Thomas Mann’s protagonist, Aschenbach, is a complex character with an obsessive, artistic nature. Aschenbach has a clearly defined view of beauty and his concept is fully represented by the beauty of the boy, Tadzio:
“It was the face of Eros, with the yellow gaze of Parian marble, with delicate and serious brows, the temples and ears richly and rectangularly framed by soft, dusky curls.” (25)
There is an infatuation with Tadzio, with his appearance comparable to flawless marble and the Greek god of love. Initially, the descriptions of Tadzio looks seem to be as an art critic assessing a masterpiece; however it quickly develops into an obsession for Aschenbach. This obsession is highlighted when he claims he was glad to return to Venice, after nearly moving on, because he could watch the boy more. As well as in the quote, when talking about Tadzio, the narrator/thoughts of Aschenbach’s mind cite Greek gods to shed light on emotions “the smile of Narcissus” (43), a beautiful youth condemned by the Greek gods for falling in love with his own reflection.
Aschenbach’s lengthy ruminations on beauty and its relation to how it relates to art, age, spirituality and sexuality frames, particularly, the second half of Death in Venice. He is aroused from his critical and disinterested characterisations of fellow tourists by a sighting of Tadzio, a “beautiful” young Polish boy on whom he soon becomes transfixed. Tadzio is young, feminine looking (“beautiful”) and saliently, free in action and in dress, especially when compared with his well-groomed and constantly monitored sisters. Aschenbach sees a path to divine writing in the boy’s beautiful aesthetic,
“He wanted to work here in the presence of Tadzio, to use the boy’s physical frame as the model for his writing, to let his style follow the lines of that body that seemed to him divine, to carry his beauty into the realm of intellect as once the eagle carried the Trojan shepherd into the ethereal heavens.” (39)
Aschenbach’s transformation comes from his feeling of “a need to restore and revive his body” (58). The language regarding his old appearance is very negative: “he confronted the tortured gaze of his image in the mirror” (58). Seeing such beauty in youth, Aschenbach now feels he must emulate youthfulness and has his hair and complexion altered; as mentioned, this is similar to the man he criticised before who he considered a “bizarre distortion” (15, aka a Beast). Interestingly, the barber says, “Will you allow me to give you back what is rightfully yours?” (58) This directly relates to Aschenbach’s previous questioning of the impersonators right to dress and socialise in a ‘youthful’ manner.
Aschenbach’s attraction to the boy turns out to be fatal however. The trajectory of his sickness begins as he arrives in Venice and thus sees the boy, then immediately following his profession of love for the boy, the notion of a plague-like disease is first mentioned and then finally as the boy seems to officially invite Aschenbach’s affection, the “lonely traveller” dies.
Sam and Tom