Once at the hotel, Aschenbach settles into his room and then goes down to wait in the parlor until dinner. The hotel guests are an international mix. At a nearby table, Aschenbach notices three adolescent girls and a boy, all speaking Polish and accompanied by a governess. The boy appears to be around fourteen, and Aschenbach finds him "entirely beautiful" with his golden ringlets, a divine serenity, a countenance suggestive of Greek sculpture, and dressed in a child's blue sailor-suit. The boy's rich, pampered aspect is in sharp contrast to his sisters' stiff, chaste dresses. The children's mother appears to lead them into the dining room; her aristocratic clothes and jewelry suggest that the family possesses great wealth; as the boy exits behind her, his eyes meet Aschenbach's.
The next morning, Aschenbach finds the weather still overcast and the air heavy; he recalls a previous visit to Venice during which similar weather had caused him to fall ill and forced him to return home. He wonders whether this trip will end the same way. At breakfast, Aschenbach sees the Polish boy arriving late to his family's table; he is again startled by the boy's "godlike" beauty. Aschenbach mentally compares the boy to Eros, the Greek god of love, and finds in his complexion the sheen of Parian marble. Aschenbach spends the morning on the hotel's beach, delighting in the spectacle of carefree and playful vacationers. He muses that he finds the sea seductive because it embodies the "unarticulated" and "immeasurable," a "nothingness" for which Aschenbach guiltily longs. He again sights the Polish boy, whose scowl of disdain for a somewhat coarse-mannered Russian family nearby seems to prove that he is, in fact, human, capable of feeling, and earns the boy Aschenbach's further respect. Aschenbach takes out his traveling writing-case and begins to work but soon tosses it aside, not wanting to miss the diversions of the scene before him; eating some ripe strawberries from a passing vendor, he watches the boy play with the other children, one of whom, "Jashu," seems his closest companion, his "vassal and friend." He feels his mind paralyzed by the languorous atmosphere: the still sea, the warm yet cloudy day. Listening for what the boy's name might be, Aschenbach makes out melodious but unclear syllables like "Adgio" or "Adgiu"; he finally decides the name must be "Tadzio" or "Tadziu," a nickname for the Polish "Tadeusz."
Aschenbach returns to his room at midday and gazes in the mirror at his aging features. He is joined in the elevator by a group of boys, including Tadzio. Up close, Aschenbach notices the boy looks pale and sickly. The thought that Tadzio might not live to grow old gives Aschenbach an inexplicable sense of relief.
On a walk through the streets Aschenbach finds a suffocating sultriness pervading the air, caused by the sirocco (a hot wind from the Libyan deserts that blows chiefly on Italy, Malta, and Sicily), he feels a feverish excitement blended with exhaustion and knows his own health is in danger; he decides to leave Venice for a resort near Trieste, and he notifies the hotel of his plans. The next morning at breakfast the porter comes to tell Aschenbach that the hotel's private transportation is leaving soon for the station; Aschenbach, having spotted Tadzio's sisters but not the boy himself, feels the porter is rushing him. Finally, he tells the porter that the coach may leave without him and take his trunk; he will take the public steamboat when he is ready. As he rises to leave, Tadzio enters, and Aschenbach feels acute regret as he crosses the lagoon to the station. He arrives still undecided whether to take the train or not, but he soon learns that his luggage was mistakenly checked for Como, forcing him to remain in Venice until he can regain the luggage; wild with joy, Aschenbach returns to the hotel. Relaxing in his room that afternoon, Aschenbach sights Tadzio through the window and realizes that the boy has been the reason for his reluctance to leave Venice. He sinks into his chair and rotates his limp arms in a "gesture of calm acceptance."
Aschenbach's initial interest in the boy Tadzio is something he himself does not understand. From the very beginning, Tadzio represents pure artistic beauty. At first, Aschenbach believes that he can admire this beauty dispassionately, from a purely intellectual, aesthetic standpoint. Later, he will try to convince himself that he desires the boy only as an inspiration for more of his principled, dignified writing. By the end of the novella, however, Aschenbach will admit to himself that beauty and art, as represented by Tadzio, are corrupting: Tadzio will lead Aschenbach to abandon all morals and dignity, to surrender himself to decadent passion, as the gesture of "calm acceptance" here foretells.