Death in Venice

Death in Venice Study Guide

Although Mann is considered to be a deeply German writer, at the time that he began writing, Germany itself was fairly new to the world. When Death in Venice was published in 1912, a unified Germany had existed for a mere 41 years. Although Mann moved to Munich after high school, he was always aware of being North German and felt his more somber and serious artistic sense put him at odds with other artists in Munich. The connection between Germany and Italy in his work has clear political relevance, as the two countries unified their fragmented areas to become nations at similar points of time in history (King Victor Emmanuel began to rule over a unified Italy in 1861).

Mann wrote in the context of a number of literary styles. At the turn of the century, Naturalism reigned, and Mann sought to differentiate himself from writers such as Zola and Ibsen who faithfully transcribed even the most minute concrete details of daily life. In contrast to naturalist writers, Mann's precision is psychological, rather than physical. Specifically, Mann was influenced by other European masters including Tolstoy, whose epic sweep he admired, and Flaubert, whose labor over each and every sentence he emulated. Mann was also deeply indebted to the philosophy of Nietzsche, whose skeptical mode of analysis he adopted. Nietzsche claimed to be a great authority on the subject of decadence, and Mann's works focus almost exclusively on this topic, along with degeneracy and the decline of greatness.

The German Romantic composer, Richard Wagner, also significantly influenced Mann. Wagner pioneered the music-drama, in which the action of the drama takes precedence over the music itself. He popularized the leitmotif, a melodic fragment or phrase associated with a particular character or situation. The leitmotif carried over into literature in the form of a dominant, reoccurring theme, and Death in Venice is considered a primary example of its early use. The leitmotif of Death in Venice is death itself.

The issue of homosexuality in this novella negatively affected its reception. The issue was timely, as many great artists of the period including Gide, Wilde, and Rimbaud, were struggling with homosexuality. Mann's own diaries demonstrate his homosexual tendencies, despite his marriage. Homosexuality was not a widely accepted practice in early twentieth century Europe, and Mann neither attacks it nor praises it. Rather, he represents it as a symptom of the unhealthily obsessive nature of an artist. The irony about Mann's love story is that neither participant ever speaks to the other. Thus, Death in Venice must remain a homosexual love story in the most theoretical sense possible.