Study Guide

Death in Venice

Death in Venice Summary

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.

  • Chapter 1

    • Gustav von Aschenbach heads out one day to take a walk. After a morning of some serious writing, he's looking to calm his mind.
    • Aschenbach, noticing a storm is brewing, decides to wait for a tram near a cemetery.
    • He comes across a pretty strange dude hanging out there, and while Aschenbach doesn't know exactly what to make of him, he definitely seems hostile.
    • Seeing this guy gives Aschenbach the strange desire to travel and see exotic, far-off places.
    • Now, Aschenbach is pretty predictable—willy-nilly isn't his style—so, as the narrator remarks, this desire to travel is a little off the wall.
    • Aschenbach realizes it must be a desire to flee, to escape from all the discipline and duty.
    • The narrator has a field day describing Aschenbach's lack of pleasure in his work and his sense that his own demands are impossible to meet.
    • Deciding that he'll still travel, but maybe not go too far, Aschenbach finds a tram station and heads home.
  • Chapter 2

    • There's not a whole lot going on here—mostly the narrator giving us the low down on Aschenbach: his childhood, his writing, how he ended up in Munich, and all that jazz. For the full disclosure, head over to the "Characters" section and check out Aschenbach's analysis.
  • Chapter 3

    • So: Aschenbach takes the trip of a lifetime.
    • The narrator lets us in on the intervening details. Aschenbach first heads to an island off the coast of Istria (part of which is now Croatia), but bad weather and even worse tourists drives him away.
    • A little late in the game, he realizes where he should have gone in the first place: Venice, of course.
    • Aschenbach catches a ride on a decrepit Italian ship bound for the island.
    • While watching the other travelers boarding the boat, Aschenbach notices a group of young men, dressed to the nines and obviously looking for a good time. When he looks more closely, however, Aschenbach realizes with horror that one of the young men is actually an old man, evidently trying to impress his younger friends by matching their antics. Eek.
    • As the trip continues, Aschenbach notes that the weather is hardly improving, eats a terrible meal on board, and tries to get some shut-eye.
    • The boat arrives in Venice. As Aschenbach waits to disembark, he gets a closer look at the old man masquerading as a youth; he's drunk now, and Aschenbach is again revolted.
    • Aschenbach gets off the boat, but doesn't manage to avoid an encounter with the old guy, who, still drunk, old, and pretty gross, offers his "compliments" to Aschenbach's "sweetheart." Whoever that might be…
    • Aschenbach now boards a gondola (gondolas are basically fancy canoes used to ferry people around in Venice). Even though he tells the rower to take him to the vaporetto pier, where larger boats come and go, this guy insists on taking Aschenbach all the way to his hotel, despite Aschenbach's anger and concern about being robbed. Later, at his hotel on Lido, an island near Venice, Aschenbach finds out the guy didn't have a license. Tsk tsk.
    • Aschenbach settles into hotel life, and he finds that the crowd in this hotel is much more international than in the previous one.
    • He notices a Polish family sitting near him in the hotel's dining room. Actually, to be more specific, he notices the family's only boy, who's about fourteen years old. Aschenbach can't believe his eyes: This kid is as a beautiful as a Greek statue. His older sisters, on the other hand, act and dress in a severely conservative way. On closer inspection, Aschenbach wonders whether the young boy is sick.
    • Meanwhile, the weather is not improving much, and Aschenbach starts to consider leaving again.
    • He spends a day on the beach, despite the gray skies, and feeling relaxed, he becomes more determined to stay.
    • Aschenbach learns the name of the Polish boy when he sees him on the beach, and hears his family calling to him—it sounds something like "Adgiu." After some thought, Aschenbach decides the name must be Tadzio, a short form of the Polish name Tadeusz.
    • Aschenbach literally can't take his eyes off the boy the whole time Tadzio splashes around in the ocean, or later, when he's resting on the sand.
    • After leaving the beach, Aschenbach gets a closer look at Tadzio in the hotel's elevator—this is when he notices how frail and sickly the boy looks. Aschenbach senses that the boy doesn't have long to live, and feels oddly content with this thought.
    • Aschenbach takes a trip over to Venice, where the air is stagnant and humid, making him feel feverish. Not exactly what you want from a vacation, right? So he decides once and for all to leave Venice.
    • Aschenbach returns to his hotel and announces his plan to depart.
    • He sees Tadzio again at breakfast, but still leaves and boards a boat bound for the train station.
    • On the way over, however, Aschenbach is tortured by the thought that this will be the last time he's ever in Venice.
    • As it turns out, his baggage has been forwarded to the wrong city, forcing Aschenbach to remain in his hotel on Lido. And guess what? Yeah… he's thrilled.
    • Later, in a new hotel room, Aschenbach acknowledges that it was Tadzio that made him so reluctant to leave Venice.

