Symbols, Symbolism and Irony in Thomas Mann's Death in Venice
In the novel Death in Venice, by Thomas Mann, an observer compliments the main character Gustave von Aschenbach by saying, " 'You see, Aschenbach has always lived like this '-here the speaker closed the fingers of his left hand to a fist-'never like this '-and he let his hand hang relaxed from the back of his chair" (p. 1069). This is a perfect description of Aschenbach, a man set in convention, driven to succeed from an early age, quite dull really. After all, his favorite motto was "hold fast" (p. 1070). He has always kept his feelings in check, and never allowed himself to lose control of any aspect of his life. As the story progresses, however, the fist that is Aschenbach slowly opens up until it finally releases all the pent-up emotion and desire. Wrought with symbolism and irony, Death in Venice tells a tragic tale of unbridled lust, misspent youth, and the undoing of a man, once so firmly in control his life, as he ultimately surrenders to a passion that overcomes him.
Gustave von Aschenbach is a renowned and successful writer, yet he is losing any passion he might have once had for his craft. He has always been driven to achieve, and thus has spent no time in the pursuit of happiness or even simple pleasures. His life is entirely predictable. "Too busy with the tasks imposed upon him by his own ego and the European soul, too laden with the care and duty to create, too preoccupied to be an amateur of the gay outer world, he had been content to know as much of the worlds surface as he could without leaving his own sphere-had, indeed, never been tempted to leave Europe" (p. 1067). But he becomes tired of his day-to-day existence, growing disenchanted with the world in which he lives.
Inspired one day on a walk in his city of Munich, Aschenbach suddenly feels the overwhelming urge to travel. As though driven by some unknown, perhaps ominous, force, he feels a change of scenery is necessary, and endeavors to set off for Italy. Upon arriving in the Adriatic islands, however, he sees that he has made an error, and instead embarks for Venice, a city which he has visited before, but that is on this occasion different. Even as he arrives in the city by sea, he recognizes a change in it from the last time he was there. It is appropriate, then, that the city will entirely change his life.
It is in Veniuce that he encounters Tadzio, a Polish boy visiting the city with his family. At first merely interested in Tadzio aesthetically, with a sort of detached curiosity that one might show towards a beautiful piece of art, Gustave soon finds himself growing more and more enamored of the young boy. Over the course of the story, Aschenbach slowly lets go of his inhibitions and ceases to suppress the feelings of longing and desire that he has spent most of his life denying.
As the title undoubtedly indicates, or certainly hints at, Venice...