Venice. News of the epidemic is alternately disseminated and covered up in the international papers Aschenbach reads in his hotel. For the most part, death is exactly what is not being reported on in Venice. And in the final line of the novella, it's not just Aschenbach's death that we read about; it's the fact that his death is news for the "world" (5.57) that knew him. (Check out "What's Up with the Ending?" for more on this.)
Yep, this sounds like another example of Mann's irony. The title plays with the idea that we, the readers, are like the fictional "world" of Aschenbach's fans, who might view his life with a combination of awe, curiosity, and perhaps horror, but ultimately read about his demise from a safe distance.
Of course, the novella provides way more than journalistic distance and neutrality; Mann's narrator gives us direct access to the deepest, darkest parts of Aschenbach's creative mind and soul. But the title hints at the way Mann's narrator still keeps an ironic distance from Aschenbach, acting like this is just another report about "death in Venice." It's anything but, and so much more than a man dies. But to dig deeper into this, we'll kindly ask you to hop over to the "Genre" section.
Whew. You made it. You got to the end of this crazy little book. Now, where does that leave us?
In the very last scene, Aschenbach is back on the beach, feeling feverish in his beach chair as he watches Tadzio play. He's briefly roused when a fight between Tadzio and his playmate turns violent and it seems like Tadzio is genuinely in danger. But after Tadzio frees himself from his attacker, he wades out into the ocean, and Aschenbach continues to watch him, imagining that the young boy is beckoning to him. A few minutes later, Aschenbach is found dead.
The ending of Death in Venice leaves us mostly with questions raised by Aschenbach's infatuation with Tadzio. Is Aschenbach simply a criminal with dirty thoughts about young boys? Or is his love for Tadzio really a tragic love of beauty, an artist's relationship to a muse, an ideal Aschenbach knows he can never attain? Death in Venice is not out to answer this, but in the end, preserves Aschenbach in a state of suspension.
So much like the other hotel guests who find Aschenbach dead in his beach chair, we the readers are only left with the fact of his death and the ambiguity of his desires. As for the questions we carry forward, well, we're just going to have to grapple with them for ourselves.
Old world charm, unique architecture, sunny beaches… Venice sounds pretty romantic, right? Well, romantic it may be, but in Death in Venice, the city appears more sinister than we might expect. In fact, more than just providing the setting, Venice directly reflects the emergence of Aschenbach's repressed desires. Like the odd figures Aschenbach meets along the way (check out our analysis of the trio of "Others" in the "Characters" section), Venice appears both familiar—the classic tourist destination—and different, in a definitely unsettling way.
Venice's unique beauty is a reminder of its illustrious past, when Venice was an important republic in the European Renaissance. It's a reminder of the way empires rise—and fall. This theme of decline and decay is what really comes across in the images we get of Venice. Check this passage out for an example:
Such was Venice, the wheedling, shady beauty, a city half fairy tale, half tourist trap, in whose foul air the arts had once flourished luxuriantly and which had inspired musicians with undulating, lullingly licentious harmonies. The adventurer felt his eyes drinking in its voluptuousness, his ears being wooed by its melodies; he recalled, too, that the city was diseased and as concealing it out of cupidity, and the look with which he peered out after the gondola floating ahead of him grew more wanton. (5.9)
Well, there you have it—this passage portrays Venice much like we might describe Aschenbach toward the novella's end: Someone whose days of artistic glory are over, but who longs for a vision of pure beauty even when it has become polluted by age, sickness, and depravity. Here, Aschenbach also seems to identify with the city of Venice, his pursuit of Tadzio growing "more wanton" the more he thinks about the secret disease afflicting the once luxurious republic.
And remember: Aschenbach is from Munich. Though it's only briefly, this is where our story begins, where our main man comes from. And this matter insofar as Venice is the dominant setting because it is always foreign, a place Aschenbach has gone to get away from his life—and so when so much strangeness ensues, it's always bolstered by the fact that Aschenbach is not at home.
Don't forget your ice pick, because climbing up this mountain is going to take a little time and dedication. But don't let that scare you; we totally think reading Death in Venice is worth the effort. What makes this little book hard is not necessarily the storyline—actually, that's pretty easy to follow—but there are a whole lot of big words, brainy references, and ironic moments throughout the novella. Good thing you've got Shmoop to lead the way.
Okay, we know what you're thinking. Decadent—like when you go back for fifths on cheesecake day at the cafeteria. Unfortunately, that's not exactly what we're talking about here. When we say decadent, we're talking about a particular writing style that we find well-represented in Death in Venice. So, let's dig in.
