What is the significance of Venice in the novella?
Venice is important symbolically on at least three different levels. First, it stands geographically at a mid-point between Asia and Europe, on the point where the perceived sensuality and exoticism of the East blends with the more restrained and "civilized" Europe. It is, therefore, symbolically fitting that Venice be the city where Aschenbach abandons his restraint and gives way to his sensual, passionate side. Second, Venice is known as a place of decay: In literature, it is often the site of moral corruption; physically, the city is built on a lagoon, and each year sinks back a little farther into its swampy origin. By setting the story in Venice, Mann suggests that Aschenbach, like Venice, has been able to exist thus far only by virtue of pure will and is now beginning to decay. Third, Venice is a place of artifice: Left to nature, the city would be a mere lagoon; also, Venice is famous for its carnivals, at which revelers typically wear masks and other disguises. Thus, Venice represents the "dishonest" properties of art, art's ability to obscure truth and lead people astray.
What are some of the polarities established in the novella, and what is their importance?
Some of the story's multiple polarities are: the conscious will vs. passionate drives; discipline vs. spontaneity; north vs. south; the Apollonian vs. the Dionysian; cerebral and lofty art vs. sensual and inspired art. In each of the above polarities, the first term refers to Aschenbach's initial state in the story, while the second term represents that toward which he slips over the course of the plot. Mann suggests, following Freud and Nietzsche, that a balance between opposites must be maintained in order to have a healthy state of mind as an individual, and, on a broader level, to have a healthy culture. The maintenance of this balance, Mann suggests, is also crucial to the creation of true art. In those individuals who repress their drives excessively (such as Aschenbach), and in those cultures which repress their sensual, passionate sides (such as turn-of-the-century Western Europe, according to Nietzsche and Mann), it is only a matter of time before that which has been repressed will violently erupt, bringing destruction and ruin.
How are Italians portrayed in the novella, and to what effect?
Italians are portrayed quite negatively: The men on the boat that takes Aschenbach to Venice are depicted as sycophantic, groveling, and grotesque. The gondolier is a known criminal, working without a license. The authorities that Aschenbach questions about the cholera lie and tell him that the bactericide is being sprayed merely as a precaution. The barber at the hotel is sniveling and fawning, and he convinces Aschenbach that artificially enhancing his appearance will be a more "truthful" way of presenting himself. This negative portrayal is probably not the result of any particular prejudice on Thomas Mann's part. Rather, Mann characterizes Italians in this way in order to reinforce his portrayal of Venice as a place of artifice, deceit, seduction, and moral corruption. These figures also serve to emphasize the overall tension in the novella: The reader immediately registers them as untrustworthy and feels that through association with them, Aschenbach is being led deeper and deeper into a labyrinth of danger. Thus, from the beginning, we know that Aschenbach's slip toward the sensual cannot bode well.