Study Guide

Death in Venice Chapter 5

By Thomas Mann

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.