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Greek Homoeroticism in “Death in Venice” by Thomas Mann Essay

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Updated: Sep 11th, 2021


Homosexuality has always played a role in the writings of Thomas Mann. He wrote of it in a very subtle manner which has received considerable attention from recent literary experts such as Anthony Heilbut. Heilbut holds that homoerotic passion is the main driver of Mann’s life and works from beginning to end (Robertson 95). Mann handles homosexuality as an object of sublimation.

But he does not express it directly but rather through recursive persistent ways that give it the element of real passion. Death in Venice (1912) by Thomas Mann has been recognized in social terms, as a classic of Greek homoeroticism. Mann, in his book, is balanced in its judgment of homosexual passion. It does not seem to make a direct plea nor does it cause a public scandal. In fact, the book has been made into a film and an opera all of which work towards an acceptance of homosexuality into the common culture.

The book is based on a real life incident. While staying in Venice with his wife and brother between 26 May and 2 June 1911, Thomas Mann, like his fictional Aschenbach, was fascinated by a handsome Polish boy whom he watched playing on the beach (Aldrich 1). This ‘personal and lyrical experience’, as Mann later described it in a much quoted confessional letter, prompted the story Death in Venice. (Robertson, 95). Thesis Statement: The homoerotic, or homosexual, nature of the plot in ‘Death in Venice’ by Thomas Mann is a fair representation of classical Greek homoeroticism and how homosexuality was viewed in a very conservative manner during the days before ‘gay liberation’.

Short plot of “The Death in Venice“

Mann has revealed in his letter to Carl Maria Weber (4 July 1920) that Death in Venice is a text that at once sublimates and pathologizes ‘forbidden love’ (Aldrich 1). Though the book does strive to present homosexual passion as a natural force, it however seems to indicate that it’s a problem that can be resolved only through death. The narrative thus imposes a sort of sacrifice upon itself as compensation for what it has released (Robertson 95). Mann exhibits a lot of restraint in discussing homosexuality in “Death in Venice” and does not take it beyond the passing phase of first love.

He sees Tadzio in the beach soon after his arrival in Venice and is instantly lovestruck. Aschenbach both lusts after him and worships him from afar, not daring to thrust himself upon the young man. He follows Tadzio, dreams about him in the restaurant and tries to find reasons to speak to him or his mother. In fact, Aschenbach admits to using the pretext of misdirected luggage to stay longer in Venice when actually, he wants to remain near Tadzio.

Even though he is near to Tadzio, he is not able to express his feelings to him. Due to this inability, he decides to idealize his passion and imagines a competition between classical divinities; as ‘at such times it was not Tadzio whom he saw, but Hyacinthus, doomed to die because two gods were rivals for his love’. All of this bears a shade of Greek homoeroticism. However, in ‘Death in Venice’ it is not Tadzio who is doomed but Aschenbach.

The writer, who is unable to give vent to his homosexual attraction towards Tadzio, tries to rejuvenate himself by having his hair dyed and his face made up. This focus on the physical aspect indicates Aschenbach’s infatuation with Tadzio. When rumors spread about a deadly plague infecting the disease, Aschenbach is warned to leave the city. He stumbles onto the beach for a last look at his idol. As Tadzio plays with his friends and glances in his direction, Aschenbach settles into a beach-chair and quietly succumbs to the cholera. The importance given to the power of the glance emphasizes the sexual nature of the subtle bond.

Publication history of the work

Mann’s Death in Venice was published just two years before the outbreak of the First World War. This was the time when it was fashionable for cultured Europeans to travel to elegant resorts in the South. It was also the end of the period that stretched back to the 1700s, during which a number of European writers and artists had been attracted to the classical and contemporary Mediterranean with mixed motives, both cultural and homosexual; the mixture of these motives provided inspiration for their works.

Fascinated by works of art and antiquity, and blessed with lots of time and money for travel, they traveled to see the Greek and Roman monuments and often settled for long sojourns on Capri or Sicily or in Venice or Rome. They made a pilgrimage southwards to find both culture and boys. Death in Venice thus has a theme that revolves around the image of the northern European in search of a boy’s love in southern Europe. It talks about the yearnings of a man whose desires make him socially deviant and who must flee to some other place to act upon them and who can hope for only momentary satisfaction and who is condemned to ostracism, criminal conviction or death.

Description of the main characters

Aschenbach, the main protagonist, is a middle aged German writer who travels abroad in the desire of refreshing his creativity and finding ‘a new type of hero’ with ‘an intellectual and virginal manliness’. On reaching Venice he finds Tadzio, whom he describes as a ‘half-grown lad, a masterpiece from nature’s own hand…a tender young god, emerging from the depths of sea and sky’ (Mann 3). He finds himself instinctively seeking a deeper release – as evident in the alarming jungle vision described in the first chapter. Initially, Aschenbach finds himself inspired by the Polish boy’s beauty, but then, soon the liking for the boy grows into a huge obsession that overrides all rational self-control. This can be deduced from Aschenbach’s dream-vision of a Dionysian orgy in the fifth chapter.