Decadence in the context of literature always has to do with death—the "dying out" of an ideal, but also the possibility of its rebirth. Now, as we discuss in "Tone," much of the irony in Death in Venice has to do with the "death" of the disciplined, European artist, represented in the story by Aschenbach, as an ideal model of artistic creativity. What we're more interested in here is the way this is paired with a certain style of writing.
And that's where the cheesecake comes back in. Yay, right? We love cheesecake. And pie. But we digress… The reason we call the writing style decadent also has to do with the text's indulgence in lyrical word-usage and description, especially in situations meant to appear shocking or terrible. Think about Aschenbach's vivid dream about the "stranger god." Or consider the descriptions of Tadzio's beauty and Aschenbach's desperate longing. Nothing springing to mind? Here, have a taste:
The way he stood in the belted white suit he sometimes donned for dinner, inexorably, innately graceful—his left forearm on the parapet, his feet crossed, his right hand on his hip—looking down at the minstrels with an expression that was not so much a smile as an indication of aloof curiosity, of courteous acknowledgment. From time to time he drew himself up and, puffing out his chest, pulled the white blouse down through the leather belt with an elegant tug of both hands. But there were also times when—as the aging traveler noted triumphantly, his mind reeling, yet terrified as well—he turned his head over his left shoulder—now wavering and cautious, now fast and impetuous, as if to catch him off guard—to the place where his admirer was seated. (5.19)
The narrator pays tons of attention to Tadzio, noting his every move with adjectives like "graceful" and "elegant," bringing him to life as the beautiful ideal he is for Aschenbach. We also get a wonderful description of Aschenbach's "reeling" mind, as well as his terror at the prospect of being caught. In this one passage, we get a perfect example of how Mann's writing style indulges in creating lyric beauty that never lets us forget its illicit content. Just as Aschenbach can't contain his feelings, the words flow freely in this one.
Few works of modern literature are more chock full of mythological figures than Death in Venice. We've catalogued these references for you in the "Shout Outs" section, so we're not going to give a full rundown here. Rather, the point here is to think about what all these mythological characters add to the story as imagery. But first, a little context.
Classical Greek antiquity plays a big role in German literature. The Germans, unlike, say, their French neighbors, tend to identify more with the literature, philosophy, and history of ancient Greece than that of Latin Rome. When Mann uses all this mythology in Death in Venice, he is in part reflecting that trend, but also giving it an ironic twist. It's kind of his thing in this one.
The 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche started out as a student of ancient Greece. But he scandalized the study of antiquity by suggesting, in The Birth of Tragedy (1872), that the highly cultivated (or "Apollonian") form of Greek tragedy actually has its roots in violent, pre-classical festivals in worship of Dionysos (a.k.a. Bacchus), the god of wine. He talks about the "Dionysian" element of ancient Greek culture as something repressed within its "Apollonian" philosophy and literature.
And here's the thing: We aren't just waxing on about Nietzsche because we love him, but because he is always backstage in Death in Venice.
Part of the reason for all the mythological imagery is to help us interpret the modern artist, Aschenbach, much in the way Nietzsche portrays the creative genius of ancient Greece—ironically. As it turns out, all that discipline and learning and appreciation for Beauty has a lot more to do with the "darker" impulses residing in all human beings.
While we have lots more to say about this over in the "Characters" section as part of our analysis of Aschenbach, our point here is this: Mann's mythological imagery helps us understand Aschenbach as a symbol of the modern artist, an anti-hero whose longing for creative perfection is haunted by disturbing desires.
Plus, mythology is cool.
Like a lot of symbols in Death in Venice, the sun motif recalls the philosophy and mythology of ancient Greece. Let's start by taking a look at the beginning of Chapter 4.
Day after day now the god with the flaming cheeks soared upward naked, driving his team of four fire-breathing horses through heaven's acres, his yellow ringlets fluttering wild in the gale of the east wind. (4.1)
Okay, it's pretty clear that the narrator is talking about the sun here, which has finally appeared in Venice after days of overcast weather. But there's more going on here. By calling the sun a "god" with "fire-breathing horses," the narrator is referring to Helios, the Greek god of the sun, driving his chariot across the sky. This is the start of all the associations that will link Venice to the classical world.
Consider this, though: It's emphasized that the "god" is "naked," and that his "yellow ringlets" are "fluttering wild." Does that remind us of anyone? Well, Tadzio is also described as having a face "ringed by honey-colored hair." (3.40). And while Tadzio might not appear naked in the novella, certainly this erotic image is in line with Aschenbach's, er, motives.
And there's more still: In Plato's Republic,one of the most famous works of ancient Greek philosophy, the sun appears as a symbol for Truth and the Good. The metaphorical "light" of Truth gives form and meaning to all things, just as the sun reveals the shapes and forms of earthly things. But there's a catch: Like the sun, looking right at the Truth can blind you, so sometimes the best way to access Truth is by considering its many reflections in beautiful forms.
