In the novel Death in Venice by Thomas Mann, the author expresses his theory of the ability of absolute passion and obsession in washing off a person’s dignity and common sense through the character Gustav von Aschenbach. Mann’s writing is heavy with literary devices such as Greek mythology allusions, symbolisms, imagery, foreshadowing and immense details on different characters in the plot; which contributes towards intensifying the plotline and expressing his theories through the happenings of the story.
Death in Venice depicts the gradual development of von Aschenbach’s passion and obsession towards a 14 year old boy he meets whilst on vacation in Venice. Gustav Aschenbach is a German writer in his fifties. He is a very serious man with great dignity and self discipline, very dedicated to his writing where everyday he spends hours and hours writing even when fatigue strikes him. One day, von Aschenbach is pondering about his writings and strolling around the English Garden when he reaches the North Cemetery. A most peculiar man caught his thoughts with his eminent features and sudden appearance, upon scrutinizing his appearance and catching the man’s hard glance, von Aschenbach encounters a hallucination of his desire to be at somewhere tropical with lush greenery and damp whether.Order now
This extraordinary vision and his sudden desire to travel to escape writing lead him to decide on a vacation out of Munich to Venice. During the journey to Venice and the hotel, von Aschenbach again meets two strange men who have similar eminent features as the man he met in the cemetery. It is then at the hotel that von Aschenbach meets a boy, Tadzio whom he thought is the most beautiful being he has ever seen and since then, von Aschenbach descends into a sort of frenzy of love towards the young boy.
Even under several circumstances – when he encounters unease on Venice’s weather and decides to leave, and upon knowing about the epidemic cholera spreading across the city – consciously as well as unconsciously, von Aschenbach remains in Venice to remain devoted to the boy. This novel skillfully illustrates the man’s sinking into uncontrollable passion and at the end, von Aschenbach dies of cholera.
The voice of the novel plays a great role in establishing the storyline. Death in Venice is told by a third person point of view of Mann’s assumed persona and yet readers are able to hear von Aschenbach’s thoughts and feelings, enabling a double perspective as an outsider as well as von Aschenbach himself. It is also eminent that Mann has included quite some personal feelings and experiences from himself into the story and feelings of the main character.
The assumed persona provides elaborate descriptions of different characters in the novel, the feelings of von Aschenbach, as well as the different places that von Aschenbach encounters in the story. Mann explains von Aschenbach’s life in the initial chapters to set his personality, where he is a man of strict discipline and self control, giving us a stronger impression of how a man of intellectual and reason can descend into a stage of frenzy and loses common sense.
Mann uses strong imagery to express the intensifying passion of von Aschenbach towards Tadzio and also to set the atmosphere and mood of where the events occur. The streets of Venice is ‘sweltering repulsively’, with ‘thick air’ mixed with ‘oily billows’ and ‘sluggishly drifting cigarette smoke’ which ‘hover in clouds instead of dissipating’; the ‘dreadful alliance of sirocco and sea air’ and the ‘horrible effluvia from the canals’ seems to suffocate von Aschenbach.
This immaculate description of the hot, dense, slow moving air enables readers to fully experience the sense of suffocating, while supporting von Aschenbach’s decision to leave Venice. However, when von Aschenbach’s sub-conscious mind refuses to leave Venice due to his deepening passion towards Tadzio, von Aschenbach ‘inhale in deep and delicately painful gulps’, regretting the decision he made. Also, when von Aschenbach first sees Tadzio, he describes him as ‘absolutely beautiful, and ‘all recalled Greek statues of the noblest era’, with ‘perfection in nature’. As the story moves on, von Aschenbach starts to scrutinize more details of the boy – his ‘pale and jagged’ teeth, ‘striped linen suit’, even the boy’s foreign language transforms into music to von ASchenbach’s ears, the boy’s ‘smooth armpits’ shiny hollows of his knees and bluish veins.
This further emphasizes the fact that von Aschenbach is more and more descending into the frenzy of love towards the young boy, to the point that he carefully scrutinizes microscopic details of the boy. Mann also uses imagery to build up to von Aschenbach’s realization that he is spinning out of control and unable to suppress his passion; when von Aschenbach sees Tadzio’s smile, it is described as ‘the smile of Narcissus’, ‘a very slightly distorted smile, distorted by the hopelessness of his striving to kiss the sweet lips of his own image’, making von Aschenbach so ‘deeply shaken’ that he went into fits of shudders and overwhelmed emotions, at last wrapping up into a single whisper of ‘I love you!’, signifying the point where he loses his reason and conscious and plunges into unreason and obsession. This imagery is very powerful because it enables us to picture the boy’s smile and its effects on von Aschenbach.