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
Questions for this week:
• Is the cholera illness a major theme in the book, what does it contribute?
• As it is a question of beauty, is the gender of the child relevant?
• Do you feel sympathy for Aschenbach as a character as he feels the need to change his appearance?
• Who is the main narrator of the book? Is it the external commentator, or is the story told through the thoughts of Aschenbach?
I think it’s most interesting to view both Aschenbach’s transformation (in the novel’s second half) and his infatuation against the background of Venice’s cholera epidemic. Aschenbach, an author originally marked by the highest sensibilities and moral resolutions, seemingly loses control when he arrives in Venice. The “reviler of the vile” becomes suddenly ensnared with feelings of pedophiliac lust.
Death in Venice is a very progressive text in its examination of taboo relationships. Many were offended by Nabokov’s Lolita (my favorite book), but that was published half a century after Mann’s novel. Is Mann’s protagonist someone we should feel sympathy for? As a human being, should he be given the same rights to his love as everyone else in 1912? Or is Aschenbach’s love for Tadzio merely a byproduct of the cholera epidemic.
Throughout the novella, Aschenbach’s feelings towards Tadzio evolve from curiosity to love and finally to lust. Similarly, these parallel with the development of his cholera. Aschenbach’s most violent sexual urges climax hours before he succumbs to pestilence.
Mann’s moral implications of his novella are left unclear. Whether moral sickness is a byproduct of real epidemics, or whether the author uses cholera to induce sympathy for an antihero are debatable. What are your opinions?
When I ask myself “Is cholera a major theme in the book; what does it contribute?” I immediately turn around and ask myself another question – why must Aschenbach die? The contagion anchors its relevance at the simplest level as the cause of Aschenbach’s premature death. If we read Aschenbach’s character as more than a mere creeper/pedophile (though it is tempting to stop there), Mann could be suggesting with Aschenbach’s death that taboo relationships are detrimental to one’s life by corrupting morals and/or self-image. Aschenbach’s death could be interpreted as a necessary end to a man who has lost his own sense of self worth and love and transferred it to Tadzio, a young man part of the next generation.
Although he scorns the redheaded man at the beginning for acting young, Aschenbach, as the conveners have already noted, ironically begins to exhibit the same behavior. Is it Venice that causes his obsession with youthful appearances? The other texts we have read tend to have both a moral and a physical contagion. Perhaps cholera is the physical contagion to go alongside the contagion-like obsession those in Venice harbor for youth. Although he has never talked to the boy, Aschenbach likens him to the gods. Tadzio is thus a reflection of what Aschenbach so desperately wants – his youth. In this respect, the gender of Tadzio is important – he is a young man as Aschenbach once was. Aschenbach dies just after perceiving the possibility of a friendly wave, a possible invitation for interaction with Tadzio. As part of the last moments before Aschenbach’s death, this is significant. He is fulfilled, he has succeeded and can thus die – he has captured the friendship of Tadzio and symbolically connected himself back to youth.
The narration lets us see Aschenbach’s insecurities and his perception of the way others view him through a possible faux third person narrative. One possible way of reading the narration is as Aschenbach himself reconciling what parts he wants to disclose and what parts he does not want to disclose – an Arthur Mervyn-esque maneuver. He can thus slip into an authorly third person voice but revert back to omniscience when an idea completely overtakes him, such as Tadzio’s beauty. Could this inability to control the narrative voice be due to Aschenbach’s affliction with cholera or his affliction, rather, obsession with Tadzio?
Regarding sympathy for Aschenbach’s need to change his appearance, I only felt such an emotion during Aschenbach’s makeover scene. His other musings over appearance came across as sad and creepy set against his accounts of stalking Tadzio through Venice (I’m not saying that the makeover scene wasn’t sad and creepy). What I felt came closest to “verguenza ajena” a Spanish term that means to feel embarrassed for someone else – not quite sympathy.
I love your comments about moral and physical contagion. Venice did bring changes to Aschenbach’s attitude toward youth. While observing the redheaded man he scorned so harshly on the boat, Aschenbach was “seized by a feeling of giddiness, as if the world were displaying a slight but uncontrollable tendency to distort”(16). I’m not sure if the narrator of Death in Venice agrees with Aschenbach’s original opinion of age and youth–that age limits the rights to behave in certain way–but Aschenbach’s death surely implies to us a kind of punishment for wanting something that doesn’t belong to one.
I still don’t quite agree with the importance of gender, though. When Aschenbach describes the appearance of Tadzio, it is mostly about his beauty in general and his youth, and I think Tadzio could be replaced by a girl without changing the central message of the story. Aschenbach, who became famous in an early age, rarely had a childhood. He was “surprisingly mature” by an early age. I guess this is why he was so attracted to the “carefree, laissez-faire attitude of youth” that he could see from beautiful Tadzio.
Aschenbach not only appreciates art but he is dependent on it. He feels his life would be empty without it and when he seeks inspiration he finds it in Tadzio. Although he tries to look at him as a guide for his own writing – so that his piece of writing becomes beautiful – soon this way of seeing turns into more than just the appreciation of beauty. He falls in love with the young boy, which then combines art with sexuality.
I get the impression Aschenbach feels so strange and confused about himself because he once used to be able to separate art and sexuality and he is not able to do that anymore, he sort of loses control of his feelings towards Tadzio. I like how Diana connect this adoration with the “longing for youth” idea, I think it makes perfect sense and I could not agree more.
As Sam and Tom already mentioned, Ascenbach’s love for Tadzio turns out to be fatal and he has to bear the consequences, he dies without anticipating death. Diana’s question of why he dies is very interesting, I have also thought about it and I ended up believing his death was more of a methapor rather than the results of cholera.
His death seems justified to many, even Ascenbach himself feels embarassed about his thoughts, so his death is – in a sense – a result of inproper behavior /Homosexuality was still a taboo and pedophilia was (and still is) a sin that society punishes./. Moral sickness can also be represented by art, however Ascenbach’s form of art turned out to be more sick than beautiful but still definitely thought-provoking. Music and writing express what one wants them to express. Art and sexuality are strictly united in Death in Venice and the two explain not only moral sickness, but love and adoration as well.
To return to Diana’s question on death and cholera, I find the ending fascinating. Aschenbach is clearly infected with the disease, however the Polish family that has remained seems to have remained free of the plague. Why? They are the only semblance of normality in the hotel. The boys play on the beach, carefree and “unsupervised” (62), except for Aschenbach. The innocence of the boy is almost crushed in a retaliatory attack by his friend Yashu. The boy is unprotected and is almost suffocated, unable to free himself. In this moment, Tadzio seems to lose his innocence, his golden locks are “dishevelled”, his skin “pale” and “his eyes darkening”. Aschenbach then dies as his face “took on the slack”, and so the image that he sees of the boy smiling back at him is one that he envisions but doesn’t actually see. Tadzio’s innocence is lost, the only way for Aschenbach to preserve this image of the boy is in his death.
Going on from what Tom, Diana and Adam are saying, I think the death at the end is suitable primarily as ending the book. I would be disappointed if it was only the returning home of the Polish family that drew Tadzio away from Aschenbach, one may even believe that Aschenbach would follow them. The death brings an end to all parts/themes in the novella: age, illness, lust and moral issues. It seems the only way that Aschenbach can escape his change, his decline into an unordered, unstructured lifestyle very different to the hard-working, focused artist at the beginning.
In response to Kee, I agree that the beauty and not the gender of the boy is the main theme, however one would have to admit that it adds a risqué element and greater intrigue.