How and why does Thomas Mann use Greek mythology in the novella “Death in Venice”?
Thomas Mann brilliantly combines an intensely passionate story with the Greek mythological figures bringing universality to the story. The mythological references not only make it appear universal in its appeal but also compel the reader to search for deeper meaning of the story and the characters. The frequent references to the mythology make it truly classical. Unless the reader tries to know what the references stand for, his understanding of the novella is incomplete. The use of Greek mythology has helped Mann to underscore the timelessness of his characters and the story.
The protagonist of the story, Aschenbach is an aging well known writer. He lives alone having lost his Bohemian wife after a few years of the marriage. He has no close friends or any relationship. Walking in the morning in the city Munich, where he lives, he feels his morning walk quite unsatisfactory. He is drawn to the idea of traveling and it compels him beyond his control. It is almost like an inner calling which he has been waiting for long without his knowledge. He goes to his home and embarks on a journey to Venice to renew his spirit for a more youthful vigor in his writing. His long literary career has brought him name and he wants to live up to the expectations of his readers. His characters haunt the readers with their nobility and a passionate inner turmoil.
On the boat he finds an old man who tries to look young with his colorful clothing and rouge. It seems quite unnatural to Aschenbach. He feels it disgusting to see such an attempt. It is ironical that he himself does this in the later part of story to impress the beautiful Polish boy. After reaching Venice he engages for free a gondola ride. He feels the ride quite uncomfortable. Mann has captured brilliantly the inner feelings inconvenience in Achenbach’s heart by describing the irksome external journey.
After reaching the hotel where he has put up, the author finds a Polish family of three girls and a beautiful boy along with their mother at the dinner that night. He feels instinctively attracted towards the boy who appears like a Greek god. The references he makes when he describes his feelings towards the boy takes us into the depths of timeless mythological stories. Mann employs the technique of combining mythology and psychology into the story revealing the play of intense feelings in the heart of the protagonist.
Haunted by the beauty of the god like boy, Aschenbach finds the boy playing with some other boys on the beach the next morning. It provides him the necessary feeling of relief to find the boy once again and to lose himself watching the boy. He learns the name of the boy is Tadzio. He wants to look at the boy, the perfect marble statue of Grecian beauty, without being observed by any. In the afternoon, Aschenbach finds himself feverish because of the oppressive weather and wants to leave Venice. However, his misplaced luggage makes him to postpone his journey to the contentment of his heart.
Later, i.e. after two days, he resolves to stay back at Venice being addicted to the sight of Tadzio. Tadzio notices the old author becoming a fan of his beauty and just throws a smile. The boy’s love of his beauty is like the Greek character Narcissus, who falls in love with his image. Watching Tadzio has become the major part of Aschenbach’s routine. It is so obsessive that he can not help it.
He wants to use this inspiration for his writing. He begins to discover a new freedom in himself. One morning, walking behind his idol of beauty and affection, Tadzio the aged author overtakes him and wants to speak with him but he controls himself. One evening he almost runs into Tadzio and Tadzio smiles back. The author finds himself saying “I love you” to the boy but, of course, only after the boy has passed by him. The author finds himself in a strange and obsessive situation where he can not turn his heart away from the boy.
He realizes that something is wrong with Venice where many people are leaving the city. Some unknown disease has spread in the city making the tourists leave the place. But Aschenbach decides to stay back, though he is uncomfortable with the happenings that are taking place in the city. He inquires about the smell of germicide but he is assured of no danger to his life. He is intensely in love with the boy and his pursuit for him becomes more active. He finds the boy watching a street music show in the garden of the hotel. The aged author wants to look younger and changes his appearance with more colorful clothes and with dyed hair. It is noteworthy here that all these external make ups appeared disgusting to him at first when he finds an old man on the boat.
Tadzio though aware of the old man’s obsession about him, does not reveal it to any of his family members. The comparison of Tadzio with Phaedrus and himself with Socrates makes his intensely personal experience a universal one. He considers this as Platonic love. In Platonic love there is no consummation of physical love. It is ideal and noble.
Aschenbach realizes his deteriorating health condition and knows that he is not going to live any more. He also feels his object of love Tadzio also dies soon after because he too appears sick. His last glimpse of the boy at the beach when he is playing other boys is reciprocated by the boy. The boy looks back at the author. The world is taken aback when it finally hears about the sudden death of the celebrated writer Aschenbach.
On several occasions in the story, the author compares the boy with several Greek gods. He is called Cupid, the god of love. In another instance he is compared with Narcissus, the god who falls in love with his beautiful reflection. He comparison of Tadzio with Narcissus is apt because the boy is quite aware of his beautiful looks and he too falls in love with his self image.
The description of the sun rise in terms of Greek mythology also brings timelessness of the events and universality to the happenings in the story. His extraordinary knowledge of Greek mythology makes him link many of the incidents in the story with various Greek characters like Kleitos, Semele and Zeus. Mann has achieved what he intended to create. He is successful in transporting his readers from the present to the distant and the universal. “The truly God like beauty” of Tadzio takes Aschenbach nearer to fulfillment and god.