Tadzio, in addition to appearing like the sun god Helios, is described as Aschenbach's "effigy and mirror" (4.8), perhaps suggesting that his physical beauty, in the Platonic sense, reflects and embodies some philosophical Truth or Higher Good. The question then is whether Tadzio reflects too much of the Truth, becoming, in fact, a mirror in which Aschenbach confronts his own dark, lustful, and self-destructive impulses.
Let's go back to Aschenbach's infamous stranger god dream. What is that all about? The "stranger, the enemy of the serene and dignified intellect," appears in Aschenbach's dream amidst an orgiastic festival with horned people, smelly goats and an "obscene symbol"—a wooden pillar shaped like a phallus (4.37). Well, it seems pretty clear that this is a sexual dream (the revelers end the night in "unbridled coupling"), but as for the "stranger god, "what's the deal?
Here's the lowdown: The stranger is another name for the god Dionysos—this is how he's known in Euripides' s The Bacchae, a play that deals with the life story of Dionysos and the cult that surrounded him. So the stranger god in our novella, then, is a shout-out to Dionysos, a most debaucherous god—his arenas are wine, theater, and parties—but by calling him "the stranger," Dionysos is also linked with foreignness, to the unknown. The "stranger god," then, symbolizes everything that draws Aschenbach from his everyday life in search of the exotic.
As we talk about at the beginning of this section (check out our thoughts on mythological figures), Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy (1875) argues that the pre-classical cult of Dionysos—which involved festivals reimagined in Death in Venice pretty dramatically—was the origin of refined, classical Greek tragedy.
So when we read that the stranger god is "the enemy of the serene and dignified intellect," we're also being told that this is Nietzsche's Dionysos, a symbol, not just of something foreign and "other," but one representing all the dark and "primitive" elements that lurk in the shadows of European civilization. The "stranger god," then, both represents Aschenbach's undoing as well as the fact that, though it feels surprising and foreign, this undoing has actually always been present. Because nothing says ever-present like the word god.
On the most basic level, Death in Venice is about an older man who falls in love (or rather, lust) with a fourteen-year-old boy. That's what we call pedophilia—and it was no less shocking at the time of the novella's publication. But if we read carefully, we find out that Aschenbach's infatuation has symbolic importance, as well as shock value.
Specifically, we're talking about the following brief hint in Chapter 5, when Aschenbach wonders what other people might think about his pedophilic problems. Check it out:
He too had served; he too, like so many of them, had been soldier and warrior, for art was war, a grueling struggle that people these days were not up to for long. A life of self-domination, of "despites," a grim, dogged, abstemious life he had shaped into the emblem of a frail heroism for the times—might he not call it manly, might he not call it brave? Besides, he had the feeling that the eros which had taken possession of him was in a way singularly appropriate and suited to such a life. Had it not been held in particular esteem amongst the bravest of nations? (5.11)
Let's start with the last two sentences. What are these "bravest of nations" that Aschenbach mentions? Well, not surprisingly, among them is Ancient Greece. It's well known that Greeks condoned relationships between older men and young boys, something that scholars call pederasty to distinguish it from pedophilia, which is the crime as we know it today. Pederasty plays a role in Homer's Iliad and in Plato's Phaedrus, for instance.
Now, if we look at the beginning of this passage, we understand the logic of Aschenbach's comparison. He makes sense of his attraction to Tadzio by imagining himself metaphorically as a Greek "soldier and warrior," who leads a disciplined, "abstemious" existence, struggling to make art in an age when "people […] were not up to [it] for long." Those warriors practiced pederasty, so why can't he? Right? Right? Or so Aschenbach insists, anyway.
Hold up, though: Death in Venice is not celebrating pedophilia. Here, as elsewhere, the novella is using the example of the ancient Greek ideal in order to reveal its apparent perversity. As with Mann's use of mythological imagery (read up on that elsewhere in this "Symbols" section), ancient Greek imagery enters into Death in Venice ironically, showing the way its idealism conceals some pretty disturbing things. So Aschenbach can call his desire pederasty all he wants—Mann makes sure we know what it truly is.