In Death in Venice, the aristocratic Tadzio is on a similar social level with Aschenbach, but he is Polish, not German, and the meeting takes place abroad. He is an adolescent, a direct allusion to classical Greek pederasty: an unequal, but mutually beneficial relationship between adult and ephebe. He is fair of face and body: ‘Aschenbach noticed with astonishment the lad’s perfect beauty.’ The model of beauty is Hellenic: ‘His face recalled the noblest moment of Greek sculpture—pale, with a sweet reserve, with clustering honey-coloured ringlets, the brow and nose descending in one line, the winning mouth, the expression of pure and godlike serenity.’ Indeed, Aschenbach’s thoughts about Tadzio indicate longing and lust that is papered over with culture.

Every extended description of Tadzio refers to Antiquity. His ‘was the head of Eros, with the yellowish bloom of Parian marble’. Even more explicitly, Tadzio emerges from the water ‘virginally pure and austere, with dripping locks, beautiful as a tender young god, emerging from the depths of sea and sky…”. Generally speaking, Mediterranean boys are inevitably seen to the exemplars of ancient standards of beauty. However by making Tadzio a foreign boy makes him different, exotic and more accessible.

Aschenbach first appreciates Tadzio aesthetically. On first sight, Tadzio’s perfect beauty reminds him of ‘Greek sculptures of the noblest period’ (viii, 469). Later he breaks into a classical hexameter — ‘there, like a flower in bloom, his head was gracefully resting’ (viii, 474). A long, ecstatic appreciation culminates in calling Tadzio ‘this divine sculpture’ (viii, 490). He is specifically compared to the Spinario (Boy Extracting a Thorn), a Greek statue formerly thought to date from the fifth century BC, but now considered Hellenistic (Robertson 101)

When the ideal lover is a beautiful young man, it follows that the ideal relationship between man and boy is a replication of the Greek model, posited on the assumption that physical love is the way to spiritual love and that love leads to knowledge. This is well etched by the pedantic quotations from Plato in ‘Death in Venice’ and the elevation of Tadzio above mundane and vulgar beauty to the Platonic ‘essence’ of beauty.

Aschenbach is intellectual, while Tadzio is sensual (Aldrich 2). The director who made the movie into a film, Luchino Visconti, explains: ‘Tadzio represents a pole of attraction in Aschenbach’s life, the pole of real life—the alternative to and antithesis of the rigidly intellectual world” (Aldrich 2). Tadzio was the exact opposite of the sublimated life that Aschenbach was sealed in and this contrast was a major attracting factor for the latter.

The feelings of Aschenbach towards Tadzio can be labeled as the ‘Aschenbach phenomenon’. In this story, the dissatisfaction of the main character at home, the flight and the choice of destination, that is, the European South must be noted. The choice of Venice as a setting is also noteworthy. Venice has constantly been linked to homosexuality in different planes (Aldrich 4). In the early twentieth century, Frederick Rolfe, a homosexual English writer, lived there.

Jean Lorrain and Jean Cocteau were among French tourists. In the 1890s, John Addington Symonds, an English man of letters and a homosexual, had fallen in love with a gondolier in Venice (Aldrich 6). The poet A.E. Housman also had an intimate friendship with a gondolier. Travelers’ accounts dating back to the seventeenth century mention male prostitutes in Venice, just as present-day guidebooks list gay cruising places (Aldrich 6). Venice has thus long been part of a homosexual geography of the Mediterranean, a position reinforced by the Aschenbach theme.

Aschenbach is German, Tadzio is a blond Pole and his playmate Jaschiu, although also a Pole, more naturally conforms to the stereotype of the seductive Italian boy (Robertson 96). The ambivalent relationships between Tadzio and Jaschiu, and Tadzio and Aschenbach, seem to suggest that Slavs as well as Germans may be freed from family and cultural restraints when they venture southwards. This is a paradigm of homosexual desire and a clear itinerary in European gay history (Robertson 96).

The ‘Aschenbach phenomenon’ is of particular interest because various elements in ‘Death in Venice’ are common to the whole body of literature and art exemplifying homosexual fascination with the Mediterranean (Aldrich 8). Usually in works revolving around homosexual inclinations, the protagonist is shown as a person without a partner or trapped in an unsatisfying marital or sexual relationship. This makes him search for an alternative which in the case of the bisexual or homosexual leads to an illicit affair with another man or boy, often through trespassing over social or geographical frontiers. This framework is followed in “Death in Venice”.

In Mann’s work, Aschenbach is past his fiftieth birthday and is an accomplished hard working writer. He is married at a young age, sires a daughter but loses his wife soon afterwards, and has since lacked a partner, whether male or female. Such a man’s sexual impulses presumably are suppressed, and Aschenbach lives in ‘ignorance of his own real desires’, though there are the ‘forgotten feelings, precious pangs of his youth’. Some of the characteristics ascribed to him such as – a solitary life, his being ‘not by nature robust’, the manifest lack of feminine company – are ones which were often pinned on homosexuals. In short, Aschenbach is ‘set up’ in the story for some new romantic, emotional or sexual experience.


Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice” revolves around the theme of a middle-aged German writer’s passions for a Hellenistic beautiful boy in Venice. The character of Aschenbach, the character of Tadzio, the timing of the book and the setting in Venice all play a role in etching deeply within the book, the markings of classical Greek homoeroticism.

Works Cited

Robertson, Ritchie (2001). The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Mann. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge. England.

Mann, Thomas (1936). Death in Venice, and Seven Other Stories. Vintage Books. New York.

Aldrich, Robert (1993). The Seduction of the Mediterranean: Writing, Art, and Homosexual Fantasy. Routledge Publishers. New York.

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