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Death in Venice | Study Guide

Thomas Mann

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Death in Venice | Chapter 5 | Summary



Gustav von Aschenbach notices the tourists at his hotel are decreasing at a time of the year when they usually increase. He hears rumors of a disease spreading, which the Venetian officials and hotel staff seem to be covering up. Aschenbach is worried that the threat of disease might cause Tadzio and his family to leave the hotel. The writer has become thoroughly obsessed with Tadzio and secretly follows the boy and his family as they walk through Venice. During the evening at the hotel, Aschenbach, Tadzio, and other guests are entertained by a group of minstrels. As a redheaded minstrel, the leader, collects money from the guests, Aschenbach asks him if he knows anything about the disease. The minstrel disparages these rumors and claims the officials are just taking precautions by using disinfectant in the city. The minstrel himself smells of disinfectant. The minstrels end their performance by laughing at the audience, which causes the spectators, except for Aschenbach and Tadzio, to laugh as well.

The next day Aschenbach goes to a British travel agency, where an English agent admits that cholera has started to spread in Venice. The officials are trying to hide the disease but are taking measures to fight it, although the food and water have probably been infected already. He advises Aschenbach to leave the area as soon as possible. The writer considers warning Tadzio's family about the epidemic, but he decides not to. His emotional attachment to Tadzio prevents him from encouraging the family to leave.

Soon Aschenbach has a nightmare in which he sees wild savages dancing and performing obscene rituals while uttering a sound that resembles Tadzio's name. The writer joins in the debauchery. After this, Aschenbach becomes so obsessed with Tadzio that he doesn't care how he appears to other people. Ashamed of his aging appearance, Aschenbach begins to wear makeup and use hair dye to appear attractive to Tadzio. Scared by the epidemic, most of the tourists leave. However, for some reason Tadzio's family remains and so does Aschenbach. One day Aschenbach loses sight of Tadzio in Venice, causing the writer to panic. He frantically searches for the boy but can't find him. Exhausted, he first consumes some overripe strawberries and then slumps by a cistern in a vacant square. There he thinks about a dialogue between Socrates and Phaedrus in which Socrates warns how an artist can fall into the abyss by following beauty.

During the next few days Aschenbach has attacks of dizziness and feelings of despair. He realizes that Tadzio and his family are about to leave the hotel. Aschenbach sees Tadzio playing at the beach. The boy wades out to a sandbar and stares at the horizon. He appears to look back at Aschenbach, who is watching him. The writer imagines Tadzio smiling at him. The boy seems to beckon to Aschenbach, who imagines following him as he has done so often. A man finds Aschenbach slumped in a chair. The writer is carried to his room, and that day a "shocked world" receives news of his death.


In Chapter 5, Mann parallels Aschenbach's obsession about Tadzio with the spread of disease throughout Venice. Fueled by the homoerotic desires from his subconscious, Aschenbach has become so obsessed with Tadzio that he begins to stalk the boy. The narrator says Aschenbach's "intoxication encouraged and persuaded him to let himself be carried away." Meanwhile, rumors spread about a deadly disease infiltrating Venice. Aschenbach, though, welcomes the threat of death. The reasons relate to the similarity between the epidemic and the writer's obsession. Aschenbach feels a bond with the spread of the disease because, like his obsession, it is being suppressed and is dangerous. Also, if the epidemic becomes widespread, it can have a destructive effect on society. The structure that holds society together, including laws and ideas of decorum, can collapse. If such a collapse happened, Aschenbach feels he could achieve the object of his desire. The narrator says, "The image of the afflicted and neglected city ... kindled his hopes, inconceivable hopes that ... were tremendously sweet." The writer's attraction to Tadzio, thus, has a chaotic element to it that welcomes death.

Aschenbach does not love the human Tadzio, but rather the godlike image of Tadzio he has created. Because of this the writer fails to warn Tadzio and his family about the epidemic. What Aschenbach wants most is to keep the glorified image of Tadzio alive and present. This situation reaffirms the self-centered aspect of Aschenbach's love.

