Aschenbach isn't just the main character of Death in Venice, he's one of the most iconic figures of European modernism, a character that has shocked, repelled, and also endeared readers ever since the novella's publication. In other words, we've got our hands full when it comes to this guy.
As we mention in the "Tone" section (so, you know, check it out), Death in Venice is deeply invested in telling an ironic story about the modern European artist. In this case, Aschenbach stands in for the artist, and the novella's irony allows the narrator to mock Aschenbach, as well as venerate him—at the same time. Pretty nifty, right? Let's take a closer look.
It all goes back to the narrator's initial descriptions of Aschenbach. If we read carefully, we're able to pick up on the fact that these descriptions are double voiced, meaning they say one thing, but mean something else (hence the whole ironic bit). Check out the novella's first paragraph, which is also our first encounter with Aschenbach:
Gustav Aschenbach or von Aschenbach, as he had officially been known since his fiftieth birthday, set out alone from his residence in Munich's Prinzregentenstrasse on a spring afternoon in 19..—a year that for months had shown so ominous a countenance to our continent—with the intention of taking an extended walk. Overwrought from the difficult and dangerous labors of the late morning hours, labors demanding the utmost caution, prudence, tenacity, and precision of will […] (1.1)
So here we have Aschenbach—or rather von Aschenbach; the first line lets us know that Aschenbach is so valued by his society that he has been given an honorary noble title. (Kind of like when rock stars get "knighted.") The narrator continues, describing him as "overwrought" by the "dangerous" labors of writing, which he has dedicated himself with "the utmost caution, prudence, tenacity, and precision of will."
Hold up: Since when is writing dangerous? What really sounds dangerous is war, the "ominous […] countenance" of which is being reference here. Pro tip: World War I starts two years after the publication of Death in Venice.
The way the narrator juxtaposes world events (war) and Aschenbach's "dangerous" writing clues us in to the fact that this is an ironic portrayal of the protagonist. Without coming out and saying so directly, the narrator is portraying Aschenbach as a writer who takes his writing—and himself—far too seriously. Like, world-war levels of seriousness.
The narrator mocks Aschenbach in these initial characterizations, but there's a reason why Death in Venice isn't a comedy: We don't laugh at Aschenbach in the end. Here's a guy who starts out taking himself way too seriously, and by the end of the novel, he's dressed up in gaudy clothes, wearing make-up, and hopelessly in love with a boy. It's not funny, though, because it offers us no sense of resolution. Instead, though the narrator often pokes fun at Aschenbach, this mockery only adds to the story's tragedy. Aschenbach, if anything, becomes sort of pathetic.
One of the most important ways that irony makes itself felt through Aschenbach is in his gender identity. At the beginning of the novella, the narrator portrays Aschenbach—ironically, of course—as a writer who both exhibits and values stereotypically masculine traits: perseverance, discipline, and, of course, the courage to face the "dangers" of writing.
The narrator, citing what Aschenbach himself says, calls this a heroism of "despites" (2.6)—a commitment to artist greatness despite all the obstacles that life puts in your way. This attitude, in turn, is reflected in the characters that populate Aschenbach's fiction. Now, check out how the narrator talks about them:
The new type of hero that he favored and that recurred in a variety of forms had been analyzed quite early by a shrewd critic, who said it rested on "an intellectual, adolescent conception of manliness," one that "stands by calmly, gritting its teeth in proud shame, while swords and spears pierce its flesh."
This is a classic example of the double voice of irony—the narrator calls upon another writer, a "critic," to voice a "shrewd" critique of Aschenbach's character(s). This critique pokes fun at one aspect of Aschenbach's relentless discipline, namely the way it seems to aspire to fulfill an "adolescent conception of manliness." According to the nameless critic, in other words, Aschenbach's idea of manliness is really more like teenage-boy-ness.
And maybe this is fair—his affection for Tadzio certainly doesn't do a whole lot to suggest otherwise—but the narrator doesn't necessarily agree with this critique. Instead, the narrator goes on to provide a different perspective, one that, in fact, sounds like a good summary of Aschenbach's fate in Death in Venice:
What one saw when one looked into the world as narrated by Aschenbach was elegant self-possession concealing inner dissolution and biological decay from the eyes of the world until the eleventh hour. (2.7)
Far from simply aspiring to an "adolescent" ideal of masculinity, then, Aschenbach's heroic, super manly exterior reveals, when we look more closely, a kind of "dissolution" and "decay" that knows its own fragility.
Feeling a little confused? Fear not and hang on. We're not finished yet, and we'll explain more when we talk about Socrates and Phaedrus in what follows. So keep reading, Shmoopers.
Toward the end of Chapter 5, Aschenbach eats some suspiciously rotten strawberries, and then something weird happens: Suddenly we're reading a monologue, spoken by "Socrates" to "Phaedrus," in which he discusses a lot of important-sounding stuff (5.51). What's up with that?
Well, it's safe to say that this monologue, as the narrator implies, is a product of "the curious dream logic" of Aschenbach's feverish mind. (In fact, he first imagines Socrates and Phaedrus in Chapter 4.) But that's not to say that he makes this all up. No, Socrates is a real figure—the father of ancient Greek philosophy—and Phaedrus is a young man who even gets his own Platonic dialogue, Phaedrus, in which he and Socrates discuss things like rhetoric, the immortality of the soul, and erotic love.
And as it turns out, there's also some serious sexual tension going on between these two ancient dudes.
Sound familiar? Well, as we discuss in the "Symbols" section, pederasty—which is fancy for: sex between an older man and a younger one—was common and accepted in Ancient Greece. Pederasty is also a common theme in Plato's dialogues—but in Socrates's case, it doesn't turn out too peachy, and his fellow Athenians sentence him to death for corrupting the youth. In any case, Socrates's monologue certainly comes across as an ancient commentary on Aschenbach's modern situation.
