Written in 1911 and published in 1912, the novel “Death in Venice” was created by Thomas Mann under the influence of two real events: the death of the famous Austrian composer and conductor – Gustav Mahler and communication in Venice with the eleven-year-old Vladzio Moes, who became the prototype of Tadzio. The writer borrowed the external features of the musician to form the appearance of the main character of the work – the writer Gustav Aschenbach, his trip to Venice – for the plot of the short story, the famous love story of the elderly Goethe for young Ulrika von Levets – for the internal passions that became one of the main themes of “Death in Venice”.
The last love of a fifty-year-old writer – platonic and perverted (aimed at the Polish teenager Tadzio, whom he met at the Lido resort) – is inextricably linked in the novel with the themes of art and death. Death is not accidentally made into the title of the work. It is she who becomes decisive for the entire course of the action of the short story and the life of her main character – Gustav von Aschenbach.
Recognized by readers, critics and the state, the author of the novel “Maya” and the story “Insignificant” from early childhood lives with thoughts of death: a painful by nature hero studies at home and dreams of reaching old age. In adulthood, Ashenbach builds his life sensibly and measuredly: he tempers, works in the morning, when he feels the most fresh and rested, tries not to commit rash acts. The “polished”, as well as his literary style, the existence of the character is violated by a meeting with a strange kind of traveler, who has an unusual appearance for Munich residents – strange places, frightening places.
The motive of the journey, caused by an internal desire for wanderings, is associated in the short story with the natural transition of a person from life to death. Gustav Ashenbach is heading towards his death not because the author so wanted, but because his time has come.
On the way to death, the hero is constantly confronted with a strange kind of people and situations that are symbolic omens of the writer’s departure from the earthly world. The vision of tropical swamps, which visited Ashenbach back in Munich, becomes a prototype of the pathogenic miasma of Venice, which, contrary to the usual tradition, meets the hero not with a clear, clear sky, but with a gray veil of rain. One of the young people traveling with Ashenbach on the ship and turned out to be a “fake youth” is the character’s Alter ego, predicting his future: after a while, the writer, like the old man, will try to appear younger due to masking wrinkles of cream, hair dye and colored details in clothes. The appearance, which is not characteristic of the old man, evokes in the hero a “vague feeling that the world” shows “an unstoppable intention to transform into absurdity, into a caricature.”
Following the destruction of the classical picture of being, Aschenbach is faced with yet another symbolic image of death, embodied in an unpleasant kind of gondolier, arbitrarily taking the writer to Lido. The gondolier in the short story is Charon helping his “client” cross the River Styx into the underworld of the dead. The protagonist intuitively feels this connection, thinking that he is dealing with a criminal who set out to kill and rob a rich traveler, but the soft swaying of waves (inexorable rock) eases his anxieties, and he comes to the place of his death.
Captured by Asian cholera, Venice, hot and painful, rivets Ashenbach to itself with a perverted passion – for a young Polish aristocrat, pale and weak, but so beautiful with his golden curls that the writer sees in him an incarnated deity. At first, the main character is still trying to escape from the city, the atmosphere of which affects his health badly, but the baggage sent to the wrong place and the desire to constantly see Tadzio stops him and throws him into the last, frantic dance of life.
At first, Ashenbach only admires Tadzio. The young Pole inspires the writer to a small but exquisite literary miniature. Tadzio becomes for Ashenbach a symbol of art, life, beauty. But the more the hero thinks about his idol, the more he begins to desire him, the more he becomes attached to him and can no longer follow him everywhere. On the verge of agony, when Venice is plunged into the chaos of death, Ashenbach finally loses his moral foundations: he is not shy about the fact that others can notice his passion, and dreams that the city, which has died out of infection, will be an ideal place for his love joy with a boy.
The short story ends with the death of the protagonist and … life, into which, like in the sea, the Polish teenager Tadzio enters. The sensual beauty of the latter is also death: Ashenbach’s creative consciousness is not able to bear the fact that the word to which he gave his whole life can only sing the inexplicable charm of a person, but neither recreate it nor possess it of his own free will. The sharp contrast between Tadzio and Ashenbach symbolizes in the novel the eternal confrontation between youth and old age, the beauty of external and internal, life and death.