Death in Venice | Study Guide

Thomas Mann

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Death in Venice | Chapter 3 | Summary



Gustav von Aschenbach leaves Munich for Pola, a town on the Adriatic, where he plans to spend his vacation. Pola disappoints Aschenbach because it isn't exotic and restful enough. He boards a boat that will carry him across the narrow sea to Venice. Onboard, Aschenbach notices an elderly man wearing makeup to disguise his age, and the incongruity disturbs him. The boat reaches Venice, and Aschenbach gets on a gondola operated by a rogue redheaded gondolier who takes a different route than the one the writer wants. Before mysteriously disappearing, the gondolier drops Aschenbach off on the Lido (an island near Venice) at a hotel where the writer has a reservation. Aschenbach checks into his room overlooking the sea. In the waiting room before dinner, he notices a beautiful boy who is about 14 years old. The boy is Polish and is with his family, consisting of a governess, three sisters, and his mother. Aschenbach is struck by the boy's perfect beauty.

The next morning Aschenbach sees the boy at breakfast and is again amazed by his godlike beauty, seeing him as a kind of artistic masterpiece. Aschenbach goes to his reserved cabana on the beach, where he sees the boy playing with other children. He hears the boy's name being called, which sounds like "Adgiu." Based on his knowledge of Polish, Aschenbach figures the boy's real name is Tadzio. The writer reads a book but always seems aware of Tadzio's presence even when he isn't looking at him.

During the afternoon, Aschenbach heads back into Venice, but he finds the thick air and heat to be oppressive. Fearful for his health, Aschenbach determines that he must leave for another vacation spot. He makes the necessary arrangements and has the porter send his luggage ahead of him. Aschenbach sees Tadzio for what he believes is the last time and feels regret about leaving the boy. As he heads by gondola to the train station, Aschenbach fears he made a hasty decision about leaving. At the station, he realizes his luggage has been sent to the wrong destination. Unwilling to travel without his bags, Aschenbach heads back to his hotel on the Lido, feeling giddy with relief. He gets a different room, which is almost identical to his previous one. From his balcony Aschenbach sees Tadzio in the distance and realizes "it was for Tadzio's sake that the departure had been so hard on him."


Mann starts Aschenbach on his movement from rationalism toward hedonism, a process that mirrors his physical journey from Munich to Venice. This journey is marked by two key elements—a foreign, exotic quality and the sea, which has an undefined, amorphous aspect. As Mann shows in Chapter 1, Aschenbach feels an urge to visit an exotic place that is different from Munich with its Bavarian culture. He wants a break from his oppressive routine to reinvigorate himself. Indeed, the first vacation spot he visits in Pola is not exotic or relaxing enough. He decides Venice has the foreign qualities he desires and travels by sea to this city. Along the way Aschenbach senses that things have taken on a deformed or odd aspect. This foreignness both terrifies him and attracts him. Aschenbach's milieu thus begins to reflect the foreign drives buried in his subconscious, which have begun to surface. While sailing on the water, Aschenbach immediately senses the mysteriousness of the sea. It has a lack of defined boundaries or structure, thereby encouraging the writer to relax and go with its flow. He begins to "daydream in a measureless realm." Aschenbach had never felt this way when traveling to Venice before because he always approached on land via train. This mode of travel with its prescribed tracks has much more structure than sailing and is similar to Aschenbach's life in Munich, which is also very structured.

In addition, the protagonist senses the foreign quality later at his hotel. He notices tourists from across Europe, including England, France, and Russia. This is what he's been looking forward to, a sense of something different from his daily life in the homogeneous culture of Bavaria. Soon Aschenbach begins to loosen his tight-fisted approach as he enjoys his room filled with fragrant flowers and his time relaxing on the beach watching the sea with its gentle waves. He starts to become more open to a side of himself that he has repressed throughout his life—his fierce, sensual instincts that yearn for pleasure.