Aschenbach's obsession mocks what he has previously achieved as an artist. During his life he has striven to produce noble works of literature that enhance a type of morality which is supported by society. Now he wants to destroy the very fabric of society that supports him. Mann clearly conveys this mockery through the scene with the minstrels. The redheaded minstrel resembles the redheaded man in the cemetery in Chapter 1 and the redheaded gondolier in Chapter 3. Like these characters the principal minstrel is a Dionysian character who represents the hedonistic, chaotic drives in Aschenbach's subconscious that are now coming to the surface. At the end of the performance the redheaded minstrel leads his fellow performers in a mocking laugh at the audience. The minstrel knows death is spreading through Venice and that many of the tourists will die if they stay.

During Aschenbach's nightmare, the homoerotic drives suppressed in his subconscious completely break through, flooding his being. These drives are represented by the phrase, "The foreign god." These instincts are foreign to Aschenbach because they have been repressed for so long. They are the antithesis of the balance and reason he has been trying to achieve throughout his life as a writer. After the dream, Aschenbach becomes totally overwhelmed by his obsession and no longer cares if he appears pathetic to other people. Consumed by the desire for sensual pleasure, Aschenbach becomes concerned about his own appearance. He wants to attract Tadzio and so begins to wear makeup and use hair dye to cover up his age. In this way Aschenbach becomes like the old man wearing makeup who repulsed him in Chapter 3. Aschenbach has become the exact opposite or negative image of what he used to be. The change from one extreme to the other is caused by the split in the writer's psyche.

In the past Aschenbach had followed the Protestant work ethic to pursue the classical ideal, harmony and reason, and to repress sensual instincts that threatened to destroy what reason had created. When Aschenbach suppresses these drives he gives them more power. His drives dominate him after they break through his unconscious mind and include his urge to consume the overripe strawberries—from which he contracts cholera. The writer ponders this split as he imagines the dialogue between Socrates and Phaedrus, where Socrates says that an artist uses form to create beauty. Aschenbach tried to do this through his writing. However, by following the form of beauty, the artist can be overwhelmed by the desire for pleasure, which leads to the abyss. This is Aschenbach's tragic situation.

Aschenbach's story arc illustrates the theories of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), who strongly influenced Mann. According to Nietzsche human beings have two basic drives. The Apollonian drive uses reason to create the appearance of order and beauty. However, for Nietzsche reality is basically chaotic. The Dionysian drive is the urge to destroy the Apollonian illusion and return to chaos. This drive is dominated by sensuality, such as heavy drinking and sexual license. Aschenbach seems to have been overwhelmed by the stronger drive. He has achieved a type of truth or honesty because he has succumbed to the Dionysian drive, which leads to the basic reality of life: chaos.

However, Mann could also be seen as questioning both the classical perspective and Nietzsche's perspective. Both views support a dualism that divides the human psyche into two categories: the rational and the irrational or hedonistic. Such a division, though, is an artificial construct that does not necessarily reflect reality. In everyday life the drive for pleasure and the desire to be rational and moral are intermixed. Many people lead lives that combine both urges without much conflict, but as a famous artist Aschenbach is no ordinary person.

In Death in Venice, Mann shows how the two parts of the psyche can peacefully coexist through a Russian family at the hotel. The author describes this family as being "a very human community." They are grateful for their pleasure, but they also are concerned about their children and keeping their good nature. The people in this family allow themselves to be seen as they are. The narrator says this group contains "men with beards and large teeth, flaccid, indolent women, a Baltic spinster who ... was painting the sea while exclaiming in despair." At the minstrel performance the Russian family eagerly takes the front row, not at all embarrassed in showing the pleasure they take in the performance.

Aschenbach, however, cannot achieve this peaceful unity. When his desires clash with his Protestant work ethic he goes from one extreme (the rational, dignified writer) to the other (the irrational, hedonistic stalker). In both extremes, Aschenbach remains a solitary, isolated person.

At the end of the novella, Mann emphasizes Aschenbach as the solitary observer. He sits alone in his chair on the beach and watches his sensual idol, Tadzio, wade out to a sandbar. A camera on a tripod without a photographer is nearby. By including this detail, Mann emphasizes that Aschenbach is in love with an image, an artificial creation, not with a human being. Cameras create images that elicit strong emotional responses. Similarly, Aschenbach has created an image of adoration in Tadzio. For Aschenbach this passion leads to death because it is not based on life but rather on an illusion fueled by the long-repressed sensual, chaotic drives from his subconscious.

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