Being A Genius Is Hard Work
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.
Let's Talk Tadzio
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.
It Must Be Something In The Air…
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.
Won't You Be My Stranger God?
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.
Going Out With A Slump
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.