Death in Venice

Death in Venice Summary and Analysis of Chapter Four


After two days, von Aschenbach's luggage is returned to him at the hotel and he unpacks completely, determined to stay in Venice. He falls into a routine of seeing Tadzio regularly, especially during mornings at the beach. He has accepted his attraction to Tadzio, but to reconcile his feelings, imagines an Ancient Greek scene of Socrates instructing Phaedrus, casting himself as Socrates, and Tadzio as Phaedrus. Von Aschenbach writes well when spying on Tadzio, although afterwards he feels exhausted and self-reproachful, as though he has done something base. However, he reasons that his readers will never know nor care from where his inspiration springs.

One morning, he follows the boy along the beach, and almost overtakes him. Von Aschenbach is tempted to speak to Tadzio, but stops himself at the last moment and immediately fears that someone has witnessed his intention. Von Aschenbach goes to bed early because he knows the possibility of seeing Tadzio after nine is slim. As time passes, Tadzio begins to return von Aschenbach's attention, walking past his table and looking at him on the way to his family's cabana. Von Aschenbach becomes so accustomed to his routine of watching Tadzio, that he is put off when Tadzio fails to appear on the beach one morning. Later on he discovers that Tadzio's family had gone to the city. He is caught off guard when he runs into Tadzio that night, and smiles in surprise and happiness. Tadzio smiles back, looking like Narcissus. Von Aschenbach is shaken by this image and hurries away to collect himself. Seated on a hotel bench, although he knows it is absurd, he murmurs "I love you."


This chapter is riddled with references to Ancient Greece. For more information about the Platonic concepts in this chapter, see the essay on Platonic love. As soon as von Aschenbach sets eyes on Tadzio, he associates him with, "Greek statuary of the noblest period." He begins to describe the boy as "beauty itself" and "form as the thought of God." Despite von Aschenbach's attempts to ennoble his love for Tadzio by putting it in the context of Greek philosophy, his reliance on the ideal of Platonic love is disingenuous. A prerequisite of the ideal relationship between a man and boy is that the man be the boy's mentor. Von Aschenbach is unable to speak to Tadzio, much less become his mentor.

The boy's attitude is also antithetical to the practice of Platonic love. The meaningful smile that he gives von Aschenbach is described as "the smile of Narcissus." Narcissus, in Greek mythology, is a beautiful young boy in love with his own image. He stares at his own reflection in a pool until he dies and is reborn as a flower. Significantly, the myth holds that the boy refused all offers of love. Thus, consummation of von Aschenbach's love seems highly unlikely.

This chapter presents von Aschenbach's true internal struggle: he realizes that he is in love with the boy, but works to assimilate these feelings into his normal philosophy, which proves unsuccessful. Thomas Mann was steeped in the philosophy of Nietzsche, who divides the Apollonian from the Dionysian. The former refers to form, order, and clarity, while the latter refers to abandon, joy, and debauchery. The categories are named after the Greek gods Apollo and Dionysus. Chapters One and Two demonstrate von Aschenbach's strong adherence to an Apollonian lifestyle. His day was a rigidly scheduled and ordered affair, and his artistic work was beginning to demonstrate this stiff lifestyle, as his prose grew overly structured and inflexible. However, von Aschenbach's dreams and his obsession with Tadzio, spliced into the writer's existence, demonstrate his tendency toward the Dionysian.

The last lines of this chapter are the climax of the novel. Up to this point, von Aschenbach has struggled to repress his feelings for Tadzio, but his final interaction with the boy demonstrates the triumph of the Dionysian forces in his mind. Finally, von Aschenbach verbally admits his love for Tadzio, although he mutters "I love you" alone, rather than in Tadzio's presence.