Death in Venice | Study Guide

Thomas Mann

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Death in Venice | Symbols


Redheaded Men

Mann uses three redheaded men in the novella; each is a symbol that represents a Dionysian figure. According to the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, a person has a Dionysian drive that uses sensual excess to destroy order and reason and create chaos. The redheaded men signify this drive. These three men include the man in the cemetery, the gondolier, and the minstrel. They all share similar traits, besides red hair. First, Mann makes them all foreigners because the Dionysian drive is foreign to the society of any nation. Societies and nations have been formed through the use of reason and discipline to create order. The Dionysian drive wants to destroy order and thus is opposed to society. In addition the Dionysian drive is especially foreign to Gustav von Aschenbach, who has repressed it. Second, the redheaded men are all hostile to him. Throughout his career the writer has stressed the rational and suppressed the sensual and chaotic. Reflecting this, the redheaded men treat him with unfriendliness. Finally, these men are all connected with death. The first man is in a cemetery, apparently having left a mausoleum; the second steers a gondola that resembles a coffin; and the third smells of disinfectant as he mocks the tourists who are unaware of the cholera epidemic. Because the Dionysian drive is chaotic, it leads to destruction and death, including the death of Aschenbach.

Mann uses each of the redheaded men in a different way. The man in the cemetery acts as a catalyst, causing Aschenbach to sense his suppressed emotions and yearning for exotic places. As a result Aschenbach decides to take a vacation and ends up in Venice. The gondolier serves as a guide, taking Aschenbach to a land where he will be immersed in his Dionysian drive and, as a result, die. When the minstrel entertains Aschenbach, the writer has already been drawn toward his Dionysian side through his obsession for Tadzio. The minstrel, as a Dionysian figure, has won. Readers may interpret his mocking of Aschenbach as a celebration of the victory of sensual excess over the rational ideals to which the writer had previously dedicated his life.

Tight Fist

Mann uses the tight fist as a symbol to represent how Gustav von Aschenbach, influenced by the Protestant ethic, drives himself to work hard and deny his desires. The tight fist approach reflects a non-questioning attitude. Aschenbach has no doubt that extreme self-discipline is the ticket to success and never examines the possible repercussions of this attitude. He has used the tight fist approach throughout most of his adult life and so has achieved his intellectual desire—to be a famous writer. However, the writer has also suppressed his sensual drives, including his homosexuality. In addition this attitude has led to writer's block during his later years. His work lacks joy and spontaneity, and his writing has become a dreadful chore. By cutting off his sensual side, Aschenbach has also cut off the joyful inspiration for his work. As a result his yearning for visiting exotic locales comes as a welcome relief. This yearning has its source in the long-repressed sensuality of his subconscious.

Open Hand

The symbol of the open hand signifies Aschenbach's openness to the sensual drives of his subconscious. After suppressing his sensual side for decades, Aschenbach feels drawn to this part of himself when he encounters Tadzio. For a while Aschenbach struggles against the sensuality he experiences in Venice and, using the threat of possible illness as an excuse, plans to leave the city. However, in his heart Aschenbach wants to continue to feel these pleasures, especially in relation to Tadzio. Therefore, when his luggage is lost, he feels relieved. Sitting in his chair before an open window, Aschenbach opens his hands and arms, as if accepting fully his desire for the boy and for the pleasures of Venice. The open hand represents the direct opposite of the tight fist, and both stand for extreme positions. The latter deals with discipline, denial, and an austere lifestyle. The former conveys a total lack of resistance, a wallowing in the senses. By taking this approach, Aschenbach allows the drives from his subconscious, which have become fierce from years of repression, to flood into his consciousness and overtake him. Like the tight first, the open hand reveals a non-questioning attitude. With the open hand approach, the writer refuses to examine the possible consequences of an unbridled acceptance of his sensual drives.


When Gustav von Aschenbach fantasizes about a lush, tropical forest, he sees the eyes of a tiger crouching, causing him to jolt with fright and desire. Readers can interpret the forest as the writer's subconscious with its carnal instincts. The jungle seems luxurious, pleasurable, and strange, like his repressed drives. The tiger, peering through the foliage, represents the fierceness and danger present in Aschenbach's subconscious. Because his sensual side, including his homosexuality, has been suppressed for so long, it has become powerful and eager to spring out into his conscious self. However, because of their fierceness, his drives have a chaotic force that can devour Aschenbach.

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