Thomas Manns Death in Venice is a literary work of fiction that both embodies elements of German literature and arts of the nineteenth century and is influenced by composers Gustav Mahler and Richard Wagner as well as philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. It was written in 1912, just before the First World War. As such, it was influenced mainly by important contributors to German arts and literature in the nineteenth century. Elements such as the leitmotif, the dual nature of the artist as a mix of Apollonian and Dionysian elements, nihilism, the love-death theme, and decadence appear in Death in Venice. Many of these elements were signature philosophies and styles that appeared in the works of Mahler, Nietzsche, and Wagner.
Friedrich Nietzsche is a nineteenth century German philosopher that wrote on subjects that included religion, morality, the nature of man, and the universe. Philosophies that influenced Death in Venice include decadence, the death of God, nihilism, and the dual-nature of the artist. Nietzsche's philosophy was controversial due to its blasphemous nature and criticisms on Christianity. After his death, Nietzsche's works became better known among readers and have acquired numerous responses and critiques as a result (. His philosophies would have a hidden presence in Thomas Mann's Death in Venice through the protagonist, Gustav von Aschenbach.
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Decadence is commonly defined as the decline of a person or thing due to the decline of moral standards(citation). In literature, decadence is often seen in the main or auxiliary character in which he or she goes through a steady decline in moral standards, engaging in increasingly immoral and socially unacceptable behavior. Often, the character holds a high moral standard for himself or herself, but ends up decaying under a given situation that tests the character's moral strength. In Death in Venice, Gustav von Aschenbach goes through a serious case of moral decline upon falling in love with a boy during Aschenbach's vacation to Venice. Aschenbach is well regarded for his discipline and adherence to his firm personal morality. Aschenbach's motto, ââ‚¬Å“stay the courseââ‚¬Â, was an indicator of the disciplined life Aschenbach led throughout his career (Mann 1560). However, this strict adherence to a firm personal morality and a lack of inspiration causes Aschenbach to become dull and uninspired. To alleviate this, Aschenbach takes a vacation to Venice, which notably was also a city that was in decay at the time. Aschenbach engages in decadence upon falling in love with a boy named Tadzio, whom he considers to be a person of great beauty. Aschenbach follows the boy, observes the boy at every possible chance, makes a personal declaration of love, and stays during a cholera epidemic as a result of this decadence. This moral decline resulted in his increasingly irrational behavior that would indirectly be the cause of his death.
The death of God and nihilism were two other beliefs that Nietzsche held throughout his life that make a more subtle appearance in Death in Venice. These beliefs were controversial in nature as both view God as either nonexistent or dead (Nietzsche 759). The death of God states that God is no longer a source of moral principles due to the fact that the secularization of European society had essentially killed God(Nietzsche 472). Nihilism is the belief that there is essentially nothing in the universe; that values have a lack of foundation as nothing is right or wrong, and that life has no value or purpose (Nietzsche 418). The death of God is seen in Death in Venice through the setting of the story and the given description of Gustav von Aschenbach and European society at the time. There is no emphasis on God in the morals that Gustav has adopted nor is there any mention of God's influence during Aschenbach's time. Nihilism is also present, mainly through the actions Gustav does in order to pursue Tadzio. No single character or passage in the story defines Aschenbach's actions as right or wrong.
The dual-nature of the artist is a topic and philosophy discussed in Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy. It notes that life was a struggle between the Apollonian and Dionysian virtues. Apollo is seen as the god of music, healing, truth, and prophecy (Hard 642). Dionysus, also known as Bacchus, is the god of grapes, wine, winemaking, and consequently religious decadence and spiritual ecstasy (Hard 529). If one were to prevail, the other would have been defeated in the struggle(Nietzsche 788). Nietzsche states that the tragedies of Ancient Greece were the greatest forms of art because the tragedies embodied elements of both the Apollonian and Dionysian elements(Nietzsche 816). Essentially, Apollonian virtues embodied discipline and the revelation of truth and prophecy while Dionysian virtues embodied the uninhibited nature of rowdiness and becoming spiritually aware (usually through euphoria) (Hard 533). Gustav von Aschenbach is seen as an Apollonian figure as he is a highly disciplined man who has become well known for his works that studied human nature, the formation of new ideas, and downsides to extreme characteristics such as possessing too much knowledge. Gustav's Apollonian nature clashes with the Dionysian nature when he decides to indulge in the beauty of the boy he loves, Tadzio. The Apollonian and Dionysian natures clash, but as Nietzsche's belief stated, one nature prevailed while the other was defeated. In this case, the Dionysian nature prevailed despite the fact that Aschenbach is a Apollonian figure that has lived by Apollonian virtues for most of his life.
