One of the most important figures of early twentieth-century literature was Thomas Mann. Thomas Mann is famous for his economical writing. He does not waste a word: every detail he includes is significant, and every detail serves his strategy of suggesting, hinting, rather than directly telling. Without a doubt, Death in Venice by Thomas Mann is one of the greatest masterpieces of short fiction ever written. It tells the story of Gustav von Aschenbach, a successful but aging German writer who follows his wanderlust to Venice in search of spiritual fulfillment.
When he arrives in Venice, Aschenbach becomes obsessed with a fourteen year old boy named Tadzio. Aschenbach's mind becomes increasingly unbalanced. Despite an outbreak of cholera, he refuses to leave Venice in order to indulge his desires. As a result, his passion leads him to his erotic doom.
Among a number of themes of the novella, the most prominent one is obviously death, which is both - physical and moral. The theme is revealed and effectively explored during the story through the use of imagery and symbolism. Indeed, Death in Venice is a nest of connected keys and symbols in which scarcely a word is wasted. Even though some of Mann's symbols are straightforward, much is more obscure. The reader is forced to dig deep in order to determine the true meaning of any given passage. It is important for the reader to be aware of Mann's endeavors early in the novel, or the point may be altogether missed.
As Death in Venice abounds in symbols, it is impossible to describe and interpret all of them just in three pages. For this reason, the particular essay analyzes several symbols that are associated with the notion of death. At the beginning of Death in Venice, we find the fifty-three year old writer unable to write a perfectly balanced work. He decides to take a walk by the north cemetery in an unnamed town that can be identified as Munich.
A storm begins to brew, and the writer turns homeward. Suddenly he notices a strange-looking man with red hair, dressed as a tourist. An exotic stranger is the first of many symbols of death. It can be proved by the description of the stranger: "His chin was up, so that the Adam's apple looked very bald in the lean neck rising from the loose shirt; and he stood there sharply peering up into space out of colourless, red-lashed eyes... At any rate, standing there as though at survey, the man had a bold and domineering, even a ruthless air, and his lips completed the picture by seeming to curl back, either by reason of some deformity or else because he grimaced, being blinded by the sun in his face; they laid bare the long, white, glistening teeth to the gums." The descriptions of the storm and the threatening-looking stranger (his red hair suggesting the devil, the long, exposed teeth of a grimacing figure are reminiscent of a skull) foretell impending dangers. Moreover, the fact that the scene occurs in the surroundings of a cemetery is no coincidence.
Specifically, the gravestones introduce thoughts of death. In his description of Aschenbach's journey into Venice, Mann includes symbolism to death once more. Aschenbach steps into the gondola, "[that] singular conveyance, come down unchanged from ballad times, black as nothing else on earth except a coffin... ." The description proceeds as .".. what pictures it calls up of lawless, silent adventures in the plashing night; or even more, what visions of death itself, the bier and solemn rites and last soundless voyage!" The black boat is likened to a coffin and linked with death - "the last journey." The gondolier refuses to follow the instructions or to inform his passenger of how much the ride will cost, saying simply, "You will pay." To interpret the character of the boatman, one should be aware of Greek mythology. "In Greek mythology, the river Styx formed the boundary between the living world and the underworld.
In Greek mythology, Charon was the ferryman of Hades. He took the newly dead from one side of the river Acheron to the other if they had an obolus (coin) to pay for the ride. Corpses in ancient Greece were always buried with a coin underneath their tongue to pay Charon. Those who could not pay had to wander the banks of the Acheron for one hundred years." Thus, the journey in the gondola also suggests the voyage to the Underworld. Consequently, the reader quickly realizes that the "despotic boatman" embodies none other than Charon, ferryman of the Styx in Hades. It is significant that the gondolier has reddish eyebrows and often bares his white teeth, evoking the image of the earlier discussed stranger.
