“Death in Venice” can be interpreted in many ways. For some, it may be a tragedy while for others it may be a tale of liberation. For me, the story had hints of both sides. It was a tragedy in that Gustav von Aschenbach, the renowned intellectual who visits Venice on a vacation, is held captive by a desire that he recognizes is unattainable. And it is this captivity which leads to his eventual death. But it is also a tale of liberation in that Aschenbach breaks free from a path that was set out for him from birth. He was the inheritor of a proud academic family who held positions of power in Germany. As such, he was expected in his youth to suppress any impulses or desires. The desire to leave his mundane, machinistic, and brutally overwhelming daily work regiment was sparked by a rather minute disruption to this system. While waiting for the tram to take him home after a walk, Aschenbach notices an unusual figure by a nearby church. After feeling that his extended analysis was somewhat rude, he turned away and tried to put him out of his mind. Following Aschenbach’s attempt to put the mysterious man out of mind, Mann writes:
But whether his imagination had been stirred by the stranger’s itinerant appearance, or whether some other physical or psychological influence was at work, he now became conscious, to his complete surprise, of an extraordinary expansion of his inner self, a kind of roving restlessness, a youthful craving for far-off places, a feeling so new or at least so long unaccustomed and forgotten that he stood as if rooted, with his hands clasped behind his back and his eyes to the ground, trying to ascertain the nature and purport of his emotion.
From this spark a flame engulfs Aschenbach. He feels an instant desire to visit some distant land. He chooses to visit Venice.
An interesting character who Aschenbach encounters on the voyage to Venice is an old man who smoked and drank profusely, covered himself in makeup, and spent his time in the company of young men. This man seemed, to Aschenbach, the very manifestation of obscenity. He seemed to have lost his bearings and was constantly in some state of drunken ecstasy. This stark departure from the world Aschenbach was accustomed to created a sense of nausea that would follow and later consume him. This assimilation took place towards the end of the book when he had a bizzare dream in which he was surrounded by frightening hybrid creatures who were running and shrieking. He felt himself becoming part of this chaos. He who was so refined and cultured succumbed to his senses. In fact this divide between cultivating the intellect and the senses is perfectly captured in the dialogues between Socrates and Phaedrus in the text.
Additionally, Aschenbach, like the obscene old man, later put on makeup to appear younger to Tadzio, the boy of his desires. He is ashamed of his aged appearance and seeks youth, despite the fact that it clearly looks artificial. He loses all relation to the external world and fixates entirely on Tadzio. His honors and reputation as an academic, which he carefully developed for decades, sheds like an old shell in a matter of months; such was the repression of youthfulness which had existed within him all along.
This book is significant in that it openly discusses a romantic relationship between two men, but it also touches on the idea of free will. Aschenbach was destined to become an academic, as his family lineage indicated. He cultivated this fate, albeit with a greater love of art and the emotionally seductive than his predecessors. This chink, this inability to wholly accept his destiny, is what made his life unbearable and acted as the catalyst for his escape to Venice. The unfolding of his character was a shedding of the past and an acceptance of a future that had no determinacy. And while he did perish alone in the disease-striken beaches of Venice, he was liberated from the shackles of the past and incessancy of expectation.