The novella Death in Venice was written by the German author Thomas Mann, and was first published in 1912 as Der Tod in Venedig. It was first published in English in 1925 as Death in Venice and Other Stories, translated by Kenneth Burke - W. H. Auden called it the definitive translation.
He decides on Venice, reserving a suite in the Grand Hôtel des Bains on the Lido island. While en route to the island by vaporetto (motor boat), he sees an elderly man, in company with a group of high-spirited youths, who has tried hard to create the illusion of youth with a wig, false teeth, makeup, and foppish attire. Aschenbach turns away in disgust. Soon afterwards he has a disturbing encounter with an unlicensed gondolier — another red-haired man — who keeps repeating "I can row you well" when Aschenbach orders him to return to the wharf.
Aschenbach checks into his hotel, where at dinner he sees an aristocratic Polish family at a nearby table. Among them is an adolescent boy in a sailor suit; Aschenbach, startled, realizes that the boy is beautiful. His sisters, however, are so severely dressed that they look like nuns. Aschenbach overhears the lad's name, Tadzio, and conceives what he tells himself is an abstract, artistic interest.
Soon the hot, humid weather begins to affect Aschenbach's health, and he decides to leave early and move to a more salubrious location. On the morning of his planned departure, he sees Tadzio again, and a powerful feeling of regret sweeps over him. When he reaches the railway station and discovers his trunk has been misdirected, he pretends to be angry, but is really overjoyed; he decides to remain in Venice and wait for his lost luggage. He happily returns to the hotel, and thinks no more of leaving.
Over the next days and weeks, Aschenbach's interest in the beautiful boy develops into an obsession. He watches him constantly, and secretly follows him around Venice. One evening, the boy directs a charming smile at him, looking, Aschenbach thinks, like Narcissus smiling at his own reflection. Disconcerted, he rushes outside, and in the empty garden whispers aloud "I love you!"
Aschenbach next takes a trip into the city of Venice, where he sees a few discreetly-worded notices from the Health Department warning of an unspecified contagion and advising people to avoid eating shellfish. He smells an unfamiliar strong odour everywhere, and later realises it is disinfectant. However, the tourists continue to wander round the city, apparently oblivious. Aschenbach at first ignores the danger because it somehow pleases him to think that the city's disease is akin to his own hidden, corrupting passion for the boy. During this period, a third red-haired, disreputable-looking man crosses Aschenbach's path; this one belongs to a troupe of street singers who entertain at the hotel one night. Aschenbach listens entranced to songs that, in his former life, he would have despised – all the while stealing glances at Tadzio, who is leaning on a nearby parapet in a classically beautiful pose.
Next, Aschenbach rallies his self-respect and decides to discover the reason for the health notices posted in the city so he can warn Tadzio's mother. After being repeatedly assured that the sirocco is the only health risk, he finds a British travel agent who reluctantly admits that there is a serious cholera epidemic in Venice. Aschenbach, however, funks his resolution to warn the Polish family, knowing that if he does, Tadzio will leave the hotel and be lost to him.
One night, a dream filled with orgiastic Dionysian imagery reveals to him the sexual nature of his feelings for Tadzio. Afterwards, he begins staring at the boy so openly and following him so persistently that Aschenbach feels the boy's guardians finally notice, and take to warning Tadzio whenever he approaches too near the strange, solitary man. But Aschenbach's feelings, though passionately intense, remain unvoiced; he never touches Tadzio, or even speaks to him; and while there is some indication that Tadzio is aware of his admiration, the two exchange nothing more than the occasional surreptitious glance.