On the surface there seems to be nothing ominous about Aschenbach's taking a vacation to relax and enjoy life. Mann, however, introduces some darker aspects through the old man wearing makeup and the rogue gondolier. The gondolier transports Aschenbach in a black gondola that resembles, like all of these vehicles, a floating coffin. The gondolier resembles the man Aschenbach sees in the cemetery in Chapter 1. They both are foreigners, have red hair, and treat Aschenbach with hostility. Both figures are also connected with death.

Mann uses the gondola trip to foreshadow Aschenbach's future if he continues on his present path. Aschenbach senses the desire to let go of his rigid way of life and enjoy the sensual pleasures of Venice. However, by doing this, he is on a journey towards death. The gondolier, like the redheaded man in Chapter 1, appears foreign and hostile to Aschenbach because he represents what the writer has been trying to repress: the strong sexual and hedonistic drives of his subconscious. In this way, the gondolier is similar to Dionysus, the Greek god of sensuality and debauchery. Although Aschenbach senses this hostility, his yearning for physical pleasure, so long denied, prevents him from reversing the gondolier's course. Instead, he just relaxes in the luxurious, cushioned seat and enjoys the ride on the sea.

When Aschenbach sees Tadzio, the writer encounters what he views as the physical representation of perfect beauty. As readers have seen, Aschenbach is a classicist—a writer who tries to create the classical idea of beauty. This idea comes from the ancient Greeks and stresses balance and harmony, and Tadzio embodies these traits. Because of this, Aschenbach often refers to Greek mythology when thinking about Tadzio. For example, when he first sees the boy he compares him to a "Greek statue of the noblest period." Later, Aschenbach compares Tadzio to the Phaeacians, characters in Homer's Odyssey who live for pleasure. Soon after this, Tadzio's beauty reminds Aschenbach of Eros, the Greek god of love. Throughout most of his life, Aschenbach has used his willpower and reason to suppress his physical desires and create classical beauty. Now classical beauty has unexpectedly appeared before him in physical form. As a result, Aschenbach places Tadzio on a pedestal to be admired like a god.

Aschenbach's idolization of Tadzio's beauty is born out of the writer's solitude. Although Aschenbach is shifting from his rational worldview to his sensual instincts, his solitude remains constant. The writer can only adore Tadzio from afar, like a person observing an artistic masterpiece. If Tadzio gets too close, he becomes human. Mann shows this when Aschenbach meets the boy up close in an elevator and notices "the details that made him human." He sees that the lad's teeth are jagged and transparent, denoting possible sickness. From then on Aschenbach worships Tadzio from a distance. However, because the writer is coming in touch with his hedonistic side, he has a physical yearning for the boy. Aschenbach realizes the strength of this yearning when he returns to the Lido hotel after planning to leave Venice.

In a way, Aschenbach is creating a new form of art as he immerses in sensualism. Previously, the writer conveyed abstract ideas of beauty through his rational, elegantly written novels. Now he makes Tadzio into a sensual work of art. Because of this emphasis on the body, a person's physical appearance takes on great importance. Early in the chapter Aschenbach is repulsed by the old man wearing makeup to disguise his age. By doing this, the man conveys a pathetic, undignified quality. However, after Aschenbach begins to focus on his physical side, he stares in the mirror and notices his gray hair and "weary, pinched face." He becomes more dissatisfied with his appearance, especially when compared to his new masterpiece, Tadzio. The old man wearing makeup, therefore, foreshadows what Aschenbach will become.

Aschenbach tries to keep his emphasis on appearance at bay by thinking about his fame and dignity as a writer. However, the fierce drives of his subconscious, so long repressed, are proving too strong. The character is aware of his own weaknesses and the struggles he has had to endure to reach the pinnacle of his career. Now the clash between his ideals and his desires threatens his own health. Eventually Aschenbach stays in Venice even though the thick air might be bad for him. Indeed, he feels relieved about losing his luggage, which provides a convenient excuse to remain in the city. Despite the threat of illness, Aschenbach opens himself completely to the sensuality of Venice, Tadzio, and his own being. Mann uses the symbol of the open hand to represent this attitude. Previously, Aschenbach lived life with a tight fist, using willpower and discipline to dominate his physical drives. Now he opens his hands in a gesture of "open welcome, a calm acceptance."

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