Summary, pages 15-40
Having decided to take a real vacation, Aschenbach goes to an island in the Adriatic sea, but he soon discovers that he had made a bad choice. The place does not relax him. He decides to go to Venice, instead, and must purchase a ticket from a ticket agent, an “goat-bearded” old man with “bony yellow fingers” who “rattles” on about how lovely Venice is in “empty phrases that gave the odd impression that he feared the traveller might alter his mind.” Aschenbach finds the man tiresome, but he does not change his mind.
As he waits for the boat to depart, Aschenbach observes the other passengers. Among them he sees a group of youths, except one of the party is not young at all. Instead, he is an old man in a “dandified buff suit, a rakish panama with a coloured scarf, and a red cravat.” He has “wrinkles and crow’s-feet round eyes and mouth; the dull carmine of the cheeks was rouge, the brown hair a wig.” He is obnoxiously loud. Aschenbach is appalled that the other youths accept his company. He feels “not quite canny, as though the world were suffering a dreamlike distortion of perspective. . . .”
Aschenbach dozes in a chair on the deck. His sense of time “falters” and he half dreams about the goat-bearded ticket agent and the obnoxious old man. At last, the boat arrives in the lagoon and awaits a “sanitary inspector” to allow it to pass on to Venice proper. Aschenbach again sees the youths and the old man, now hideously drunk yet determinedly high spirited. Again, Aschenbach feels a “dazed sense, as though things about him were just slightly losing their ordinary perspective, beginning to show a distortion that might merge into the grotesque.” When Aschenbach readies to depart, the “ghastly young-old man” bids him a noisy farewell.
Aschenbach hires a gondola and feels the thrill of riding in a conveyance that has “come down unchanged from ballad times, as black as nothing else on earth except a coffin—what pictures it calls up of lawless, silent adventures in the plashing night; or even more, what visions of death itself, the bier and solemn rites and last soundless voyage!” During the ride, Aschenbach notices that he is not being taken a direct route. He looks at the gondolier for the first time. The man has “a brutish face” and wears “blue clothes like a sailor’s, with a yellow sash; a shapeless straw hat with the braid torn at the brim perched rakishly on his head.” He has blond hair, a snub nose, and a small stature. When he rows, his lips curl back to reveal “white teeth to the gums.” He ignores Aschenbach’s command to turn back.
Instead of argue with the strange gondolier, however, Aschenbach decides to do nothing. “A spell of indolence was upon him; it came from the chair he sat in—this low, black-upholstered arm-chair, so gently rocked at the hands of the despotic boatman in his rear.”
Another gondola comes alongside to serenade Aschenbach, and although he knows he is giving in to this ploy to extort money from tourists, he tosses coins into the boat. It immediately rows away.
Finally, Aschenbach’s gondola arrives at the city landing, and while Aschenbach seeks change to pay his gondolier, the man disappears. Apparently, he had no license and did not want to be caught. Aschenbach has gotten a ride for free.
Aschenbach then arrives at his hotel. In his room, he looks out his window and contemplates the strange things he has seen on his journey: the young-old man, the illegal boatman. He feels uneasy about these encounters, and he looks out at the sea, resolved to relax now.
He dresses for dinner and joins the other guests, where he is arrested by the sight of a young man of about fourteen years old. He wears boyish clothes: a blue and white striped sailor suit with a red breast-knot. The boy is classically beautiful, like a Greek sculpture, Aschenbach thinks. He stands out among his three sisters, who are dressed very primly, and their governess. He wonders if the boy is a pampered darling, or is he pampered because he is ill? The boy’s mother arrives, wearing grand jewelry. Aschenbach determines that the family is Polish.
The weather the next day is overcast, windy, and unpleasant. Aschenbach almost decides to leave. He goes down to breakfast and again sees the boy, who arrives late, and again Aschenbach is struck by his beauty. He would like to simply stare at the boy, but instead he rouses himself to go to the beach to sun bathe. There he takes in the scene: children playing, swimmers, boats, vendors, a happy Russian family on holiday. He decides to stay. He looks out at the wide sea before him, appreciating its perfect “nothingness.”
