Gustav von Aschenbach, as they say, has it all—discipline, dedication, and the kind of literary fame that most authors only dream of. But is it enough to make him happy? Not exactly. Death in Venice starts when Aschenbach gets the idea to travel somewhere different and escape all his discipline for a while, after glimpsing a strange-looking man in his local graveyard. Soon, he's on a boat bound for Venice.
At first, things don't go as planned. The weather is crummy, and Aschenbach feels even more oppressed than before. And then, there was that guy on the boat ride to Venice… An old man made-up to look young, leering and giving dirty looks to people, Aschenbach included. Yikes.
But soon, Aschenbach notices someone at his hotel who manages to take his mind off that creep—Tadzio. This young Polish boy fascinates Aschenbach with his combination of statuesque beauty and sickly pallor. Aschenbach comes close to leaving Venice and giving up on his vacation, since the weather continues to be ho-hum, but cancels his plans at the last minute; he realizes he's fallen in love with Tadzio.
Before long, the sun is shining and Aschenbach hits the beach, keeping a watchful eye on his young beau. But still, all is not well in paradise. When Aschenbach trails Tadzio and his family through Venice, he notices that the city is undertaking extra hygiene measures. He tries and fails to find out further info in the newspapers. After a minstrel comes to perform at his hotel—someone who seems strangely reminiscent of the guy Aschenbach first sees in the graveyard—Aschenbach corners the man to ask about it, but still finds out nothing.
Finally, when Aschenbach asks a British travel agent, he finds out the truth: Cholera has hit Venice. Dun dun dun…
This might sound like a vacation-killer for the rest of us, but Aschenbach's not exactly your usual tourist. After finding out the news about cholera, the first thing he goes and does is have a pretty steamy dream, with wild revelers, an orgy, and someone called the stranger god. Later, while awake, he pays a visit to the barber, gets his hair and make-up done, and in addition to some new, "younger" clothes, starts to remind us a lot of the guy who weirded him out on the boat ride to Venice.
Later, feeling feverish while following Tadzio through Venice, Aschenbach stops to eat a few very questionable-looking strawberries. He appears to envision a conversation between Socrates, the ancient Greek philosopher, and his young lover Phaedrus, in which Socrates talks about the love of beauty and the artist's penchant for the "abyss." Pretty deep stuff here, Shmoopers.
Before we know it, Aschenbach is back on the beach, watching Tadzio in a fight with his friend, then imagining that the boy is calling to him, inviting him to join him in the ocean… Aschenbach is later found dead in his beach chair.