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Death in Venice | Study Guide

Thomas Mann

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Death in Venice | Chapter 4 | Summary



At his hotel on the Lido, Gustav von Aschenbach follows a casual routine, which involves enjoying the beach and taking day trips to Venice. He sees Tadzio at various times throughout the day. Aschenbach especially savors his mornings at the beach when he can observe Tadzio playing with friends. Tadzio's beauty inspires Aschenbach to think about how beauty combines the intellect and the senses. Soon he writes a short but deeply felt essay, using Tadzio as a model for his writing. Aschenbach decides to introduce himself to the boy. However, as the writer approaches Tadzio, he becomes panic-stricken and passes by. Aschenbach sits on his balcony, sensing the emerging dawn, and feels emotions from his youth that he hasn't felt for decades. These emotions are probably homoerotic in nature. At first they confuse the writer, but then he forms a name with his lips. This name is most likely Tadzio. After this, Aschenbach falls asleep.

Tadzio seems to be aware of Aschenbach's attentions toward him. At times, they exchange serious looks, during which the boy appears curious about the elderly man. But no words are ever spoken. One day Tadzio and his family are absent from dinner, which makes Aschenbach terribly anxious. Then, quite unexpectedly, Aschenbach sees Tadzio and his family walking from the steamer. Aschenbach shows joy on his face as he looks at the boy. In response, Tadzio smiles at Aschenbach, which flusters the writer. He retreats into the darkness behind the hotel and thinks, "I love you!"


In Chapter 4, Aschenbach has reached a crucial stage in his process of accepting his sensual side. He continues to idolize Tadzio, seeing him as the embodiment of classical beauty. Aschenbach even uses Tadzio's speech to glorify him. The writer cannot understand a word that the Polish-speaking boy says. However, Aschenbach likes this noncomprehension because it enables him to view the boy's talking as a type of lyrical music. The narrator says, "To his ears it was a blur of euphony [harmonious sounds]." Such music seems appropriate for a god. However, at this point, Aschenbach has allowed the hedonistic instincts from his subconscious to come to the light only to a certain extent. He still has full use of his reason, which he has used so ardently throughout his career as a writer. Aschenbach, therefore, uses Tadzio's beauty to arouse thoughts about classical views of beauty. He imagines Socrates talking to Phaedrus about how beauty is the only concept that can be perceived with the senses. Inspired by how Tadzio's beauty combines the intellect and the senses, Aschenbach uses the boy as a model for an essay. Aschenbach is using rationalism to play a kind of game with his sensual attraction to Tadzio; however, the writer is in a sense playing with fire, which will eventually consume him in the form of the coming plague.

At this stage Aschenbach is still rational enough to realize that his adoration of Tadzio is fueled by a lack of direct contact with him. This infatuation resembles a schoolboy's crush. The boy often adores the girl from afar and projects various qualities on her that have nothing to do with her real personality. Understanding this, Aschenbach decides to introduce himself to Tadzio. However, when he is about to do this, Aschenbach becomes panic stricken. The sensual side of Aschenbach, so long denied, becomes terrified that it will be suppressed again. The narrator says, "But the truth probably was that the aging man did not wish to be sobered." Refusing to give up the newfound intoxication of his feelings, Aschenbach passes by the boy. Aschenbach's pride in his powers of reason and lack of self-criticism also cause him not to fear his increasing infatuation for Tadzio. This incident can be seen as a last chance for the writer to regain his rationalism and keep his sensualism at bay. He does not take that chance.

This scene in which Aschenbach recalls his youthful emotions and whispers Tadzio's name shows the strong influence of Sigmund Freud on Mann's writing. Aschenbach has suppressed homosexual feelings buried in his id. In a sleepy state he senses this buried drive. According to Freud, dreams tap into a person's subconscious and thus can reveal the hidden desires of the id. It is important to note that the force of Aschenbach's homosexuality is strong precisely because it has been repressed. If the writer had been aware of his sexuality throughout his life, this drive would have been more integrated into his personality. However, because homosexuality is forbidden in his society, Aschenbach has buried this side of himself, thereby giving it strength. At the hotel he has relaxed his defenses, allowing himself to enjoy sensual pleasure and allowing hints of his homosexuality to emerge.

Once again solitude is a key element in Aschenbach's growing infatuation with Tadzio. As has been shown, the writer in his solitude has made the boy into a classical god of sensuality. He avoids any direct contact with Tadzio because it would break the spell that his solitude has created. At the end of Chapter 4, therefore, when Tadzio smiles at Aschenbach, Mann compares this smile to how Narcissus might smile. Narcissus is a character from ancient Greek mythology who falls in love with his own reflection in a pool. This smile alarms Aschenbach and causes him to think, "I love you." However, Aschenbach does not love the human Tadzio, but rather the godlike image of Tadzio that he has created in his solitude. Therefore, Aschenbach, like Narcissus, falls in love with a reflection of himself.

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