Review: Death in Venice by Thomas Mann

Gustav von Aschenbach is an aging writer, feeling the pangs of literary pressure and exhaustion. He has devoted his life to cultivating an image of utmost propriety and literary superiority but now seeks a respite from the anxiety of others’ (and his own) expectations. Thus, he travels to (where else) Venice, Italy – where he can relax on the scenic shores of the Mediterranean. Aschenbach discovers a young boy, the epitome of youthful beauty, who first peaks the artistic sympathies of the writer, but soon enraptures him completely. Aschenbach, whose health (along with the boy, Tadzio’s, and the city of Venice’s) steadily declines, sees in Tadzio something lost and something sought after. The writer realizes that he has spent so much time with literary perfection –with research and analysis – that he has lost the true meaning of the art form: a pursuit of pure beauty. He finds this in Tadzio and therefore becomes enthralled. Mann’s purpose does not seem to be subversive; instead, he is pointing out an element of the human condition which is constant in both its presence and its denial – the unrequited love and lust for the aging toward the youthful. The motive is not at all pedophilic, as some might suggest. Instead, it seems that Mann is simply pointing out the terrors of aging, and the almost deified, nostalgic respect we have for the youthful. The reader sees Aschenbach struggle with his appreciation for and jealousy of Tadzio’s youth and beauty. Aschenbach tries to recover some of his own lost youth by dying his hair and pampering his face – hiding his wrinkles; but, the absurdity of the “cover-up” is amplified by Aschenbach’s demise. That Tadzio remains beautiful despite his own illness seems almost a coy taunt towards age, whose ability to defeat and/or recover from illness is far less than the youthful’s. Tadzio has no fear of playing in the water or wrestling with his friends, even amongst an outbreak of cholera; in contrast, the adults eagerly avoid the subject – and one another- in hopes of containing the disease and saving themselves from it. While there are homosexual elements to the story (Tadzio and Aschenbach obviously have a certain understanding of one another – if not equally in lust with one another, certainly understanding of the others’ appreciation), the major theme is the artistic beauty of youth and vitality, which overpowers even the most strict and acetic of personalities. That Aschenbach is willing to give himself up to the spreading epidemic simply to be in Tadzio’s presence (it is pointed out that, had the Polish family left, Aschenbach too would have gone away) reminds us that Aschenbach is greatly affected by the boy’s perfection. It is almost as if Aschenbach has discovered his own Dorian Gray and, like Basil Hallward, Aschenbach soon loses himself to his own creation. Really, a beautiful read – one which speaks to the self-conscious, envious elements in each of us.

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