Death in Venice (book)
- For information about the film, see Death in Venice (film).
Written by Thomas Mann in German and published in 1912, Death in Venice is often considered Mann's most important novella. A film adaptation was made in 1971 by Luchino Visconti, and an opera based on the story was written by Benjamin Britten.
The protagonist is an ageing German writer, Gustav von Aschenbach, who moves to Venice. Soon after his arrival he becomes obsessed with a beautiful fourteen-year-old Polish boy called Tadzio, who is staying at the same hotel. Although they never meet, Aschenbach is captivated by Tadzio’s androgynous beauty. He watches the boy playing on the beach every day, and even follows his family through the streets of the city. Meanwhile, the city is stricken with Asiatic cholera. Though the authorities try to hide it from the tourists, Aschenbach soon realizes the danger he is in. However, he cannot bear to leave Tadzio. As the cholera begins to take over his body and he gives in to his passions, pursuing the boy more intensely, his body becomes increasingly degraded. He dies alone, in decadence and debasement.
Initially, Aschenbach sees Tadzio as the purest representation of aesthetic perfection, which can be appreciated in a wholly intellectual way, and Aschenbach believes that this will inspire his writing. Eventually, of course, the beauty and art that Tadzio represents becomes corrupting, illustrating the impossibility of distinguishing between lofty, intellectual art and art which is passionate and spontaneous.
The Greek god Apollo was associated with reason, order, intellectualism and poetry, while Dionysus was the god of wine, intoxication, the theatre and extravagance. These gods are referred to throughout the book, forming a polarity of forces: the Apollonian against the Dionysian. Aschenbach begins by worshiping Tadzio as an Apollonian symbol of intellectual art, and he descends to the worship of Dionysus as his passion grows. Mann may be making an argument for the importance of a balance between Apollonian and Dionysian forces.
Significance of location
In literature, Venice is often symbolically a place of moral corruption and decadence, and Italy represents sensuality, contrasted with the austerity of Aschenbach’s native Germany. It is thus fitting that this is the city where Aschenbach gives in to his repressed sexuality. It is also significant that the cholera originates from Asia, because India is the birthplace of the cult of Dionysus.
The story is based on Mann’s real life experience in Venice, and the character of Tadzio has been identified as based upon Wladyslaw Moes, an 11 year old Polish boy who was staying in the same Venitian hotel as Mann. Moes read the novella in the Polish translation and recognized himself in Mann’s description of Tadzio, even the details of Tadzio’s clothes matched exactly with what Moes had worn. The character of Aschenbach is based upon both Mann himself but Aschenbach’s facial features are those of the composer Gustav Mahler.