Death in Venice | Study Guide

Thomas Mann

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Death in Venice | Quotes


It was an urge to escape ... this desire for liberation, for unburdening and oblivion—an urge to leave behind his work.

Narrator, Chapter 1

Gustav von Aschenbach feels the desire to take a long break from his work routine, which has become oppressive to him. For decades the writer has driven himself to work hard, denying himself the pleasures of life. Because of this, his sensual drives have been suppressed. Now he feels these drives coming into his consciousness, taking the form of an impulse for a vacation to an exotic locale.


He was afraid of the summer in the country, alone in the little house.

Narrator, Chapter 1

Gustav von Aschenbach's life as a writer has been a solitary one. From the time he was a young adult, he has spent long hours alone honing his craft. At this point both his solitude and his work have become burdens to him. He now wants to surround himself with different kinds of people than those he encounters in his daily life.


'Aschenbach has only lived like this'—and the speaker closed the fingers of his left hand into a tight fist.

Narrator, Chapter 2

The observer whom the narrator quotes uses a tight fist as a symbol to represent Aschenbach's Protestant work ethic. Following this ethic, the writer has focused almost entirely on his work, and his labors have proved fruitful. Aschenbach has become a famous, highly respected writer. However, in the process, he has cut off an entire side of his psyche—his sensual instincts. The tight fist also represents an uncritical attitude. The writer has no doubt that devoting himself to his work and denying his sensuality is the right course of action.


But a moral determination which transcends learning ... does that not signify in its turn a moral oversimplification ... a strengthening of the tendency toward evil.

Narrator, Chapter 2

The narrator reveals the danger of achieving a lofty position in society as an artist. Gustav von Aschenbach has many readers who adore his work. Immersed in his own self-importance, he develops a simplified moral position beyond questioning. He presents this position as the height of profundity, but in reality he has opened himself up to evil.


This was an old man, there could be no doubt. Wrinkles surrounded his eyes and mouth. The faint crimson on his cheeks was rouge; the brown hair ... a wig.

Narrator, Chapter 3

On a boat to Venice, Aschenbach sees an old man wearing makeup to disguise his age. The writer observes the man in horror. He embodies everything that seems foreign to Aschenbach. The writer is a dignified, reserved person; the old man is a pathetic, emotionally demonstrative person. The old man both represents the sensual, overtly emotional side of Aschenbach and foreshadows what the writer will become.


His face, pale and charmingly secretive ... recalled Greek statues of the noblest period.

Narrator, Chapter 3

Gustav von Aschenbach compares Tadzio to a Greek statue. For the writer the boy becomes the physical manifestation of classical beauty. Through his works, Aschenbach has striven to convey this concept of beauty; now classical beauty appears before him in the flesh. Because Tadzio takes the form of Aschenbach's ideal, the writer permits himself to feel a sensual yearning for the lad.


Aschenbach, for the first time ... observed him not as a work of art one views at a given distance, but with precision, studying the details that made him human.

Narrator, Chapter 3

Gustav von Aschenbach meets Tadzio up close in an elevator. At this point Aschenbach has begun to idolize Tadzio's beauty, seeing him as a work of art. However, his idolization is based on observing the boy from a distance. When the writer gets close to him, he sees Tadzio with precision, including his crooked teeth. Tadzio now becomes more human to the writer. However, Aschenbach wants to keep his idealized infatuation of the boy, so he keeps his distance from Tadzio after the encounter.


He made a slow turning and lifting motion, bringing the palms upward, as if he were opening his arms and holding them out.

Narrator, Chapter 3

Sitting in a chair before an open window, Aschenbach opens his hands and arms. This gesture signifies Aschenbach opening himself to the sensuality of Venice and Tadzio. He is allowing his long-repressed carnal instincts to flood his consciousness.


He spoke of the sacred fear that assails the noble man when a godlike countenance, a perfect body, comes into view.

Narrator, Chapter 4

Gustav von Aschenbach's infatuation with Tadzio has gone to such an extreme that he views the boy as a type of god. Like a fanatical worshipper of a religion, Aschenbach becomes obsessed with the boy. Tadzio becomes the only thing in life that matters to Aschenbach, who feels he might die if Tadzio left him.


It was the smile of Narcissus bending over his reflection in the water.

Narrator, Chapter 4

Tadzio smiles at Aschenbach, which flusters him. The boy's smile reminds Aschenbach of the smile of Narcissus, a mythological character who fell in love with his own reflection in a pond. The metaphor emphasizes that Aschenbach is not in love with the human Tadzio, but rather an idealized image of the boy he has created in his mind. In this way Aschenbach has fallen in love with a part of himself, as an artist does.


For passion, like crime, is not a friend of routine law and order or of the public welfare, and must welcome every weakening of the framework of society ... because it can detect a remote chance to profit by it.

Narrator, Chapter 5

Aschenbach has become immersed in his sensual instincts, which have become fierce and chaotic from being repressed for so long. Because of this, his passion resembles a crime and the destruction of law and order. He is drunk with the potential for freedom, even if it leads to chaos.


His heart and head were drunk, and his steps followed the directions dictated by the demon who takes pleasure in trampling human reason.

Narrator, Chapter 5

Aschenbach's sensual instincts have begun to consume him, destroying his reason. As a result, Aschenbach stalks Tadzio, the object of his desire.


Please permit a stranger, Madame, to give you a piece of advice, a warning that is being withheld from you out of self-interest.

Gustav von Aschenbach, Chapter 5

Aschenbach imagines what he would say to Tadzio's mother to warn her about the epidemic. However, the writer decides not to warn her because his love for Tadzio is completely self-centered. Aschenbach wants to maintain his infatuation with Tadzio as a sensual god of beauty, not as a human being.


Yet he was aware of a phrase, obscure, but characterizing all that followed: 'The foreign god!'

Narrator, Chapter 5

Gustav von Aschenbach hears the phrase "The foreign god" during his nightmare, in which he joins wild debauchers in an orgy of howling calls and sensual groping. His sensual instincts are foreign to him because he has suppressed them for so long, but after the nightmare Aschenbach follows them as one would follow a god.


But it seemed to him as if the pale, charming psychagogue out there were smiling to him, beckoning to him.

Narrator, Chapter 5

Severely ill, Aschenbach sits in a chair on the beach and watches Tadzio walk out to a sandbar and beckon to him. Aschenbach compares Tadzio to a psychagogue, a person who conjures up the spirits of the dead or a person who teaches or directs the mind. Tadzio, therefore, takes the form of a mythic figure who is calling Aschenbach's spirit to follow him into a "realm of promise and intensity." However, Tadzio's call leads the writer to death, not life. Mann contrasts the mythic Tadzio with a description of Aschenbach's collapse and death. At the end, Aschenbach remains trapped in the solitude of his own mind. Like Narcissus, he yearns to make love to a reflection of himself, a futile impulse that leads to his death.

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