Death in Venice by Thomas Mann: Summary, Themes & Analysis Video

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

Coming up next: Defoe's Moll Flanders: Summary & Analysis

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 0:00 'Death in Venice' Plot…
  • 1:21 'Death in Venice' Themes
  • 3:01 'Death in Venice' Analysis
  • 5:32 Lesson Summary
Save Save Save

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Log in or Sign up

Speed Speed

Recommended Lessons and Courses for You

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

Whether this is your first encounter with 'Death in Venice' or you're coming back for another look, this lesson should have everything you need to help you take in Mann's artistic vision. Explore themes and see them analyzed, all after a revisit to the novella's highlights.

Death in Venice Plot Synopsis

Published in 1912, Mann's most notable work follows the seemingly mundane vacation of Gustav von Aschenbach, an aging German author of considerable notoriety. Suddenly compelled by an urge to travel rather than retiring to his summer home, Aschenbach decides to spend some time at an island resort in the Mediterranean. He quickly tires of the place and takes a steamship to Venice, where he has memories of both illness and excitement.

Over the weeks that he spends in Venice, Aschenbach develops a curiously strong infatuation with a young Polish boy named Tadzio. The older man eventually follows Tadzio obsessively, devoting his waking hours to tracking the boy through the hotel grounds and city canals.

In time, Aschenbach notices a dwindling number of guests at the hotel and the familiar smell of disinfectant coming from the city. After some snooping, he discovers that there has been a cholera outbreak in Venice that has been covered up by city officials and business owners. Knowing he should leave Venice immediately to avoid contamination, but driven by his obsession with Tadzio, Aschenbach stays on and pursues the boy with renewed fervor. This is his undoing, as the author is soon found slumped in a beach chair, where he died watching Tadzio one last time.

Death in Venice Themes

First, let's look at the theme and sub-themes of decay:

Physical: Aschenbach's own physical aging is reflected in many other characters that are depicted as gaunt, almost skeletal. There is also the impending threat of bodily illness and the stench of decay that emanates from the city.

Moral: Aschenbach encounters several roguish individuals, including the Venetian authorities and business owners who hide the severity of the cholera epidemic. Aschenbach himself decays morally as he loses his controlled grip on himself and surrenders to his passion.

Now let's look at the competing themes of intellect vs. inspiration:

Intellect: Aschenbach is originally characterized by his commitment to form and custom, both in his personal and professional lives. He is a rigidly structured person who would not think of succumbing to baser needs or desires.

Inspiration: Aschenbach's travels and eventually Tadzio become sources of inspiration that begin to overpower the character's sense of reason. This results in a considerable deal of internal conflict for the protagonist.

Finally, let's look at the themes of beauty and art:

Beauty: To Aschenbach, Tadzio is a symbol of perfection, of the youth of body and spirit he craves. This is most evident when the older man consents to allow the hotel barber to rejuvenate him with hair and skin treatments.

Art: Aschenbach finally realizes that he can no longer deny that art instinctively pursues beauty and that he is compelled to do the same as an artist. He thus relinquishes his control to inspiration, allowing it to direct his actions.

Death in Venice Analysis

Death in Venice opens on a contrast between the author Aschenbach and his work. Here, we're confronted with the age-old image of authors' immortality through their work, which has been set against the obvious collapse of the aging writer's body and spirits.

While on holiday in Venice, Aschenbach recognizes the stench of unsanitary conditions, but also encounters a new form of decay in the city. Once the home to artists and musicians, Aschenbach's Venice has become a den of swindlers and other shady dealers. Even the protagonist eventually succumbs and reflects this moral bankruptcy by losing touch with his more rational self when he yields to the illicit infatuation he feels for the young Polish boy.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account