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Death in Venice

Thomas Mann

Chapter 5a

Chapter 4

Chapter 5b

Summary

Aschenbach notices that even as the height of the season approaches, the number of guests at the hotel dwindles. The hotel barber lets slip in conversation a remark about "the sickness" but, upon interrogation, tries to change the subject. Aschenbach perceives in the air the "sweetish medicinal" smell of bactericide and sees what are clearly euphemistic notices posted warning residents not to eat shellfish or produce or use water from the canals. The only printed information about possible epidemics is in the form of contradictory rumors in the German newspapers; consequently, all speakers of Aschenbach's mother tongue have left and he is surrounded by foreign languages. While the thought of serious danger at first makes Aschenbach nervous, the feeling soon gives way to one of elation: Aschenbach realizes "with a kind of horror" that if Tadzio were to leave, Aschenbach would not be able to go on living, but an epidemic leading to a quarantine would guarantee that Tadzio and his family would have to stay on in Venice.

No longer content to leave sightings of the boy up to chance, Aschenbach begins to follow the Polish family in their daily itinerary. He becomes fully obsessed. The narrator tells us, "His head and his heart were drunk, and his steps followed the dictates of that dark god whose pleasure it is to trample man's reason and dignity underfoot." Venice is described as a labyrinth. Aschenbach passes a beggar and a shady-looking antique salesman; the narrator asserts, "This was Venice, the flattering and suspect beauty--this city, half fairy tale and half tourist trap, in whose insalubrious air the arts once rankly and voluptuously blossomed, where composers have been inspired to lulling tones of somniferous eroticism." It is this atmosphere into which Aschenbach languidly slips.

At times, however, Aschenbach questions what is happening to him: with shame he compares his artist's life with that of his dignified, manly ancestors; yet he also tries to protect his dignity by convincing himself that art, too, is a manly battle, a defiant self-conquest--that the enslavement to passion that would normally be demeaning is, in fact, valorous for a person in love, as Aschenbach is. Still he persists in researching the progress of the spreading disease. When he asks various Venetians why the city is being disinfected, they answer that the measure is merely precautionary.

One evening, a group of street musicians gives a performance in the hotel's front garden. Aschenbach sits on the terrace sipping pomegranate juice and soda water; he enjoys the squawky singing and clownish antics because, the narrator says, "passion paralyzes discrimination." Although he maintains a casual attitude, he is in a state of rapture: Tadzio leans elegantly against a stone parapet nearby. With a sense of both triumph and terror Aschenbach feels Tadzio occasionally looking back at him, but having noticed that Tadzio is increasingly being called away by his governess when near him, Aschenbach is careful to keep a check on all signs of his feelings. The guitarist has an air of impudent bravado and a shock of red hair; by his lewd movements and suggestive winks, he makes what is merely a foolish song strangely offensive. As he marches around, Aschenbach notices that he stinks of bactericide; when he comes near, Aschenbach asks him in an undertone why Venice is being disinfected, but the performer insists that it is merely a preventive measure against the sirocco, which is known to be bad for the health, and moves off. The man is immediately descended upon and interrogated by two hotel employees, but he assures them he has been discreet and is released.

Commentary

The spreading sickness in Venice, while important to the story's plot, is also symbolic of the sickness of passion overtaking Aschenbach. The fact that the Italians deny the severity of the health hazard augments Mann's portrayal of Venice as a place of artifice, deceit, and corruption.

The pomegranate juice that Aschenbach sips during the performance is symbolic: its red color, the standard color of passion, links it to the strawberries Aschenbach eats upon first seeing Tadzio and to the possibly infected strawberries he will eat closer to his death; so, too, are the recurring devil-like figures characterized by red hair (the musician here is one of these), and when Aschenbach dresses up for Tadzio at the end of the novella, he will wear a red tie. Red comes to symbolize not only passion but also depravity. The pomegranate also has mythical significance: in Greek myth, Persephone is abducted by the god of the Underworld. While in the underworld she unthinkingly eats a seed of a pomegranate, which is known as the food of the dead, and which binds her to spend at least half the year in Hades. Aschenbach's journey to Venice could also be seen as a journey to the Underworld (see commentary for Chapter 3). In a simple scene, through the use of myth and recurring motifs, Mann builds up a symbolic moment of layered significance, a moment that captures the major themes of his novella.

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