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Richard Wagner is the second person who has influenced Thomas Mann's Death in Venice. His influences are reflected in the plotline and main character of the story. Wagner was a nineteenth century German composer, conductor, and writer most well known for his operas. Wagner was known to use leitmotifs in his works and is the composer that is commonly associated with leitmotifs (May 72). He also became well known for using the love-death theme in Tristan and Isolde. Another opera written and composed by Wagner, Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), features the tragic/flawed hero (May 117). These elements of Wagner influenced Mann's Death in Venice in that they are present in both the plot and the protagonist and are the main driving forces of the events of the story.
A leitmotif is a recurring musical term that is associated with a theme, person, place, idea, or event (May 70). It is also commonly defined as a recurring theme in literature and music. Wagner did not invent the leitmotif but his constant use of them in his operas led to his association with leitmotifs. The leitmotif is present in Death in Venice in the form of a symbolic and multidimensional color, red. Red symbolizes love and passion but at the same time, red is associated with sin, demons, blood, and death. This very nature of the color red is identical to the nature of Aschenbach's love of Tadzio and pursuit of that very love. Aschenbach has never experienced love and such strong passion towards on a single thing, in this case a person. Upon experiencing the love, Aschenbach engages in decadence that results in his over-indulgence of Tadzio's beauty that eventually results in Gustav von Aschenbach's death. The color red is mentioned throughout the love ordeal through the foods that Gustav eats and the occasional red haired character that he meets. The red haired characters that Aschenbach meets insinuate that his death will occur soon. The foods that he eats during his pursuit of Tadzio are all red which symbolizes love and passion. One of these foods is a pomegranate, a fruit that symbolizes Persephone and the underworld. It also happens that the strawberries Aschenbach eats before his death were one of the potential foods that people weer advised not to eat due to the fact that they could be contaminated with cholera. In the culminating events of the story, Gustav von Aschenbach died of a fever caused by cholera.
The love-death theme is another element that has been integrated with the story of Death in Venice. Wagner used this theme in his opera Tristan and Isolde. The love-death theme features a passion which faces obstacles that cannot be overcome and is ultimately ended by death (May 168). The passion and desire Gustav von Aschenbach has for Tadzio is the example from Death in Venice that shows this theme. Gustav's love for Tadzio cannot be returned as the boy is young and naÃÂ¯ve, and is not apt to fall in love with another person, especially one of the same gender as he. There is also a permanent socialization barrier that stands between Aschenbach and Tadzio. They are unable to talk with each other as they are complete strangers and Tadzio's family will not will such a thing, and that both characters can only exchange glances as they pass by each other. This one-sided passion culminates with the Aschenbach succumbing to a fever caused by cholera.
The flawed hero is Wagner's third major influence on Thomas Mann's Death in Venice. The flawed hero appears in Wagner's opera, Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung). The flawed hero is a person of noble birth who suffers an unfortunate destiny due to a single and fatal flaw (May 141). Aschenbach was not a person of noble birth, but his literary achievements had earned him the honorable rank of a noble, hence his last name officially being von Aschenbach. Gustav had one flaw, and that was the imbalance in his life of which he did not indulge in youth's idleness and the enjoyment of relaxation. Because of this trait, Aschenbach becomes dreary and takes a vacation in Venice. He falls in love with Tadzio and those events set the events that cause Aschenbach to desperately pursue the person of his affections and eventually results in the death of Gustav von Aschenbach.
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Mahler is the final person that has had a major influence on Mann's Death in Venice. His influence stems from his style of music that he had composed. Mahler stated that "The symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything." (Floros 29) Just as he stated, Mahler found inspiration for his songs and symphonies from his environment and personal experiences. These included the songs of birds and nature, street melodies and fanfare of his childhood and place of residence, suffering and despair, the desire to satisfy one's self, and distortion (Floros 43). The balanced lifestyle of embracing all was the lifestyle that Mahler had lived and was the lifestyle Gustav von Aschenbach failed to achieve. Gustav von Aschenbach is Death in Venice's example of a character that leads an imbalanced life and the consequences of living such a life. Aschenbach lived a life that was devoid of the occasional self-indulgence. This void caused him to become unhappy with his circumstances. Upon taking a vacation in Venice, Aschenbach becomes obsessed and falls in love with a boy he sees, Tadzio. This quest and desire to indulge in the beauty of Tadzio and the relentless pursuit of his love was a way for Aschenbach to engage in the self-indulgence of which he had restrained himself from for the majority of his life. This imbalance in Aschenbach's life was part of the reason why he had made such an effort to gain the love of Tadzio.
Many works of literature tend to be influenced by the dominant culture of the time and the important individuals who influenced that era in history. Death in Venice, written in the first years of the twentieth century, reflects the German culture of the nineteenth century and the influences that Mahler, Wagner, and Nietzsche all had on the German and European culture of the nineteenth century and writers of that era. Each of these three influential figures had some sort of hidden prescence in Thomas Mann's Death in Venice which included: Wagner's use of leitmotifs, love-death theme, and the flawed hero; Mahler's lifestyle and use of everything around him as inspiration for his works; to Nietzsche's philosophies on God, human nature, and morality.