  • Chapter 4

    • Aschenbach's lost luggage returns, but he decides to stay longer; the weather in Venice has changed for the better.
    • Aschenbach has been seeing quite a bit of Tadzio. He wakes up early, heads down to the beach, and waits for Tadzio to arrive—and then Aschenbach watches the boy all day.
    • At this point, the narrator starts to take over, describing scenes and images that aren't necessarily "happening" in the story. The narrator briefly depicts a conversation between Socrates and Phaedrus, about beauty and lust. (Check out "Shout Outs" for more.)
    • Aschenbach finally gets the urge to start writing. He will eventually write an essay about Tadzio's beauty, according to the narrator, and this is the moment when he gets his inspiration.
    • The next morning, Aschenbach spots Tadzio at the beach again, and is overcome with a desire to speak with him.
    • Aschenbach tries to follow Tadzio without being noticed, but falters just when he's about to talk to him—he feels a bit ridiculous because of how afraid he is of attracting suspicious attention.
    • At this point, the narrator tells us, Aschenbach is obviously staying put in Venice. He has had money transferred, he's getting a nice tan, he's enjoying doing absolutely no work on his writing, and—shocker—Tadzio is pretty much all he can think about.
    • Eventually, Tadzio seems to start noticing all the attention he's getting from Aschenbach. Now and then, the narrator reports, their eyes will meet just as Tadzio is walking by. But it goes no further than that.
    • One evening, Aschenbach is anxiously waiting around to see if the Polish family will come to dinner. When they (with Tadzio) arrive unexpectedly, Aschenbach can't keep himself from giving the boy a look that shows how happy he is to see him. In response, Tadzio smiles.
    • Aschenbach hurries away, feeling like this smile is some kind of "fatal gift" (4.20).
  • Chapter 5

