Symbols and Symbolism in Death in Venice

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Subtle Symbolism in Death in Venice

The dominant theme in Death in Venice is, obviously, death. This theme is exploited through the use of irony, imagery, and symbolism. The theme is most effectively explored by means of symbolism. Mann's symbolism is not as straight-forward as most authors, however, and the reader is forced to dig deep in order to determine the true meaning of any given passage. This pseudo-hidden symbolism forces the reader to be acutely aware of its presence from page one, or else the point may be missed altogether.

During the opening of the novel, the reader is confronted with an exotic stranger, Aschenbach, who is the first of many "tokens" of death. This symbol is suggested in the description of the stranger:

His chin was up, so that the Adam's apple looked very bald in the lean neck rising from the loose shirt; and he stood there sharply peering up into space out of colourless, red-lashed eyes.... At any rate, standing there as though at survey, the man had a bold and domineering, even a ruthless air, and his lips completed the picture by seeming to curl back, either by reason of some deformity or else because he grimaced, being blinded by the sun in his face; they laid bare the long, white, glistening teeth to the gums.

This passage almost implies that the man is a skeleton, or at least that he is ghostly, with the bared teeth of a skull. The reader knows nothing about the stranger, is soon disappointed to learn nothing of him, and yet the stranger has already served his purpose: he is the first envoy of death in the novel. Also, the fact that the scene occurs in the vicinity of a cemetery is no coincidence.

Later on, when Aschenbach arrives in Venice, Mann introduces symbolism to...

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... (Mann, too, conducted all his literary work during first light). The determination to sustain and survive existed in the spirit of both artists. Yet "Death in Venice" is by no certain means a narrowly autobiographical narrative. Nevertheless, much that is the artist Aschenbach is part of the artist Mann, and thus can be interpreted as a faint symbol of Mann. Perhaps Aschenbach is an extreme example of the imperfections Mann combated during his own lifetime; if this indeed is the case, then Aschenbach is not only a token of the frailty of Mann, but an emblem of the fallacies plaguing us all.

Works Cited and Consulted:

Albert, George. Symbolism in Death in Venice. Notre Dame Press, Indiana. 1995

Mann, Thomas. Death in Venice and Other Stories. New York: Random House, Inc., 1989.

Wagner, Rich. The Autobiographical Tragedy. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.
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