The Stone Mason’s Yard
The stone mason’s yard that Aschenbach wanders into at the beginning of the novel is a symbol of the type of life Aschenbach has led so far: hard-working, moral, exemplary. The stone monuments with their inscriptions declaring lives lived well seem to describe Aschenbach’s own life as a writer who has devoted his whole life to his craft and to modeling morality through his writings. The stone itself seems solid, upright, and enduring, all the qualities Aschenbach sees in his own life. However, as the novella progresses, Aschenbach learns that even stone—and upright lives—crumble with time and age.
In the stone mason’s yard, Aschenbach sees a strange man, a “pilgrim” who seems to be seeking something other than the upright life signified by the stones. His red hair, freckled complexion, snub nose, and long white teeth give him an exotic, peculiar air; his expression is one of hostility. He symbolizes an entirely different kind of life from the one symbolized by the stones. Once Aschanbach sees him, he is stirred to roam, to experience different—and not exactly safe and proper—places. The man reappears in the guise of the gondolier and the itinerant musician as Aschenbach journeys to Venice and into a very different kind of lifestyle. Each time he appears, he leads Aschenbach a little further into the city of pleasure and death (Venice), and he leads Aschenbach further into a life of debauchery. His presence acts as a motif of freedom, a recurring reminder to Aschenbach that another life, free from responsibilities and morality, is possible. That life, however, is not any more immune to death than Aschenbach’s previous life.
Venice itself functions as a symbol of beautiful decay in Death in Venice. The title of the novella suggests that the story is about both death in general and Aschenbach’s death in particular—both in Venice. The city is the opposite of the stone mason’s yard; it is an ancient place that is crumbling and imperfect, yet it exudes beauty and passion; like the stone monuments, it speaks of death, but the death it presents is one of surrender to decadence and desire. To look upon Venice is to look upon aging and death as beautiful. To be in Venice is, for Aschenbach, a way of surrendering to the body and its inevitable decay into death.
As Aschenbach arrives in Venice, he is ferried in a gondola, a black, coffin-like boat symbolizing death. It is a conveyance that has for ages taken people where they wish to go—and even to places they do not wish to go. The reappearance of the stranger as the gondolier suggests that the strange man functions as a guide into a sort of underworld, much like Charon the boatman on the River Styx.
Tadzio, with his golden looks, symbolizes truth and beauty for Aschenbach, whose obsession with Tadzio leads him to believe that life and art should be lived with emotion and abandon, rather than morality. Tadzio embodies all that Aschenbach has lost or denied himself for the sake of his art. Tadzio, however, is not perfect. There is a hint of death about him. And in this way he also symbolizes the truth that all men must face: all men, no matter how passionate or beautiful, must die.dru htp o 89k ets can be neither wise nor worthy citizens” because to live with the senses means living for one’s self only.
The irony of Death in Venice is, however, that Aschenbach, as a human, will die no matter what view of art or life he takes.
The Struggle Against Death
Intertwined with Aschenbach’s artistic struggle to find a way to Truth is his struggle to find a way to accept death. On one level, Death in Venice is the age-old story of a man acknowledging that he is no longer young. And like so many men, Aschenbach fights against that knowledge.
Because of his devotion to his art, Aschenbach had let his youth pass uneventfully; as an adult, he had no time to worry over wrinkles or a weakening body. On his trip to Venice, he scoffs at the hideous display of the old man trying to appear and act young; Aschenbach feels he is too sensible to ever stoop to such a display. He would never act so irrationally.
Once he sees Tadzio, however, he regrets letting his youth slip away. In comparison to Tadzio’s fresh, unblemished beauty, Aschenbach finds himself withered and old—he had not realized just how old he had grown until he saw Tadzio. Suddenly it seems too late to recapture youthful looks and feelings, yet on the surface, Aschenbach does struggle. He does nothing but seek pleasure. He goes to a barber and has his hair dyed and makeup applied to make him look younger. He trades his sensible clothing for clothes that resemble Tadzio’s, and in doing so he becomes just like the young-old man he once criticized. He follows Tadzio, just like the young-old man clung to his youthful companions. He becomes ridiculous:
There he sat, the master. . . . This was he who had put knowledge underfoot to climb so high; who had outgrown the ironic pose and adjusted himself to the burdens and obligations of fame; whose renown had been officially recognized and his name ennobled, whose style was set for a model in the schools. There he sat. His eyelids were closed, there was only a swift, sidelong glint of the eyeballs now and again, something between a question and a leer; while the rouged and flabby mouth uttered single words of sentences shaped in his disordered brain by the fantastic logic that governs our dreams.
As ridiculous as Aschenbach has become, however, he still understands that death, in the end, is inevitable. He feels in league with the Venetians who are denying death and cholera in their city, so they can keep tourists. He delights in the fact that Tadzio is a delicate boy who may, in fact, not live into adulthood. Both Venice and Tadzio embody the idea that death touches everything, no matter how beautiful. Their beauty, in essence, makes death more acceptable. In the end, Aschenbach stops struggling and lets the “lovely Summoner,” in Tadzio’s form, beckon him into nothingness.