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Greek Mythology In Thomas Mann's Death In Venice

1401 words - 6 pages

Thomas Mann alludes to Greek mythology throughout his novella Death in Venice. One
of the Greek mythological themes alluded to in Death in Venice is the struggle known as
Apollonian vs. Dionysion. Thomas Mann was strongly influenced by the philosopher Friedrich
Nietzsche and his teachings on the Apollonian vs. Dionysion struggle. According to Nietzsche’s
teachings every individual contains characteristics from both Greek gods and the two are forever
in an internal struggle to dominate said individual’s personality. Without striking an appropriate
balance between the two sides, truly great art can never be mastered (Keis). The readers of
Death in Venice are witnesses to the Apollonian vs. Dionysion struggle that takes place inside of
the novella’s protagonist, Gustav von Aschenbach.

Apollo is known as the Greek god of light and order. Apollonian characteristics include
reason, control, and clarity. (Taylor). These characteristics are often associated with 19th century
philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer’s, principal of individuation in that “all types of form or
structure are Apollonian, since form serves to define or individualize that which is formed”
(Keis). Sculpture is the most Apollonian of art since it relies on form for its effect. Apollonian
characteristics are used to minimize needless suffering caused by natural desires of the body

Gustav von Aschenbach is introduced to us as the protagonist of Death in Venice. As we
read, it becomes very clear that Aschenbach is a very disciplined and rational man, possessing a
majority of Apollonian characteristics: “At forty, at fifty, even at an age when others squander
and stray, content to put their great plans aside for the time being, he started his day at an early
hour….” ,“…he would spend two or three fervently conscientious morning hours sacrificing on
the altar of art the powers he had assembled during his sleep” (8). We are told that Aschenbach

was born into a well-respected family and was expected to continue to make a respectable name
for the family (7). He achieved great success while he was still in high school through his
writing, thus causing him to mature into an adult seemingly overnight. “He has therefore never
known sloth, never known the carefree, laissez-faire attitude of youth” (8). Aschenbach is so
driven by his ambition to succeed as a writer that he learns how to repress his more impulsive
side. It is this denial of spontaneity that will ultimately lead Aschenbach down the path to his
own demise.

Aschenbach is in his late fifties to early sixties when Death in Venice begins. It seems as
though Aschenbach has managed a lifetime of Apollonian quality with no threats of Dionysian
uprisings. Aschenbach is content with his life of routine until he comes across a strange looking
man with red hair and dressed as a tourist on a walk one afternoon. The narrator describes the
man as “grimacing”...

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