Strange red-haired figures consistently reappear to Aschenbach, suggesting demons or devils, which serve as messengers signalling Aschenbach's looming fate. At the hotel Aschenbach catches sight of a beautiful, fourteen-year-old Polish boy named Tadzio who is vacationing with his family. Aschenbach is immediately attracted to him, comparing him to a Greek statue and an artistic masterpiece. He says of Tadzio, "His face recalled the noblest moment of Greek sculpture - pale, with a sweet reserve, with clustering honey - coloured ringlets, the brow and nose descending in one line, the winning mouth, the expression of pure and godlike serenity." One thing he does notice about Tadzio though is that his teeth look very unhealthy and bluish; Tadzio looks sickly and fragile.
The character of Tadzio seems to be an essential symbol as well. He is the one who proclaims Aschenbach's imminent death. With a smile like a kiss of death, he leads the artist to his destruction. Tadzio's function in the entire novel is to free Aschenbach's soul from the ascetic, disciplined and repressed life. Critics compare the boy to Dionysus, who is associated in the novella with boundless sexuality and the removal of bourgeois morality; hence, Aschenbach completely gets rid of his former bourgeois identity. Instead, Gustav indulges in irrational behavior, abandons morality and dignity, flying into a passion, decadence, and ultimately death.
What is more, "Tadzio resembles Narcissus: Narcissus is a mythic character whose great beauty attracted the nymph Echo; when Narcissus cruelly rejected her, she died from grief, leaving behind only her voice. To punish Narcissus, the gods made him fall in love with his own reflection in a pool, and he pined away on the shore. Thus, the allusion to Narcissus hints at an ill - fated love, harmful to the lover than the beloved: will Aschenbach die of his love for Tadzio and, like Echo, leave behind only his writings." The story's location in Venice is highly significant. Aschenbach's trip to Venice is the first indulgence he has allowed himself in years; it signals the beginning of his decline because Venice is known as a place of decay. In literature, it is often the site of moral corruption; physically, the city is built on a lagoon, and each year sinks back a little farther into its swampy origin. By setting the story in Venice, Mann suggests that Aschenbach, like Venice, has been able to exist thus far only by virtue of pure will and is now beginning to decay.
(web) The red colour constantly reappears in the novel. For instance, the pomegranate juice that Aschenbach drinks during the performance is very symbolic: its red colour, the standard colour of passion, links it to the strawberries Aschenbach eats upon first seeing Tadzio. Although Aschenbach has heard the warnings not to eat fruits or vegetables, as they may be infected, he eats strawberries closer to the end of the story. What is more, the recurring devil-like figures are characterized by red hair.
When Aschenbach dresses up for Tadzio at the end of the novella, he wears a red tie. This mentioning of the red colour foreshadows the tragic end. Consequently, red comes to symbolize not only passion but also death. It should be mentioned that "The pomegranate also has mythical significance: in Greek myth, Persephone is abducted by the god of the Underworld.
While in the underworld she unthinkingly eats a seed of a pomegranate, which is known as the food of the dead, and which binds her to spend at least half the year in Hades." Accordingly, Aschenbach's journey to Venice could also be seen as a journey to the Underworld. Finally, the symbolism of water is very important. The action takes place in Venice, surrounded by water (symbol of not only birth, but also of death). While the sea brings rest, the waters of the lagoon smell foul. The stagnant, foul-smelling waters of the lagoon is a symbol of decay. This was a swamp, around which, perhaps, people should not have built their homes.
But even worse are the canals. They are stagnant, and carry disease, thus, death along with boats. At the end of the novella, when Aschenbach thinks Tadzio is beckoning him to the sea, he dies of cholera. In conclusion, when it was first published, Mann's novella Death in Venice was immediately recognized as a "perfect marvel" and among the "best German prose" of its time.
However, today Mann's Death in Venice is considered to be one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century literature. In Mann's writing every word, every symbol is functional, with nothing included that was not essential to the effect intended. Therefore, all the figures discussed in the essay develop one of the main themes and also serve to emphasize the overall tension in the novella leading Aschenbach deeper and deeper into a labyrinth of danger.