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.