The novel opens by introducing the great writer, Gustav Aschenbach, known since his fiftieth birthday as von Aschenbach. Von Aschenbach sets out on a solitary walk from his apartment in Munich and ruminates on his morning's work. It is early May, and as he passes through the Englischer Garten, he notices the weather is finally beginning to clear up. Von Aschenbach looks for a tram station at the North Cemetery, and when he is unable to find one, focuses his attention on the Byzantine building nearby. He notices a figure in the portico, evidently a foreign tourist, grimacing into the sunlight. The figure is wearing a bast hat, and notices von Aschenbach observing him. Upon being discovered, the writer walks away in embarrassment.
After noticing the tourist, von Aschenbach is struck with a sudden desire to travel, and imagines tropical scenes with lush vegetation. Previously, he had regarded tourism as merely an occasional diversion good for his health. Now that he is growing old and fears his artistic powers are faltering, he feels a sudden need to travel and escape from the duty of writing.
Von Aschenbach had experienced writer's block that very morning and felt that, although his work is still well received by the public, it lacks the sparkle of his younger work. He feels his usual summer alone in the German countryside will not cure him, because he finds the environment as oppressive as the city. Von Aschenbach locates the tram station, and considers turning back to find the tourist, but can no longer see him.
The passivity of the novella is established in this opening chapter. Mann specializes in psychodrama-his characters are not as concerned with interrelating as they are with their own mental processes. In the novella, the protagonist speaks to only few other individuals, and performs no action except walking and observing. However, in this first chapter, von Aschenbach commits to a course of action crucial to his life. Even passing through the streets of Munich is an aberration from his daily routine, and is thus a precursor to his even more unprecedented trip abroad. The stranger in the cemetery is highly important, both in sparking von Aschenbach's interest in travel and in hinting at the protagonist's homoerotic tendencies. In observing the tourist, von Aschenbach is not necessarily attracted to the man, but rather wishes to personify the mysterious stranger by undertaking his own travels.
The opening chapter establishes von Aschenbach as an important personage in society and simultaneously begins to undermine him. First, the prefix "von" to the protagonist's last name demonstrates that he has achieved aristocratic status. In addition, Mann's slightly over-wrought language invites the reader to take von Aschenbach as seriously as he takes himself; thus explaining the task of writing is extremely difficult, prestigious, and worthwhile.
Although, at first glance, the novel seems to be written in the third person, it is truly written in indirect style, or what the Germans term erlebte Rede. In other words, although the narrator writes about von Aschenbach in the third person, the reader can occasionally, and with increasing frequency as the novella progresses, drop into von Aschenbach's head to hear his thoughts. This style creates a double perspective and the possibility for dramatic irony, a literary device in which the reader knows more than the character. As the novella progresses, von Aschenbach spirals out of control, and the reader, privy to his thoughts, is partly dragged along, but also maintains enough distance to wonder whether his demise is really necessary.