Aschenbach begins to fret about his ageing face and body. In an attempt to look more attractive, he visits the hotel's barber shop almost daily, where the barber eventually persuades him to have his hair dyed and his face painted to look more youthful. The result is a fairly close approximation to the old man on the vaporetto who so appalled Aschenbach. Freshly dyed and rouged, he again shadows Tadzio through Venice in the oppressive heat. He loses sight of the boy in the heart of the city; then, exhausted and thirsty, he buys and eats some over-ripe strawberries and rests in an abandoned square, contemplating the Platonic ideal of beauty amidst the ruins of his own once-formidable dignity. A few days later, Aschenbach goes to the lobby in his hotel, feeling ill and weak, and discovers that the Polish family plan to leave after lunch. He goes down to the beach to his usual deck chair. Tadzio is there, unsupervised for once, and accompanied by an older boy. A fight breaks out between the two boys, and Tadzio is quickly bested; afterward, he angrily leaves his companion and wades over to Aschenbach's part of the beach, where he stands for a moment looking out to sea; then turns halfway around to look at his "lover". To Aschenbach, it is as if the boy is beckoning to him: he tries to rise and follow, only to collapse back into his chair.
His body is discovered a few minutes later. When news of his death becomes public, the world decorously mourns the passing of a great artist.
Mann original intention was to write about "passion as confusion and degradation", after having been fascinated by the true story of Goethe's love for 18-year-old Ulrike von Levetzow, which had led Goethe to write his Marienbad Elegy. The death of Gustav Mahler and Mann's interest in a boy during summer vacation (more below) were additional experiences occupying his thoughts. He used the story to illuminate certain convictions about the relationship between life and mind, with Gustav representing the intellectual. Mann was also influenced by Sigmund Freud and his views on dreams and the death drive, as well as by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. He had visited Venice several times.
The novella is constructed on a framework of references to Greek mythology, and Aschenbach's Venice seems populated by the gods. By dedicating himself to Apollo, the god of reason and the intellect, Aschenbach has denied the power of Dionysus, god of unreason and of passion. Dionysus seems to have followed Aschenbach to Venice with the intent of destroying him: the red-haired man who keeps crossing von Aschenbach's path, in the guise of different characters, is none other than Silenus, chief follower of the god of unreason. Silenus' role is disputed, since he bears no physical resemblance to the secondary characters in the book. In the Benjamin Britten opera these characters (The Traveller, the Gondolier, The Leading player and the Voice of Dionysus) are played by the same baritone singer, who also plays the Hotel Manager, The Barber and the Old Man on the Vaporetto. The trope of placing Classical deities in contemporary settings was popular at the time when Mann was writing Death in Venice: in England, at almost the same time, E.M. Forster was at work on an entire short-story collection based on this premise. The idea of the opposition of the Apollonian and Dionysian seems to have been introduced by Nietzsche, and was also a popular motif of the time.
Gustav von Aschenbach's name seems to be inspired by the homosexual German poet August von Platen-Hallermünde. The character's last name may be derived from von Platen's birthplace, Ansbach. However, it still has another clear significance: Aschenbach literally means "ash brook". The character of von Aschenbach was based partly on the composer Gustav Mahler (the soundtrack of the film based on the novella thus made use of Mahler's compositions, particularly the "Adagietto" movement from the Symphony No. 5). Mahler had made a strong personal impression on Mann when they met in Munich, and he was shocked by the news of his death while on Brijuni. Mann also based Aschenbach's first name and facial appearance on Mahler but didn't talk about it in public.
Thomas Mann's wife Katia recalls that the idea for the story came during an actual holiday in Venice, which she and Thomas took in the spring of 1911:
Mann himself mentioned this story in a letter to his friend Phillipp Witkop on 18 July 1911, as he was working on it:
The boy who inspired "Tadzio" was Baron Władysław Moes, whose first name was usually shortened as Władzio or just Adzio. This story was uncovered by Thomas Mann's translator Andrzej Dołęgowski around 1964, and was published in the German press in 1965. Some sources report that Moes himself did not learn of the connection until he saw the 1971 film version of the novel.
Moes was born in 1900, and was aged 11 when he was in Venice, significantly younger than Tadzio in the novella. Moes died in 1986 and is interred at the Powązki Cemetery in Warsaw. Moes was the subject of a biography The Real Tadzio (Short Books, 2001) by Gilbert Adair.