How so? Let's take a closer look at what Socrates has to say here. One of the central themes is beauty—something that Tadzio embodies for Aschenbach. Beauty, Socrates says, is the way divine ideas become visible to the artist, just as it is also the path to erotic love and lust. The beautiful form promises to enlighten us when knowledge alone does not satisfy, though it, too, "lead[s] to the abyss" (5.51) of erotic infatuation. Here's what that means for writers:
Yes, though heroes we may be after our fashion and chaste warriors, we are as women, for passion is our exultation and our longing must ever be love—such is our bliss and our shame. Now dost thou see that we poets can be neither wise nor dignified? (5.51)
Aschenbach, for all his discipline and ideals of manly rigor, falls for Tadzio's beauty. When his attention to Tadzio's beauty crosses the invisible line from that of an artist to that of lust and erotic desire, all that "manliness"—we're talking about Socrates's image of the artist as "heroes" and "chaste warriors"—dissolves into "womanliness," defined here as an eternal "longing" for love and passion.
This scene interrupts the narrative—another instance of Mann's ironic double voice—in order to comment on the predicament of beauty for modern art. How can beauty be something ideal, something we pay to see in a museum, as well as an attribute that makes people sexually attractive? Does the erotic dimension of beauty always threaten the chaste, "heroic" ideal of artistic beauty? Or can the two coexist?
These questions don't get answered in Death in Venice. But Aschenbach's story—his transformation from a rigid, disciplined, "manly" writer into a "womanly," love-struck man—poses them in an interesting way, against the background of both classical Greek antiquity and modern norms of gender.
Most of us would probably agree that Aschenbach isn't crazy; he's just in love. (Although his fever isn't helping any, either.) But as it turns out, Aschenbach's story reflects many themes from the pychology of Mann's time, specifically the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud .
Freud is the founder of psychoanalysis, a way of treating psychological disorders that involves talking through one's fears and traumatic memories, in order to help address the "unconscious" problem that's at the source of it all. Freud's main idea is that of the Unconscious itself, composed primarily of repressed sexual desires that dictate what we do in everyday life. This idea is also a Big Deal for Death in Venice.
As we discuss in the "Symbols" section, Aschenbach's dream in Chapter 5 is an important moment where the true dimensions of his erotic interest in Tadzio get revealed. Now, it so happens that Freudian psychoanalysis has a major interest in dream analysis—Freud's first big hit was The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), in which he works out a theory of the unconscious mind by revealing its traces in dream symbolism.
How does that work? Well, Freud argues that dreams are wish fulfillments, fantasies in which unacknowledged, unconscious desires (ahem, sexual ones) are expressed using material from memories and everyday life.
We can definitely read Aschenbach's stranger god dream in terms of Freud's theory. In this case, the unseen stranger god stands not just for Dionysos (see "Symbols" for more on this), but for Aschenbach's unconscious sexual desires. The revelers and worshippers of the stranger god are also parts of Aschenbach that long to celebrate his erotic object, Tadzio.
All this doesn't make Aschenbach crazy, but it certainly makes his fantasies interpretable in psychoanalytic terms, depicting him as someone whose ideals of artistic, manly discipline are haunted by repressed sexuality.
Okay. So far, we've been describing the ways Aschenbach's ideals of art and artistry are depicted in ironic terms. But there's more to Death and Venice than just irony. There's also a way in which the novella depicts Aschenbach's story as one of self-discovery, in which he finally realizes what it means to be a true artist. Yay.
For one, Aschenbach's encounter with Tadzio doesn't mean he quits writing. Instead, Tadzio becomes his muse, inspiring him to write, as the narrator puts it, "a page and a half of sublime prose based on Tadzio's beauty—the purity, nobility, and quivering emotion tension of which would soon win the admiration of many" (4.10). In other words, Aschenbach's erotic attraction to Tadzio is a source of inspiration. Big time.Check it out:
What is more, he longed to work in Tadzio's presence, to model his writing on the boy's physique, to let his style follow the lines of that body, which he saw as godlike, and bear it beauty to the realm of the intellect, as the eagle had once borne the Trojan shepherd to the ether. Never had he experienced the pleasure of the word to be sweeter, never had he known with such certitude that Eros is in the word than during those dangerously delightful hours when, seated at his rough table under the awning, in full view of his idol, the music of his voice in his ears, he formulated that little essay […] (4.10)
Aschenbach, while observing and lusting after Tadzio, discovers that "Eros is in the word." Eros is the god of passion, desire, and sometimes love—and Tadzio's body becomes the "godlike" model for Aschenbach's writing, with the act of putting words on a page a kind of worship. Far from being dumbstruck by love, Aschenbach discovers a new power of writing: its ability to derive its force not just from manly discipline, but also from erotic desire and love. Bow chicka wow wow.
In a contemporary context, Aschenbach is often read as a gay hero, and his story is discussed in terms of its portrayal of same-sex attraction and its reference to pederasty. But it's not totally clear that Aschenbach's desires for Tadzio really make him gay, at least in today's sense. On the other hand, there's no question that Death in Venice deals with queer desire—erotic feelings and fantasies that don't jive with the norms of heterosexuality.
While the novella addresses the problematic role of beauty in modern art and for the modern artist, it does so with a character, Aschenbach, whose sexuality also requires that we think outside the box. We might judge his pedophilic desires for a child as perverse or morally wrong, and be completely justified. But when interpreting Death in Venice, we can also read these desires as part of a strategy to pose complex questions about the interconnectedness of eroticism and artistic creation. In short, if Aschenbach seems like a hot mess, well, that's kind of the point.