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Death in Venice | Study Guide

Thomas Mann

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Death in Venice | Themes


Rationalism versus Hedonism

In Death in Venice, the central conflict for the main character, Gustav von Aschenbach, is a struggle between rationalism and hedonism, which forms the basis for the other major themes of the novella. Strongly influenced by classicism, Aschenbach has striven through his writings to uphold the classical idea of beauty. As a result his works emphasize balance, order, and reason and reject overt sensuality, pleasure, and disorder. For the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), this division reflects the two major drives in humans. These are the Apollonian (balance, reason) and the Dionysian (sensuality, chaos).

Aschenbach enforces this viewpoint by embracing the Protestant ethic, which stresses hard work and discipline and denies sensual pleasures. Indeed, Aschenbach's problem stems from applying the Protestant ethic to classicism. Many people have followed the classic perspective but have not developed the same problems as Aschenbach. However, because of his severe work ethic, the author has suppressed his sensuality, desire for pleasure, and, in his case, homosexuality into his subconscious. By doing this, the writer has caused these drives to increase in strength. As result, when they emerge, these instincts overwhelm Aschenbach. He turns from being a rational, reserved writer to an obsessed, hedonistic man obsessed by a teenage boy, Tadzio.

Mann uses the idea of foreignness to convey the emergence of Aschenbach's repressed side. Throughout the novella, people and things that have a sensuality or an exaggerated emotionalism seem foreign to Aschenbach. For example, the writer sees the redheaded gondolier and redheaded minstrel, who both express extreme emotions, as foreigners. On his way to Venice Aschenbach begins to view things as being odd or deformed. Later, the architecture of Venice seems exaggerated. All of these aspects of foreignness indicate that Aschenbach is beginning to experience his suppressed sensuality, which seems foreign to him, as he journeys to Venice. This idea of strangeness culminates when Aschenbach has a nightmare about the "foreign god," which seems to represent his repressed, hedonistic emotions overwhelming him.

Idolizing Beauty

Through his writings, Gustav von Aschenbach makes the classical idea of beauty into a type of god to be worshipped by his many adoring readers. As a result of his popular take on classicism, Aschenbach has achieved fame and wealth. When he sees Tadzio in Venice, Aschenbach immediately realizes that the boy is classically beautiful; it's as if his ideal of beauty has appeared before him in the flesh. Soon the writer begins to idolize Tadzio's beauty, placing him on a pedestal above other mere mortals. Aschenbach sees nothing wrong in this. After all, it is by idolizing classical beauty that he has become a successful author. Aschenbach, thus, has discovered an acceptable focus for his long-suppressed sensuality. Indeed, Aschenbach soon uses Tadzio as an inspiration for writing an essay. Confident in his ability to reason, the writer plays a mental game in which he uses Tadzio and his sensual desire for him to create art.

Aschenbach does not love the human Tadzio but rather the image of the boy he has created. In fact Aschenbach really knows nothing about the real Tadzio. When Aschenbach does glimpse Tadzio's humanity, he immediately backs off. For example, the writer stands close to Tadzio in an elevator and notices the boy's irregular, thin teeth. This defect does not fit with the classical idea of beauty. After this, Aschenbach mostly views Tadzio from a distance and refuses to get to know him as a person. At one point the writer considers introducing himself to the boy; instead, Aschenbach becomes panic-stricken when he approaches Tadzio and passes him by. The sensual outlet Aschenbach has created is too precious to him to be destroyed. Aschenbach's love is ultimately self-centered. He loves a reflection of himself, not another human being.

Surrender to Passion and Death

Gustav von Aschenbach's process of regression in the novella leads him to death. Three elements contribute to this development. First, by following the Protestant ethic Aschenbach has relegated his sensual side to his subconscious, thereby increasing its power. According to Sigmund Freud and other psychologists, the more a person represses an emotion, the stronger the emotion grows until it bursts out into the person's consciousness, often in a chaotic and destructive way. The same dynamic happens to Aschenbach. When his long-repressed sensuality and homosexuality finally emerge, these drives dominate him. He no long cares about how he appears or about the epidemic spreading through Venice. He just fixates on the object of his desire, Tadzio. As a result, he contracts cholera by eating contaminated fruit and dies.

Second, Aschenbach's fame has made him somewhat conceited and self-serving as an artist. In his works he presents a simplistic morality that is beyond question. The writer has also come to believe that his actions are beyond criticism. In a way, he represents the philosopher Nietzsche's superman, who has attained a level above most humans and thus is not guided by traditional morality. As a result, when Aschenbach senses his sensual side emerging, he doesn't consider the best way to handle the situation. Instead, he opens himself to the drives of his subconscious, which leads to his death.

Finally, Aschenbach has become so obsessed by his devotion to Tadzio's beauty that he actually welcomes death. In particular, he consumes the overripe strawberries—part of the sweetness of life he has craved—despite having heard the warning that food might be infected with cholera.

Productive and Dysfunctional Solitude

Gustav von Aschenbach's solitude remains the one constant for the writer throughout the novella. As the story progresses the author goes through a dramatic change, one in which his entire personality seems to transform. He switches from a respected, dignified writer to a man consumed by sensual desires. However, throughout his transformation, Aschenbach remains a solitary figure. At the beginning of the novella he lives in solitude in his mountain hideaway writing great works of literature. At the end he becomes deathly ill alone on a beach and soon dies.

Aschenbach is a solitary person because he lives inside his head. To a certain extent, the same can be said for all artists and writers. To create works of art, a person must often spend long hours alone. However, for Aschenbach, his solitude is especially acute because of the split in his psyche. As a young man, he has seen many other youths as "spendthrift daydreamers, blithely postponing the execution of great plans." Instead, the young Aschenbach spent long hours alone dutifully writing. Embracing the Protestant ethic and the values of classicism, the writer emphasizes the rational and denies the sensual. Later, when he is driven by his sensual impulses, Aschenbach remains alone with his fantasies. By cutting himself off from part of himself, he has also cut himself off from other people. Other people, like the "human community" of the novel's Russian family, are able to combine the rational and the sensual. Such a mixture, though, is repellant to Aschenbach.

Mann's writing style emphasizes Aschenbach's solitude. The story is written using a limited third-person viewpoint. As a result the reader knows only what Aschenbach is thinking and remains trapped inside the character's head.

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