Though Death in Venice doesn't reveal much about the epidemic that takes Aschenbach's life, we do find out that the disease is cholera. And you know what? That hint turns out to be pretty important. Let's take a look:
For several years now Indian cholera had displayed a growing tendency to spread and migrate. Emanating from the humid marshes of the Ganges Delta, rising with the mephitic exhalations of that lush, uninhabitable, primordial island jungle shunned by man, where tigers crouch in bamboo thickets, the epidemic had long raged with unwonted virulence through Hindustan, then moved eastward to China, westward to Afghanistan and Persia, and, following the main caravan routes, borne its horrors as far as Astrakhan and even Moscow. But while Europe quaked at the thought of the specter invading from there by land, it had been transported by sea in the ships of Syrian merchants and shown up in several Mediterranean ports simultaneously. (5.32)
Cholera is described here as an essentially exotic disease, and one that has invaded European lands. But with the narrator's evocative descriptions of the "humid marshes of the Ganges Delta," the "mephitic exhalations" of a "primordial island jungle," we're also reminded of Aschenbach's initial "enigmatic craving" for far-off places, "a tropical quagmire beneath a steamy sky" (1.6), inspired by that strange guy he sees in the Munich graveyard. In other words, the exoticism of cholera is aligned with Aschenbach's own cravings for something, well, different.
And there's more. The "stranger god," the symbol of Aschenbach's repressed, so-called primitive desires and impulses (more on that elsewhere in this section) is, as the name implies, a stranger. Just like cholera. And just like cholera, it is associated with base, animalistic behavior. Cholera comes from a place "shunned by man, where tigers crouch" and the stranger god dream is filled with, amongst other things, humans giving themselves over to animals. In both cases, animals rule.
And because of these parallels, cholera also represents Aschenbach's desires—and importantly, it very concretely adds an element of disease to them. He in infected by his longing, governed by it the way cholera takes over a body. Sigmund Freud (more on this in Aschenbach's analysis in the "Characters" section) famously described the unconscious mind as a "dark continent," awaiting the exploration of scientists and therapists, and Mann's description of cholera as originating in the uninhabitable jungles of India seems to give Freud's words a literal interpretation.
Death in Venice reads almost like Aschenbach's biography—you know, if he were real. The narrator has access to Aschenbach's inner thoughts, but also has a lot of opinions about him, his genius, and also his weaknesses. In fact, part of the novella's irony (check out the "Tone" section for more on this) has to do with the way the narrator takes a critical distance from the events of the story.
So what does this mean for the narrator's omniscience, a.k.a. his or her ability to know what's going on in everyone's mind? Well, it's pretty clear that the narrator has privileged access to Aschenbach's most private thoughts and experiences. Think about the stranger god dream in Chapter 5—the narrator records everything in vivid detail. Whoever our narrator is, they are definitely up inside Aschenbach's brain.
But what about the other characters in Death in Venice? They—like Tadzio, for instance—appear to us the same way they appear to Aschenbach: We have no idea what's really happening in their heads. That's what we call our narrator's omniscience limited.
Death in Venice mostly takes place in, well, Venice. But it's important to keep in mind that it all starts in a little town called Munich. The novella's exposition is firmly rooted in Aschenbach's home. This is where we get our first descriptions of Aschenbach as the disciplined, dutiful artist who secretly (or not so secretly) longs to be free from his labors of genius. It's also where that longing to be free becomes aligned with a longing for exotic places, after Aschenbach runs into a strange-looking guy in the graveyard.
Basically, by the end of the first part, we already know who Aschenbach is, who he isn't, and have a hint about what he wants to become.
Aschenbach ends up in Venice, after a few false starts and a run-in with a creepy old guy trying to pass himself off as a young man. Bad weather in Venice almost drives him away, but then Aschenbach meets Tadzio. Talk about a complication: Aschenbach is overpowered by the beauty of this young boy.
Aschenbach's impulse vacation turns into an extended stay. Following Tadzio and his family wherever they go, he's careful not to be noticed by the boy's mother, aware that his, shall we say attention, might raise a few red flags. Tadzio, though, seems to notice—in one dramatic scene, he even turns directly toward Aschenbach and smiles. For Aschenbach, that does it: He is head over heels in love. This, Shmoopers, is what we call a turning point: Things will never be the same after this.
So, Aschenbach is in love with Tadzio. After Aschenbach finally acknowledges that he loves Tadzio, things start to go downhill—that's why we're calling it the "falling action," folks. For one, Aschenbach finds out about the cholera epidemic in Venice. But the real moment of breakdown comes when Aschenbach has the stranger god dream, revealing the dark and lustful side of his obsession with Tadzio's beauty.
Once the cards are on the table, revealing Aschenbach's "dark" side, things take a brief philosophical turn before the novella's end. The narrator inserts a fictional speech by Socrates to his young friend Phaedrus, arguing that the artist's love for beautiful forms—like Aschenbach's love for Tadzio—is always tinged with lust and darker impulses, a longing for the "abyss" of sexuality. Before Aschenbach dies and the story is over, this part allows us to reflect on Aschenbach's character and the status of beauty for the modern artist.
And then, just like that, Aschenbach dies watching Tadzio from the beach.