Considered a modern classic, Thomas Mann’s novel Death in Venice
(1912) uses a complicated skein of literary allusions to trace the subtle connections between lust, creativity, and death, utilizing irony
in just about every aspect of the story.
The story begins as the famous author middle-aged Gustav von Aschenbach walks outside in Munich. Struggling with a new work, he finds himself overstimulated and hopes the walk will restore his calm so he can get back to work. As he strolls past a cemetery, he notices a red-haired man of foreign appearance staring at him intently. Disturbed, Gustav hurries away, deciding that the time has come for him to take a vacation.
Initially, he goes to the city of Pula, but soon realizes that he would rather be in Venice—in fact, he feels he must
go to Venice. On the ship to the city, he observes an older man in the company of a group of gay, attractive youths. Gustav notices that the old man has made a pathetic attempt to look youthful, wearing make-up and a wig. Gustav is disgusted by this display. When he finally arrives in Venice, he has an encounter with another red-haired man, a gondolier who keeps repeating the phrase, “I can row you well,” no matter what Gustav says.
He checks into the hotel. At dinner, he notices a young boy having supper with his wealthy Polish family. The boy is strikingly beautiful. When Gustav sees the family again the next day on the beach, he learns the boy’s name is Tadzio. He finds the boy fascinating, thinking this is the first inkling of artistic inspiration.
The weather shifts, becoming oppressively hot. Fearing for his health in the heat and with the first hints of disease nibbling at the city’s population, Gustav decides to leave for a cooler location. He is filled with regret at leaving Tadzio, however, and when his luggage is lost at the train station, he is secretly delighted. He returns to his hotel.
He begins to follow Tadzio around the city, watching him constantly. One evening, while Gustav is furtively watching him, Tadzio turns and seems to smile directly at him. Moved by the beauty of the boy’s expression, Gustav rushes out into the hotel garden and whispers, “I love you!”
In the main part of Venice, Gustav sees notices concerning a disease and smells disinfectant everywhere. He is secretly and privately thrilled because he imagines that the disease is linked somehow to what he sees as the corrupting influence of Tadzio. He meets another red-haired man, this time part of a gang of performing youths who come to the hotel to sing. Gustav enjoys the concert even though the music is nothing that he would have liked before. He sees Tadzio listening and their eyes meet for a long moment, which is thrilling to Gustav. He thinks that perhaps the boy finds him just as interesting.
Gustav investigates the notices and learns that a serious cholera epidemic is breaking out. He considers warning Tadzio’s mother to protect them from the disease, but deciding he cannot take the risk of Tadzio being taken away, he says nothing. He has a dream that reveals to him that his love for Tadzio is also sexual lust. The next day, he is increasingly overt in his attention to Tadzio, and the boy’s family warns him away from Gustav when he approaches.
Still thinking he sees signs that Tadzio is also attracted to him, Gustav worries that he appears too old. He goes to the hotel barber and has his hair dyed and make-up applied to appear to be younger. He seems unaware that he now resembles the pathetic old man he saw on the ship. He follows Tadzio through the hot city; overcome by the heat, he eats some old fruit and sits alone, dreaming.
Feeling ill, Gustav goes to the hotel lobby a few days later and learns that Tadzio’s family plans to leave Venice that day. He staggers to the beach and sits in a deck chair, watching Tadzio, who is alone for the first time. Gustav watches as Tadzio gets into a fight with an older boy, which he loses badly. He runs away towards where Gustav is sitting and stands looking out over the ocean. He turns and glances back at Gustav. Gustav imagines that Tadzio beckons to him, inviting him to join him by the water. Gustav attempts to stand in the suffocating heat but collapses back into his chair. A few moments later, the dead body of an old man with fading dyed hair and ruined make-up is discovered on the beach.