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Death in Venice

Thomas Mann

Chapter 5c

Chapter 5b

Analysis

Summary

Word seems to have leaked out about the cholera, and hardly any tourists are left, but Tadzio's family remains; Aschenbach fantasizes about everyone else dying or fleeing, leaving him alone with the boy. The state of panic in Venice causes such preoccupation in everyone that Aschenbach no longer has to fear their suspicions of his infatuation; he becomes more extravagant than ever in his pursuit of Tadzio. He begins to wear jewelry, perfume, and elaborate clothing, including a suit with a red tie; his aging body becomes, for him, a source of deep shame. The barber convinces him that one is only as old as one feels and that gray hair can, therefore, be "further from the truth" than dyed hair. Aschenbach makes no protest, and the barber not only dyes his hair but applies cosmetics, including face powder, rouge, and lip-color.

One day, Aschenbach loses his way in the labyrinth of alleyways and canals; he is exhibiting the symptoms of fever. To quench his terrible thirst, he buys some overripe strawberries. Coming upon a little square, he recognizes it as the place where he had first made his (unavailing) decision to leave Venice. He sinks on the steps of a well; grass grows between the cobblestones and garbage is scattered about.

Here, the narrator distances himself from Aschenbach to a further extent than at any previous point in the novella. In a clearly ironic and mocking tone, the narrator juxtaposes Aschenbach's initial dignity, abstemiousness, and honor with his present debasement. A long passage follows, in quotation marks, in the voice of Socrates, addressed to Phaedrus. Socrates says that the artist cannot pursue Beauty without Eros as a companion and guide; the longing of the artist's soul must be that of the lover; thus, Socrates declares that "we writers" cannot be prudent, cannot be grandly somber, but must necessarily fall into the "abyss." The public's faith in its writers is absurd, and it should be forbidden to use art to educate the people. Both Knowledge and Beauty, Socrates claims, lead to the abyss.

Seeing baggage piled in the hotel foyer, Aschenbach makes inquiries and learns that the Polish family is leaving after lunch that day. He walks down to the deserted beach. Aschenbach watches Tadzio play with his few remaining playmates; their wrestling becomes violent, and Jashu, as if avenging himself for his long subservience to Tadzio, pushes Tadzio's face into the sand; Tadzio is on the point of suffocation by the time Jashu finally lets go. Tadzio walks away into the water, rebuffing Jashu's attempts at apology. Reaching a sandbar, he turns and looks back at the beach, and his eyes meet Aschenbach's for the first time. Aschenbach's head sinks down upon his breast, but in his mind Tadzio smiles and beckons, pointing out and ahead; Aschenbach sets out to follow him. The narrator states that it is several minutes after Aschenbach's collapse in his chair that anyone comes to his aid and he is taken to his room; later that day, the world, with respectful shock, receives the news of his death.

Commentary

In dressing up and wearing makeup, Aschenbach becomes the very image of the grotesque old man he saw on the boat in Chapter 3. The barber's remark again evokes the question of truth vs. artifice; despite what the barber says, it is clearly the rouge, face powder, and lipstick that are artificial. They represent the vain and deceitful side of art, art intended to conceal truth and seduce others.

The scene in which Aschenbach loses his way in the city streets is representative of the state of his soul; the garbage and overgrown weeds symbolize decay. The strawberries are also symbolic; although Aschenbach has heard the warnings not to eat fruits or vegetables, as they may be infected, he gives into his overwhelming thirst and indulges anyway. Thus, the berries are the "forbidden fruit," like the taboo love for Tadzio in which Aschenbach indulges in order to satisfy a "thirst" but against his better judgment.

The speech by Socrates in this chapter voices a concern central to much of Mann's work, that art corrupts morality. Clearly, because Mann was a writer, an artist with words, he must also have felt that art had redeeming qualities. However, Mann uses his novella to show the dangers that art's sensual side poses, even while the artist must be awake to sensuality in order to achieve true art.

The final passages are extremely mythically imbued. The tussle between Tadzio and Jashu symbolizes the struggle of opposites that takes place throughout the novella; Tadzio is blonde while Jashu is dark-haired (see Chapter 3), Tadzio is delicate while Jashu is sturdy. Jashu has long held a subservient position to Tadzio, just as Aschenbach's instincts had previously been repressed by his conscious will, just as the Dionysian had been repressed by the Apollonian forces. The novella traces how those forces that are always kept down eventually rise up and break free; this has been the source of Aschenbach's tragedy. Standing out on the sandbar, having been almost suffocated by the suddenly violent and powerful Jashu, Tadzio appears as the messenger of death, beckoning Aschenbach toward the afterlife.

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