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Death in Venice

Thomas Mann

Chapter 4

Chapter 3

Chapter 5a

Summary

Although Aschenbach's luggage soon returns, he decides to stay in Venice. He continues to see Tadzio constantly, occasionally inside the hotel or around the city and always for hours each day on the beach. This routine brings meaning to Aschenbach's days. The narration follows Aschenbach's thoughts as he worshipfully studies the most intimate details of Tadzio's physique and movements; he feels he is gazing at Beauty incarnate. A vision comes to him of Socrates wooing Phaedrus beneath a tree in Athens, teaching him about desire and virtue. In the vision, the elderly, ugly Socrates tells the young and beautiful Phaedrus that Beauty is the only form of the spiritual that may be perceived by the senses, and is, thus, the lover's path to the spirit. Having this access to the spirit renders the lover even more divine than the beautiful beloved, Socrates slyly explains.

Suddenly, Aschenbach is inspired to write, to express his views on a particular "important cultural problem," a "question of taste," which has come to his attention during his travels. He decides he must write his treatise in Tadzio's presence, using the boy's body as a model and inspiration. As he works, he experiences a "joy of the word" more acute than he has ever felt, and when he finishes, he is exhausted and full of an ashamed sense of having indulged in some transgression. The next day, he pursues the boy down to the sea with the idea of making his acquaintance, but, about to lay his trembling hand upon his shoulder, Aschenbach hesitates and turns back embarrassed. The narrator is distanced from Aschenbach, reporting that it "seems" that the "aging lover" wishes to retain his illusions and not to know the reality of the boy's personality. The narrator poses ironic, or even mocking, rhetorical questions about the mystery of an artist's temperament. We are told that Aschenbach is no longer capable of self-criticism and that he is unable to analyze for himself whether conscience or weakness prevented him from speaking to the boy.

Aschenbach no longer keeps track of his idle hours, and whereas he would have previously taken advantage of leisure's refreshments by working more energetically between diversions, he now allows all of his energy to be consumed by his feverish emotion. He sleeps restlessly and wakes early to watch the sunrise, which he perceives in terms of Greek mythological figures: He imagines he sees Eos, goddess of the dawn, followed by her brother Helios, god of the sun. So, too, is the rest of the day mythically transfigured: Clouds are the "flocks of the gods," Poseidon rides the waves, Tadzio reminds him of the figure Hyacinthus.

To his joy, Aschenbach soon realizes that Tadzio has become aware of his admiration. Tadzio seems to walk past Aschenbach's bathing cabin purposefully, and the eyes of the two often meet; Aschenbach is able to veil his emotion, but in Tadzio's eyes there is a look of sweet curiosity. One night, after noticing the boy's family's absence at dinner, Aschenbach encounters them returning from the pier; caught unprepared, he is unable to mask his affection, and Tadzio bestows on him a smile described as that of Narcissus, inquisitive yet troubled. Aschenbach feels the smile to be a "fateful gift"; feeling delirious and overwhelmed, he hurries off to sit alone in the hotel garden and whispers a declaration of love for Tadzio.

Commentary

Aschenbach paraphrases Plato's text Phaedrus; the characters of Plato's dialogue are paralleled with Aschenbach and Tadzio. With his vision, Aschenbach legitimizes the views he is coming to adopt by putting them in the mouth of the great philosopher. However, Socrates here is also portrayed as "sly," as taking advantage of the naive Phaedrus; thus, the comparison also points to the vice behind Aschenbach's intentions. Perhaps Aschenbach does initially believe that his interest in the boy is purely chaste, that Tadzio will serve simply as an inspiration for his elevated philosophizing; however, his shame indicates his ultimate understanding of the immorality of the interest.

In this section, the status of the narrator within the novella becomes more intricate and problematical; this problem will become more and more pronounced as the story proceeds. Up until now in Death in Venice, the narrator is quite intertwined with Aschenbach: Mann uses a narrative style known as "erlebte Rede," or "free indirect discourse." A more typical third-person narration makes a clear distinction between narrator and character, for example, "He thought, 'Where will I go now?'" However, in free indirect discourse, the distinction is much harder to pinpoint: the characters' thoughts are not denoted as such but are simply woven into the text, for example, "Where would he go now?" Does the character wonder this, or the narrator, or both? The beginning of the novella retains such ambiguities, but as Aschenbach declines, the gap between he and the narrator becomes progressively wider. Here, the ironic tone of the narration, and the statement that Aschenbach was no longer inclined toward self-criticism, signal to readers that we are hearing the voice of the narrator; however, throughout the rest of the novella we will also continue to hear Aschenbach's thoughts; the separation between character and narrator is never completely unambiguous.

The allusion to mythical figures here helps to evoke a general mythical atmosphere to imply the story's larger, mythical proportions, and it also communicates the characters' universality. In Greek myth, Hyacinthus is a handsome Spartan youth loved by Apollo, the god of the sun, and Zephyrus, the god of the west wind. According to differing versions, he was either killed accidentally by Apollo or deliberately by Zephyrus, who was jealous of the boy's love for Apollo. The comparison between Tadzio and Hyacinthus hints that Aschenbach's love for Tadzio may be ill-fated and harmful to the boy, especially since, according to Nietzche's philosophy, Aschenbach could be described as overly Apollonion. Aschenbach's likening of Tadzio to Narcissus has the same effect: Narcissus is a mythic character whose great beauty attracted the nymph Echo; when Narcissus cruelly rejected her, she died from grief, leaving behind only her voice. To punish Narcissus, the gods made him fall in love with his own reflection in a pool, and he pined away on the shore. Thus, the allusion to Narcissus again hints at an ill-fated love, this time more harmful to the lover than the beloved: will Aschenbach die of his love for Tadzio and, like Echo, leave behind only his writings, his voice?

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