Death in Venice is a story about the artist and the nature of art. At the opening of the novella, Gustav von Aschenbach, while possessing a latent sensuality, exists as a man who has always held his passions in check, never allowing them expression either in his life or in his art. Like the turn-of-the-century bourgeois European culture he represents, Aschenbach is, in Freudian terms, “repressed”; a state of such imbalance that, it was believed, could not long remain stable, nor could it produce truly inspired art. However, having kept his passions under such tight control for so long, once Aschenbach begins to let down his guard against them, they rise up in redoubled force and take over his life. Once Aschenbach admits sensual beauty into his life, represented by the boy Tadzio, all of his moral standards break down, and he becomes a slave to beauty, a slave to desire; he becomes debased. Thus, Aschenbach undergoes a total displacement from one extreme of art to the other, from the cerebral to the physical, from pure form to pure emotion. Thomas Manns novella warns of the dangers–indeed, the deathly dangers–posed by either extreme.
Death in Venice is written according to a method Thomas Mann called “myth plus psychology.” Both elements play equally important roles in tracing Aschenbachs decline. Tadzio is described in mythical terms and compared to Greek sculpture, to the god of love, to Hyacinth and Narcissus, to Platos character Phaedrus. Aschenbachs trip across the lagoon into Venice is portrayed in terms that suggest the legendary journey across the River Styx into the Underworld. Strange red-haired figures consistently reappear to Aschenbach, suggesting demons or devils. All of these mythological references serve to universalize the characters and their experiences in the story. Psychological elements also figure prominently in the novella: At the beginning of the plot, Aschenbach has firmly repressed his libidinal drives. Yet, as Freud would have predicted, repression only forces his drives to emerge by some other means, through dreams: Aschenbach has daydreams with the intensity of visions. His daydream of a tropical swamp and his dream of the orgiastic worship of the “stranger-god” epitomize the Freudian longing for the ultimate erotic abandon in death.
Thomas Mann was an economical and oblique writer. He does not waste a word: Every detail he includes is significant, and every detail serves his strategy of suggesting, hinting, rather than directly telling. Seemingly marginal particulars, such as a stormy sky, the stonemasons yards selling blank gravestones, the black color of the gondola, or the long, exposed teeth of a grimacing figure, reminiscent of a skull, are all instrumental in establishing an atmosphere of foreboding and death. The reader need not wait for the end of the story to make the link between sensual art and death; Mann forges the link gradually through a variety of motifs working in concert.