Study Guide

Death in Venice Themes

  • Lust

    Full disclosure: We're not talking about sex, here. Nope—it's all about lust in this story, that longing for another person that can seemingly come out of nowhere and dramatically change your sense of self. In Death in Venice, Aschenbach's desire for Tadzio develops from an artist's admiration of an "exquisite work of nature" (3.55) into full-blown erotic infatuation, transforming Aschenbach along the way from a disciplined, old-school writer into, well, something more like a modern artist.

    Questions About Lust

    1. How does Death in Venice relate the desire to see exotic places with erotic desire?
    2. In what ways is Aschenbach's illicit lust portrayed as repulsive, and in what ways does it help us to humanize him?
    3. What role does vision play in the unfolding relationship between Aschenbach and Tadzio, and what does vision have to do with lust?
    4. How is Venice portrayed in a way that makes it the perfect location for a story about illicit lust?

    Chew on This

    Death in Venice is a psychological exploration of the role of sexual desire in the life of the modern artist, with the aim of unsettling certain ideals of the artistic life.

    Representations of Venice in Death in Venice reflect the "dark side" of beauty and other romantic ideals, just as Aschenbach's sexual desire for Tadzio points toward the role of lust in artistic creation.

  • Foreignness and "The Other"

    Where do we start on this one? The threat and allure of the exotic "other" is one of the most central themes in Death in Venice. Aschenbach is, after all, a tourist, one who's first drawn to visit Venice by a vivid vision of an exotic, "primordial wilderness." Venice is hardly "primordial," but it does become the perfect backdrop for Aschenbach's discovery of the "wilderness" within, the "other" that is his sexual desire for Tadzio.

    Oh, and let's not forget those strange guys Aschenbach encounters along the way—we'll have plenty to say about them here, but if you want more, be sure to swing by the "Characters" section.

    Questions About Foreignness and "The Other"

    1. Can we consider Tadzio an "other" for Aschenbach? Why or why not?
    2. How is a connection drawn between disgust, the grotesque, and depictions of "otherness" in Death in Venice?
    3. What do you think about the depiction of cholera as a foreign disease that has invaded and corrupted Europe? Does this depict non-European people in a negative light?
    4. What is the significance of the metaphor of "primordial wilderness" for Aschenbach's story?

    Chew on This

    Death in Venice portrays the encounter with "otherness" as both a creative and destructive experience, in which old ideals are broken and new ones become possible.

    The role of the "other" in Death in Venice has less to do with actual foreignness and foreign places, and more to do with Aschenbach's discovery of "otherness" within himself—i.e. his sexual desire.

  • Literature and Writing

    Whenever you read a story about a writer, you can bet you're in for a story that has something to say about writing. Shocking, we know. And this is certainly true when it comes to Death in Venice. In this tale, our main dude Aschenbach figures as an ironic vision of the modern artist, and more specifically, as the modern writer of literature. He starts out at the top of his game, but then the exotic and erotic come together so that the artistic hero (if you will) ends up succumbing to his own human passions. Oops.

    Questions About Literature and Writing

    1. Why can Death in Venice be read as an allegory for the process of writing literature?
    2. What techniques does the narrator use to depict Aschenbach's discipline in an ironic way?
    3. In what ways is Aschenbach's erotic attraction to Tadzio portrayed as an infatuation with his own creative faculty?
    4. What would change about Death in Venice if Tadzio did not inspire Aschenbach to write?

    Chew on This

    Death in Venice can be read as an allegory for the author's process of writing literature, as well as a cautionary tale, in which erotic desire figures as the writer's primary source of inspiration.

    The role of irony in Death in Venice is linked to the novella's portrayal of the modern European writer as someone with a "sympathy for the abyss," which draws the writer toward self-destruction even amidst artistic creation.

  • Mortality

    Hey, when the word death is in the title, mortality is probably an important theme of the novella, right? Bingo. It's important to keep in mind that Aschenbach's journey, from disciplined writer to hopeless admirer of Tadzio, ends in Aschenbach's death—and sounds like Tadzio doesn't have long to live, either.

    If Aschenbach's journey is really about discovering the dark hole of erotic desire that accompanies artistic pursuit of beauty, then his mortality seems to be the logical last stop. After all, death is pretty much the ultimate dark hole—so when it swallows Aschenbach in Death in Venice, it also devours the old ideals he represents.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. How does Aschenbach relate to signs of Tadzio's mortality? What does this have to do with his own mortality?
    2. Could Aschenbach's erotic attraction to Tadzio have more to do with his own desire for youth?
    3. Does the ironic tone of Death in Venice apply to descriptions of Aschenbach's mortality, or is irony withheld from moments like this? How does this affect your reading of the novella?
    4. In what ways is the "other" connected with death in Death in Venice?

    Chew on This

    In Death in Venice, lust and self-destruction are bound to each other—lust brings Aschenbach to the edge of the "abyss" of his mortality.

    Death in Venice portrays Aschenbach's fate in an ironic light, but the novella maintains a thoroughly objective perspective on the inevitability of death and the psychology of Aschenbach's relationship to his own mortality.