    • Aschenbach has now been in Venice for almost four weeks, and has had the chance to notice some weird developments, particularly that guests seem to be leaving the hotel even though it's still vacation season. One day, his barber accidentally mentions something about a disease that the other guests fear.
    • Aschenbach heads out to see if he can find Tadzio and his family, and he finds that the air smells funny, like disinfectant. Everywhere he looks, he sees printed notices warning the inhabitants about sicknesses that might be caused by hot temperatures.
    • When Aschenbach asks a shopkeeper about the warnings, he brushes them aside, saying it's just a precaution.
    • At the hotel, Aschenbach picks up some newspapers to see what he can read about the disease. Only the German-language papers have anything to say, mostly citing rumors.
    • Aschenbach doesn't really care either way; in fact, the idea of an epidemic kind of excites him. His only concern is that Tadzio will leave.
    • In the meantime, Aschenbach has started secretly pursuing Tadzio and his family, wherever they may go. Beach, Venice, in a church—everywhere. At one point, Aschenbach hires a gondola in order to follow just behind them as they glide through the Venetian canals.
    • Occasionally, the narrator informs us, Aschenbach does have moments of clarity, when he realizes that he's getting involved in something a little, well, different. (Creepy is another word that comes to mind… just sayin'.) He thinks what his forbears would think about his lifestyle. But is he really all that different? Hasn't he led a life of discipline? And what about his lust for a young boy? It wouldn't have been so out of place in the ancient world… (More on this in the "Symbols" section.)
    • Aschenbach otherwise spends his time trying to find out more information about the disease that grips Venice; he still can't find any reliable information.
    • One night, a group of street performers come to serenade the hotel guests. Aschenbach has the chance to sit just a few seats away from Tadzio, and the boy turns around from time to time to look at Aschenbach, who has begun to notice that the boy's family is growing suspicious.
    • The guitarist in the group performs a solo—to Aschenbach, the man appears "obscene" and "grotesque" (5.20), oddly out of place.
    • Aschenbach asks the performer why Venice is being disinfected, and the man makes a show of denying that anything is out of sorts. The troop concludes the evening with a farewell number that includes a refrain of laughter—soon everyone, audience included, is laughing, as if to mock Aschenbach.
    • Aschenbach looks over at Tadzio and sees his own grim expression reflected in the boy's face. In a moment of "objectivity" (5.28), Aschenbach is sure that Tadzio is dying.
    • Aschenbach remains at his table long after the troop and all the guests, Tadzio included, have left. He envisions the hourglass that his parents had in his childhood home, the sand slowly cascading down.
    • The next day, Aschenbach visits a British travel agency to try to find out some more reliable information on the epidemic.
    • Though at first the English clerk repeats the same official line Aschenbach has heard elsewhere, he eventually discloses the truth: Cholera, a disease originating in India, has reached Venice, and the local authorities have been trying to cover up cases of horrible deaths in order not to disturb the tourists.
    • The narrator gives an extended account of what a death from cholera looks like: Usually it's pretty nasty, but a lucky few simply fall into a coma and later die.
    • Meanwhile, the narrator continues (summarizing the Englishman's account), the populace of Venice has been well aware of the official cover-up, and all this passive acceptance of corruption has lead to an increase in crime and degeneracy about the lower classes.
    • Aschenbach leaves the travel agency, thinking to himself how he will go up to Tadzio's mother and tell her to take Tadzio and her family away from Venice.
    • But then he realizes that this will only propel him back to his normal life again, before Tadzio came along. So he decides against telling the family anything. Because nothing says I love you quite like not doing what you can to spare someone from cholera.
    • That night, Aschenbach dreams of someone (or something) called "the stranger god," who is being worshipped wildly by a "raging horde" (5.37) of revelers, dancing to the sound of a flute and engaging in all sorts of debauchery. (Fun fact: We've got lots to say about this in the "Symbols" section.)
    • After his dream, Aschenbach becomes increasingly aware that the tourists around him are leaving. He fantasizes about being left all alone with Tadzio, but Tadzio's family remains at the hotel.
    • Aschenbach is no longer worried about arousing any suspicion about his attraction to Tadzio. On the beach, he watches him openly and he pursues Tadzio and his family through Venice, thinking now that the moral code is "null and void" (5.38).
    • Aschenbach decides to make himself look more youthful in order to please Tadzio. He wears jewels, perfumes, and pays a visit to the barber to dye his hair and get his face made up to look a bit more rosy-cheeked.
    • Aschenbach trails Tadzio one afternoon, while the boy turns around now and then to glance back at Aschenbach, until the family disappears from sight. Aschenbach, feeling feverish, stops to rest and eat some overripe strawberries—he realizes that he is at the place where he almost left Venice a few weeks ago.
    • The narrator starts quoting a text: It's Socrates talking to Phaedrus about beauty, poets, and the unavoidability of the "abyss"—lust, corruption, death. (Ahem: "Symbols" section, Shmoopers.)
    • A few days later, Aschenbach finds a large collection of luggage in the hotel lobby, and learns that Tadzio's family is preparing to depart.
    • Aschenbach goes to the beach. Tadzio is playing there with a few friends, near his family's cabana.
    • One of Tadzio's friends—named Jasiu—wrestles a little too roughly with Tadzio, pushing his face into the sand and almost suffocating him. Aschenbach is horrified, while Tadzio gets up and walks away angrily.
    • Tadzio wades into the sea and steps up onto a sandbar.
    • Aschenbach stares after him, imagining that Tadzio is beckoning to him. Aschenbach, like many times before, prepares to follow him.
    • A few minutes later, Aschenbach is found dead in his beach chair.