Gustav von Aschenbach is an aging, nationally renowned writer living alone in Munich. The year is unspecified, but it falls within the early 1900s,and is described as "the year in which...so grave a threat seemed to hang over the peace of Europe." One morning, after a particularly demanding session of writing, Aschenbach goes on a walk to clear his mind. A storm begins to brew, and the writer turns homeward; he passes through empty streets past the stonemasons' yards, where the headstones for sale constitute a sort of graveyard, and stops to read the gilt lettering on a Byzantine mortuary chapel referring to the afterlife. Here, he suddenly notices a strange-looking man with red hair, dressed as a tourist. The man has a grimace that displays his long white teeth and gums, and Aschenbach realizes that the man is staring back at him aggressively. Though the meeting comes to nothing, the encounter stirs in Aschenbach a sudden desire to travel to foreign lands.
In a sort of daydream, Aschenbach vividly envisions a tropical swampland described in highly charged language evoking a sense of combined fertility and decay, eroticism, and the grotesque. He quickly masters his state of wanderlust, however, and returns to his habitual mindset-one of willful efficiency, moderation, and fastidious self-discipline. He believes perfectionism to be the essence of artistic talent and that excessive passion impedes a writer's pursuit of excellence. However, thinking that his work might benefit from an element of inspired improvisation, he finally decides that a short vacation might improve his productivity. Looking again for the red-haired man, Aschenbach finds that he has vanished as suddenly and mysteriously as he had appeared.
From its opening sentences, Death in Venice establishes an ominous tone. The descriptions of the dire political situation, the storm, and the menacing-looking stranger (his red hair suggesting the devil) foretell impending dangers. Specifically, the gravestones and mortuary introduce thoughts of death. The Byzantine architecture with its Greek lettering introduces the motif of the classical world, which will pervade the novella. Mann is famous for his economical writing: It is important to realize that there is hardly a wasted word in his text; details such as these are almost always deliberate and significant.
Also note that Mann's parallel presentation of his main character and the current political circumstances establishes what will become a symbolic link between the two: The declining Aschenbach will come to stand for a civilization blinded to its inner decay and on the brink of inevitable war.
The first chapter additionally introduces a polarity around which the novella is conceptually structured: the opposition of Northern European self-restraint and southern sensuality. Mann, following Plato, believed this conflict between conscious will and uncontrolled passion, between rational morality and passionate art, to be the crucial struggle in human existence. A descent to either extreme Mann saw as morally corrupting. While Aschenbach is characterized as the prototypical upstanding, stiff, and dignified Prussian intellectual, his vision of the tropical scene and his desire to travel south hint at the underlying passions that will lead him to the degradation and death promised in the books title.