Thomas Mann’s novel, Death in Venice is a piece that is surrounded by the theme of perfection that teeters on the brink of insanity. The protagonist of the novel Gustav von Aschenbach is, as an author extremely articulate, meticulous, and a perfectionist when it comes to his work. He is very isolated, as well, and it seems that his work is a substitute for love, as he is a widower. He seems to love his writing and is extremely dedicated to it, as he might be to a lover. He also seems to realize what he has been compensating for when he is strangely aroused by a man, who gives him a strange look.
This causes von Aschenbach to search for a way to find what is missing from his sterile and lonely existence and he finds just that in Venice. Here von Aschenbach’s perfectionism to his art is replaced by his perfectionism to beauty, as he falls in love with a young man. von Aschenbach’s perfectionism toward his love interest is so strong that he does not even heed the warnings of a cholera outbreak. This proves that the formerly cautious man is completely obsessed with this young man, to the point of risking his life.
The novel opens with a description of von Aschenbach and his work ethic “demanding the utmost caution, prudence, tenacity, and precision of will” (1). The transformation of this perfectionist writer is simply the most grand of changes that this novel offers, although his affinity toward men or more descriptively, young boys is certainly controversial. Though it can be argued that the protagonist simply changed mediums from the art of writing to the obsession with beauty both towards others and himself.
However, his obsession does cause him to be more reckless and strange as he seems to be possessed by the same invisible urge that caused him to write that transformed him into a man with an urge to see a beautiful young man and to be beautiful himself. It must be said though that his recklessness is a mere side effect of his obsession and perfectionism and does not detract away from the ideal of the perfect man, who von Aschenbach seeks in himself and in another. When von Aschenbach first sees the young man of his desire, he describes the boy Tadzio as he would a painting. To von Aschenbach, Tadzio
recalled Greek statuary of the noblest period, yet it’s purest formal perfection notwithstanding, it conveyed a unique personal charm such that whoever might gaze upon it would believe he had never beheld anything so accomplished, be it nature or in art (45). It is interesting that von Aschenbach uses the word “it” and not the pronoun “he” when speaking of the boy. This further reveals that perfectionism is all that the protagonist knows and from his writing to the beauty of a person, he seems most concerned about how perfect these objects of his obsession and perfection make him look, personally.
These mere objects to him are a mirror into his sad, shallowness and Narcissistic tendencies. Instead of departing Venice, as planned von Aschenbach stays to catch glimpses of the boy and he even goes as far as to yell “I love you” after one encounter. It becomes obvious that von Aschenbach is acting recklessly, but to him his actions are not reckless, but instead disciplined to the point of perfection in seeing the object of his desire. Even when the heat and the threat of cholera face him, von Aschenbach simply cannot be without the ability to at least catch a glance of Tadzio.
Though feeble and frail, von Aschenbach is persistent is perfecting his own looks and retaining some of the youth and vitality that he once could have had in his past. Though the years of loneliness and his love for writing has left him without an identity other than that of an artist, a person that has the ability to write beautiful pieces. Instead he seems to be such a perfectionist that he believes that he can write himself into a romantic story, where all is beautiful and romance is only a glance away.
It seems that Tadzio is a representation of the beauty that von Aschenbach can make as an artist, a boy that can be conjured up in his mind and the fact that the boy is real is what fuels von Aschenbach’s obsession even more. He had spent so much time perfecting his writing that it seems hard to imagine that something not of his own making can be so beautiful and, therefore he needs to be a part of that beauty in some way. When von Aschenbach is faced with the boy’s humanness, however, a spiral of unexpected feelings overwhelms him.
When von Aschenbach is very near to Tadzio for the first time, von Aschenbach “perceived him not as a distant work of art and, given the minute detail, acknowledged his human qualities… Tadzio’s teeth were less than attractive: a bit jagged and pale, lacking the gleam of health” (61-62). Amazingly enough von Aschenbach upon realizing that Tadzio was likely ill, is unsure of whether or not he was happy about this possibility. This callous perfectionism in von Aschenbach leads to the conclusion that, like a work of art a beautiful person loses their value.
Though as von Aschenbach is ill, himself, he still is obsessed with the object of his desire as they both have their illness as a commonality. von Aschenbach’s perfectionism leads to a type of Narcissistic delusion that he has control over all that is beautiful and desirable to him. Like his writing that he so carefully constructs, he believes that he can virtually write himself into the story of his object of desire. von Aschenbach takes simple glances from Tadzio to be affirmations of affection and when seeing Tadzio’s flaws, he feels unsure of whether or not he wishes him to be ill.
After countless trips to the Barber to make himself look like the perfect man von Aschenbach’s illness seems to correlate with Tadzio’s pale and possibly dying body, as well. It seems as if von Aschenbach once thought that he could perfect himself and others around him, just as he would perfect his writing, but upon realizing that this was not possible, death was a more desirable option. Reference Mann, Thomas. (2004). Death in Venice (M. H. Heim, Trans. ). New York: HarperCollins.