Death in Venice | Study Guide

Thomas Mann

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Death in Venice | Chapter 1 | Summary

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Summary

During the year described as 19— (probably 1911), the elderly Gustav von Aschenbach takes a walk alone in Munich, Germany. He is taking an afternoon break from his work as a writer. He finds himself walking alongside a cemetery and notices Greek crosses etched with religious phrases. Aschenbach sees a redheaded man in the cemetery just outside a Hall of Last Rites. The man, who does not seem to be of local Bavarian ancestry, scans the cemetery and then notices Aschenbach staring at him. The redheaded man stares back with some hostility. Embarrassed, the writer looks away and "pays no further attention to the person." Suddenly Aschenbach gets the urge to travel to exotic locales and imagines a luxurious, thick jungle. In this vision of a jungle, he sees a tiger, which startles him. The unusual feeling frightens the writer. However, he admits feeling confined, living alone except for some servants in his mountain villa, slaving away on his great work. He wants to escape, to unburden himself from his rigid way of life. In addition, he has been having difficulty writing a passage. Although Aschenbach has received honors for his work, he takes no joy his writing. He thinks perhaps a brief vacation might reinvigorate him and thus improve his productivity. Aschenbach makes up his mind; he will take a respite in southern Europe. He boards a streetcar and, for some reason, looks around for the redheaded man, but doesn't see him.

Analysis

Thomas Mann introduces the central conflict within the main character, Gustav von Aschenbach, specifically the struggle between his rational, disciplined side and his sensual, overtly emotional side. As a highly regarded writer, Aschenbach prides himself on his strength of will, which he uses to work long hours on various manuscripts. His discipline has been fruitful: Aschenbach has become a famous author who has received honors for his work. Even so, a repressed side of him yearns for a more carefree existence, which would allow for more emotional freedom. Aschenbach has suppressed his emotions in the service of his art for so long that the urge for an exotic respite takes him by surprise and even frightens him. It's as if some deep-seated, dark emotions are bubbling to the surface of his consciousness, which unnerves him. Despite this, Aschenbach feels drawn to follow this urge because of the mundaneness of his everyday routine. This conflict within the writer can be seen as a struggle between rationalism and hedonism. Rationalism is the belief that all actions should be based on reason; hedonism is the belief that sensual self-indulgence and pleasure are important, even the chief goals in life.

The dynamics of Aschenbach's inner conflict also reflect the psychological theories of Sigmund Freud (1856–1939). Mann, who had read much of Freud's work, was strongly influenced by these theories. According to Freud a person's psyche consists of the id, the ego, and the superego. According to Freud:

  • the id contains the basic natural drives or instincts of a person, including the sexual drive. Indeed, for Freud, the sexual drive is the basis for human behavior.
  • the ego deals with conflicts that arise between the id's instincts and reality.
  • the superego is a person's conscience or morality. It is the value system a person adopts from society, including parents and teachers. Psychological problems, such as neuroses, arise when there is a strong conflict between the id and the superego. In fact, the more the superego represses the id's drives, the more these drives will gain in strength until they burst out into consciousness like pent-up steam blowing off the lid of a pressure cooker.

In Chapter 1, Aschenbach's subconscious causes the writer to feel a yearning for exotic places and an emotionally carefree attitude. At this point of the story, these feelings seem rather innocent instead of sinister. He just has an unexpected desire for a vacation. Aschenbach's moral will or superego is still in control enough to keep his inner instincts at bay. Even so, Aschenbach is suffering from writer's block, which could be caused by aspects of the subconscious interrupting his usual train of thought. Also, Mann inserts a foreboding aspect to Aschenbach's exotic desires through the symbol of the tiger. As the writer imagines a lush jungle, he glimpses the eyes of a tiger lurking in the foliage, which gives him a jolt of fear. The jungle represents Aschenbach's subconscious, which seems foreign with its sensual qualities. The tiger, therefore, signifies fierce, savage emotions that are hiding in his subconscious.

It is important to note what sparks Aschenbach's desire for a vacation in the first place. He feels this urge soon after he sees the redheaded man in the cemetery. This man, who appears in various guises throughout the story, is a symbol that develops as the novella progresses. At this point, the man has three distinctive traits: he is foreign, he is hostile to Aschenbach, and he is associated with death. Therefore, for Aschenbach, the man represents something strange or foreign that is antagonistic to the writer. Soon after this, Aschenbach senses foreign desires from his subconscious. The redheaded man, thus, is connected with Aschenbach's repressed instincts. Also, the man's domain seems to be death. The narrator describes him as "surveying his domain [cemetery] with an element of boldness." Death threatens to prevent the elderly writer from completing his life's work, which he is having difficulty finishing. His urge to escape to exotic locales, thus, can be seen as a desire to escape death and its threat to him as an artist and a man.

Finally, Mann stresses Aschenbach's solitude. He walks in Munich through "surroundings free of people." There aren't even any streetcars. The redheaded man is the only other person in the entire chapter. Aschenbach remembers writing for hours alone in a remote mountain villa with only some servants to attend to his needs. This solitude has started to be oppressive for him. The narrator says, "He was afraid of the summer in the country, alone in the little house." Mann shows the importance of Aschenbach's solitude more fully as the story unfolds.

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