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Death in Venice | Study Guide

Thomas Mann

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Thomas Mann | Biography



Thomas Mann was born on June 6, 1875, in Lübeck, a historic city in northern Germany. His father, Johann Heinrich Mann, was a prominent merchant and senator of the city. His mother, Júlia de Silva Bruhns, came to Germany at age 7 from Rio de Janeiro. Her family was of Portuguese and Creole Brazilian descent. Thomas had an older brother named Heinrich who also became a well-known writer, two younger sisters, and a younger brother.

As a boy Thomas apparently hated school, resenting the demands placed on him by his teachers. Later Mann claimed that he eventually learned to discipline himself with great difficulty. Most of the learning he received came from reading books on his own. He had a penchant for daydreaming and enjoyed listening to his mother read fairy tales. Mann never had a close relationship with his respected but distant father, who died when Mann was 15.

Early Career

Mann's mother took her younger children to live in Munich in southern Germany. After finishing his schooling, Mann joined his family and took a job at an insurance company. Although he loved his mother's exotic, emotionally demonstrative traits, he decided to keep this side of him in check and adopted a disciplined, orderly way of life. Even when Mann became an author he always prided himself on his discipline.

In Munich Mann attended lectures at the university with the hope taking up a career as a journalist. He also spent a year in Italy with his brother Heinrich. During this time he published his first collection of short stories, Der kleine Herr Friedemann, or Little Herr Friedemann (1898), and began to write his first novel, Buddenbrooks, which came out in 1901. This work met with rave reviews and became an instant best seller in Germany. The novel deals with four generations of a merchant family similar to Mann's. In the story an artistic tendency in the family undermines its business endeavors over time, causing their decline. After this success Mann wrote several shorter works, most notably the novella Tonio Kröger (1903). In 1905 he married Katia Pringsheim, the daughter of a university professor.

Death in Venice

Mann's next novel, Royal Highness (1909), was not well received. Mann had reached a crisis point as a writer, in which he found it difficult to live up to the pressure created by his first novel's success. Suffering from poor health, Mann decided to take a much-needed vacation with his family at the Lido in Venice. While there he became infatuated from a distance with a beautiful Polish boy and used this experience for the novella Death in Venice (1912). The story has many striking similarities to Mann's life. First, Mann was dealing with writer's block, as is the novella's protagonist, Gustav von Aschenbach. Like Aschenbach, Mann had received awards and praise from an adoring public. Even Mann's work habits were similar to Aschenbach's. Also, Aschenbach, like Mann, becomes infatuated with an attractive Polish boy. Mann, though, never became obsessed like Aschenbach and never stalked the object of his admiration. Mann's attempt at regaining literary success proved triumphant. Death in Venice became one of his most famous and highly regarded works.

As his posthumously published diaries revealed, Mann's infatuation with the Polish boy was not the only incident in which felt a strong attraction for teenage boys or men. Indeed, throughout his life, Mann periodically dealt with homosexual feelings, which caused him considerable guilt. He did not suppress these urges into his subconscious, as his character Aschenbach seems to have done before going to Venice. He was fully aware of them and even talked about his feelings to close friends and his brother Heinrich, who also had homosexual yearnings. However, Mann kept these feelings private from the general public. At the time homosexuality was viewed by many as a perversion, especially within middle-class society. As a result Mann denied this side of himself and had six children with his wife.

Criticism of Death in Venice

After the publication of Death in Venice in 1912, critics tended to focus on two aspects of the novella: Gustav von Aschenbach's homosexuality and the writing style. Both topics had ardent supporters and detractors. Supporters of homosexuality criticized the work for being morally narrow-minded and equating love for a boy with a disease. Traditional moralists lauded the work, seeing Aschenbach's downfall as punishment for his sins. Some critics detested Mann's complex, lofty style, finding it pompous. Others found it powerful. Mann believed many critics missed the point of the story. Mann was neither denouncing nor praising homosexuality, nor was he creating a moralistic parable. Instead, he was exploring how a writer's drives or motivations (both sexual and nonsexual) can lead him to a tragic end in art, life, or both. Additionally, Mann used a complex writing style to reflect Aschenbach's own style of writing to parody the character's pretensions.

After the release of Mann's diaries, which revealed his homosexual leanings, a flurry of critics used this revelation to reassess his works. Three biographies came out implying that Mann's homosexuality was the sole inspiration for his work, including Death in Venice. However, the eminent Mann critic T.J. Reed stated that Death in Venice is "far more ... than a ... confessional, homosexual story .... It is a skilled combination of psychology and myth."

Throughout the years, critics have interpreted the story in various ways. Some focus on the novella's connection with the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Others stress Mann's use of myth, narrative technique, and exploration of how intellectuality can lead to dehumanization or isolation.

A film adaptation of Death in Venice appeared in 1971, starring English actor Dirk Bogarde as Aschenbach. Directed by Italian Luchino Visconti, the film made significant changes from the novella and emphasized Aschenbach's repressed homosexuality. Englishman Benjamin Britten composed an opera Death in Venice (1973) that remained more faithful to the original story.

Later Works

After Death in Venice, Mann began working on his third novel, Der Zauberberg, or The Magic Mountain. Published in 1924, this work deals with a young man's experiences at a tuberculosis sanitarium, which serves as a microcosm of the European situation after World War I (1914–18). The novel became a critical success and is considered one of Mann's better works. For this novel, Mann was awarded the 1929 Nobel Prize in Literature.

By the 1930s Mann had become more politically involved, writing essays denouncing Nazism and warning about the dangers of totalitarianism. His opposition to Nazism was influenced by the fact that his wife's family had Jewish roots, and he believed his mother was descended from Jews. In 1933, while on vacation with his wife in Switzerland, he received a message from his son and daughter not to return to Germany. He and his wife stayed in Switzerland for several years. Meanwhile, the University of Bonn in Germany removed his honorary doctorate. (It was restored after World War II.) During the 1930s Mann wrote a series of novels about the biblical Joseph.

Mann and his wife relocated to Princeton in the United States in 1938 and then moved to California in 1941. There he wrote his darkest novel, Doctor Faustus (1947), about an artist who chooses a self-destructive path. The story echoes the decline of Germany under the Third Reich. Mann became a U.S. citizen in 1944, but he returned to live in Switzerland in 1952. He died of a heart attack on August 12, 1955. Over time, Mann has come to be considered one of the greatest German writers of the 20th century.
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