In this chapter, the nature of von Aschenbach's work is revealed. He has written an epic biographical novel of Frederick the Great, entitled Maya, and a novella entitled The Wretched Figure, which explores morality through a protagonist that justifies his own depravity by encouraging his wife to commit adultery. An essay entitled Art and the Intellect added to his fame, and is described as equivalent in worth to Schiller's essay work. Von Aschenbach was born in Silesia to a civil servant and his sensual Bohemian wife, whose ancestry lent a foreign appearance to the writer's face. Currently, he answers fan mail from all over the world.
Early in his life, von Aschenbach disciplined himself to become an artist. He grew up in solitude because he was too sickly to attend school, and his motto is "persevere." In his youth, his goal was to live to an old age and continue to produce great literature. To achieve this despite his illness-prone body, he knew he needed great discipline. Von Aschenbach wakes early each morning by dashing cold water on his face, and devotes his productive mornings to writing. He embodies the hero characters in his work: a somewhat passive, but ascetic intellectual. Von Aschenbach writes about the heroism of the weak, a self-possessed exterior hiding a dissolute interior, which is well suited to his times. As he grows older, his prose grows more stiff and formulaic and begins to be quoted as exemplary in official German textbooks.
Von Aschenbach married quite young, but his wife died soon thereafter. In this chapter, he is described as medium in height, dark, and with a large head on which he wears gold spectacles. His mouth is large and his eyes tired. Although he may live an ascetic existence, the subjects of his writings seem to ravage his face as if he were living through them.
This chapter interrupts the narrative style of the previous chapter to provide a biographical sketch of the author. His story closely parallels Mann's own history and artistic work. The somber father and mother with more artistic blood are a direct reference to Mann's civil servant father and his mother with Brazilian heritage. It soon becomes clear that von Aschenbach's personal life has been minimal to non-existent, making the nature of his artistic life extra-important in describing a personality the reader does not yet know well. In comparing von Aschenbach to the great German aesthetic theorist, Friedrich von Schiller, Mann clearly demonstrates his literary worth.
Writing in the tradition of French symbolists such as Flaubert, even Mann's smallest details hold heavy significance. In an anecdote about von Aschenbach's falling ill around his thirty-fifth birthday, a friend comments the writer has always lived "like this," clenches his fist, and has not been able to live "like this," and he unclenches his fist. This chapter also demonstrates that von Aschenbach is not born to constant industry, but forces himself to it, behavior that began at a very young age. In fact, this is an unnatural state, and is thus impossible to sustain. The last three chapters of the novella thus demonstrate how von Aschenbach behaves when he finally begins to live in an unclenched manner.
Rather than simply serving as a literary background to the rest of the novel, this chapter functions as a premature obituary in a novella that the reader knows will end in a death, due to the title. Because it functions as an obituary, in discussing von Aschenbach's life up to this point, the chapter is an omen for death.