The role of mythology and disease in Aschenbach's obsession
Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice
is the story of a famous writer Aschenbach who, when visiting Venice, becomes obsessed with the beautiful fourteen-year-old Tadzio. The novella has a striking amount of elements. Most significantly I believe are Aschenbach change from the cerebral to the physical in regards of Tadzio, the use of mythology, and the presence. While Death in Venice
is undoubtedly a travel story, there is an element of constraint found in the piece. Aschenbach is seemingly trapped in Venice due to his desire for Tadzio. Later on, because of the cholera outbreak, the city itself has the potential to become a prison. Aschenbach, with his knowledge of the disease outbreak, essentially traps Tadzio there by not informing his mother of the potential illness. Therefore, while this is a travel story, the elements of constraint are very to novel to it.
Aschenbach’s desire for Tadzio, while always questionable appears to have begun in the cerebral. After all, Aschenbach was a writer, who wrote of “...elegant self-possession concealing inner dissolution and biological decay from the eyes of the world” (17). Essentially, Aschenbach is a man who is completely turned inwards and in many ways undoubtedly repressed. Upon his meeting with Tadzio for the first time, he compares the boy to intellectual and mythological figures. There is something disconnected about his desire, but without the physical element it at least appears almost pure. After Aschenbach has his Dionysian dream, his desire takes only a more notable physical and depraved element, though he never touches the boy. However, his obsession becomes nearly criminal, and Tadzio’s guardians are alerted. Thus, the movement from a more cerebral, mythological desire to a physical one is a notable theme of the story.
Another striking element of the novella is the use of mythological and historical figures, especially as they relate to Aschenbach’s desire for Tadzio. The most notable aspect, already mentioned, is his dream, which alerts him to his true feelings for Tadzio. The dream, which is filled with taboos and phallic imagery, is an allusion to the myth of Dionysus. Dionysus was the son of Zeus, and is often described as androgynous looking; he was also the god of wine and festivities. The dream is the first time that Aschenbach is able to understand his true feelings for Tadzio, and appears to be frightened by it. Tadzio is also compared to Narcissus, Phaedrus, Hyacinth, and Aphrodite. The allusions to mythological perhaps help Aschenbach justify his desires, because he feels that he is following a tradition. It also elevates Tadzio to a god-like position, to the point where Aschenbach fails to put his feelings into words. He writes: “He was more beautiful than words can convey” (95). Aschenbach essentially turns Tadzio into a minor divinity, and by doing so loses his will to leave Venice, his will to write, and his identity.
Finally there is the ever-present threat of disease and death. Aschenbach seems plagued by figures that resemble corpses and skulls. Tadzio himself is not described as healthy. Aschenbach notes, “He is frail, he is sickly…He’ll probably not live long” (62). As the story progresses, Aschenbach listens to rumors that there is a sickness heading towards Venice. He debates whether to tell Tadzio’s mother about it, when it is confirmed to be true, but decides against it, for fear that Tadzio will leave. Ultimately, he chooses to stay. Perhaps because of this threat of illness and mortality, along with his obsession, there is a feeling that Aschenbach is trapped in Venice, which makes his death all the more tragic. The fragility of Tadzio, on the other hand, increases his vulnerability, which likely increases his attractiveness to Aschenbach. However, Tadzio’s frailness almost probably stirs in Aschenbach a desire to immortalize him, which he does in his writing. Thus the threat of illness and death lead to both the immortalization of Tadzio as well as the feelings of constraint in Aschenbach’s movements.