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Death in Venice | Study Guide

Thomas Mann

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Death in Venice | Chapter 2 | Summary



The reader learns that Gustav von Aschenbach's father was a legal official, and his mother was the daughter of a Bohemian orchestra conductor. The father was known for his industrious, disciplined approach; in contrast, his mother had a sensual, passionate quality. The combination of these two personalities produced Aschenbach. He was intent on achieving fame as a writer. To accomplish this, he led a disciplined, arduous lifestyle, in which he sacrificed his weak body in the pursuit of creative excellence. Dutifully devoting himself to writing, he painstakingly created works of literature that appeared to be written by an author of robust strength and passionate inspiration. His works found a large audience of readers who shared his worldview. Aschenbach became a hero to the many people who admired those who rose above their burdens through the use of willpower. As a result Aschenbach achieved the dignity he desired. As he matured his works began to have an elegant style that in itself seemed moral and thereby transcended learning and morality. Later his writing became more conservative and, at times, formulaic. Aschenbach's wife died when she was young, but their union produced a daughter, who was by now grown and married. Even though he lived a life of apparent "cloisterlike calm," Aschenbach began to feel weary and developed a nervous curiosity.


Chapter 2 shows Aschenbach as a man living most of his life in solitude. He lives inside his head, which, to a certain extent, can be said about all artists. However, this mental state seems particularly acute for Aschenbach because of his extremely disciplined work habits. He tries to achieve greatness by using his willpower to dominate any physical weaknesses. In a way, therefore, he sees his body as the enemy. This attitude stems from the Protestant ethic, which emphasizes hard work and the denial of physical or sensual luxuries. Mann uses the symbol of the tight fist to represent this approach. The other half of this symbol, the open hand, will be developed later in the story. Despite Aschenbach's exhaustion, he spends hours alone working on his manuscripts, which he wants to reflect his ideal of beauty. The writer's solitude and "tight fist" approach have produced results. The narrator says he has "a solitude that ... has attained power and honors among men." In other words, Aschenbach has become famous, which is what he wanted to achieve all along.

A man who lives in solitude is able to achieve such fame because of the beauty the solitude allows him to reflect in his writing. Aschenbach creates works that have the same values as the masses. His works, therefore, have a culturally accepted beauty. For example, he writes about heroes who overcome their weaknesses through acts of will. Many people find this type of protagonist to be noble or beautiful. Aschenbach writes to serve the masses as much as any popular romance novelist. However, Aschenbach does so under the veneer of intellectuality—he writes novels that challenge views on the nature of art, which gives his works an intellectual respectability. Indeed, Aschenbach can be seen as a type of high priest who creates works that are worshipped by the masses on the altar of beauty. The narrator compares his writing to a "sacrifice on the altar of art." Aschenbach, therefore, has idolized artistic beauty, making it into a type of god. Interestingly, the people who criticize his work the most are bohemian writers, or writers whose work challenges culturally accepted norms and thus are often not commercially successful.

Aschenbach's Protestant work ethic has created a split within his being. To achieve fame he constantly stresses what the masses see as beautiful. This type of beauty is based on classicism, which has its roots in ancient Greece and Rome. Classicism stresses balance, harmony, and reason and rejects overt sensuality, physicality, and any irrational or chaotic behavior. Throughout his life, Aschenbach uses his "tight fist" approach to focus on the rational side of himself and deny his physical side. By doing this, he represses the basic instincts of his body, including his sexuality and desire for pleasure. Aschenbach thus has created a split in his being between the rational, conscious self and the irrational, unconscious self with its fierce drives. So he feels "weariness and nervous curiosity that could hardly be generated by a lifetime full of extravagant passions and pleasures."

In addition, because of the dignity he has achieved, Aschenbach believes his works have transcended knowledge and attained a type of simple but noble morality that is above criticism. Aschenbach, therefore, feels he has moved beyond self-knowledge and self-criticism. As a result he doesn't question why he is feeling these sudden impulses for the sensual or exotic. This attitude will have severe repercussions for Aschenbach as Mann's story develops.

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