Suddenly, the beautiful boy crosses his path. Aschenbach notices that the boy looks disdainfully at the sprawling Russian family. Aschenbach feels that this is a godlike attitude befitting the boy’s godlike appearance. He continues to watch the boy and eavesdrops on his play with other children. He cannot quite make out the boy’s name, but he decides to call him Tadzio. When Tadzio takes a dip in the water, Aschenbach is enthralled to see him emerge from the water, dripping, golden, pure, like a young god.
When Aschenbach returns to his room at noontime, he gazes at himself in the mirror, taking in his gray hair and aged face. He thinks of his accomplishments, his fame, and his awards.
In the elevator, he again sees Tadzio and has a chance to observe him up close, noting that Tadzio has bad teeth. He concludes that Tadzio is indeed delicate and unlikely to live into old age. “He did not try to account for the pleasure the idea gave him.”
In the afternoon, Aschenbach goes into Venice proper to have tea and walk about. The air seems heavy and hot; Aschenbach perspires and feels almost feverish. He wanders into the poor quarter and is waylaid by beggars. Finally, he finds a quiet place where he can think. He decides to leave Venice; the weather is not good for his health. When he returns to his hotel, he tells the management that he will leave the next morning.
In the morning, he has doubts about leaving. He lingers in the breakfast room hoping to see Tadzio, and his bags go on without him. At last, Tadzio appears, and Aschenbach is pleased when the boy’s “modestly cast down” eyes suddenly look into his own as he passes. Aschenbach actually whispers a farewell, but it is not clear that the boy hears it.
As Aschenbach crosses the lagoon in a boat, he ponders whether he should leave after all. He chides himself for letting the sultry, foul-smelling air of Venice chase him away. He feels ashamed at his physical weakness. He discovers that his baggage has been sent to the wrong destination, and almost with joy he returns to the hotel to await the safe return of his things. He decides, however, that he will stay in Venice after all. He imagines that the sudden, fresh breeze he feels on the water means he is making the right decision.
He rests, looking out the window. He is chagrined with his “ignorance of his own desires.” When he sees Tadzio in his usual striped sailor suit with the red scarf knot, he almost greets him, but does not. Aschenbach realizes, then, that he has really returned because he wanted to see Tadzio again.
Aschenbach’s journey to Venice has an aura of the unreal about it. Like the strange man he saw in the stone mason’s yard earlier, the ticket master, the young-old man, and the rude gondolier stand out as unusual characters; their appearance lends Aschenbach’s journey a foreboding air. In fact, the whole journey has a dreamlike, prophetic quality, as if it is more than a simple holiday. Aschenbach senses that the skeletal, “goat-bearded” ticket master is too anxious for him to buy his ticket to Venice. The rude gondolier has characteristics that resemble those of the man in the stone mason’s yard; his manner, too, seems oddly hostile. That he conveys Aschenbach in a coffin-black gondola—a conveyance associated with death—and that Aschenbach is lulled into complacence by this boat, seem to suggest that Aschenbach’s journey is more than a boat ride to a hotel. And the lurid appearance of the young-old man seems especially fraught with import. He is an old man desperately clinging to bygone youth, a man clinging to life in the face of impending death. The man disgusts Aschenbach.
After Aschenbach first sees the beautiful boy, Tadzio, he is not himself. The tidy, commanding, successful writer is suddenly in emotional disarray. He contemplates his aging appearance in the mirror. Where once he would have immediately left a place he felt to be unhealthy, he now wavers. He ignores the strangely empty city squares in Venice, and the foul-smelling water. He is glad when his calculated departure from Venice goes awry. And why? He want to glimpse the beautiful boy again. A boy whose youthful sailor clothes echo the youthful clothes that the young-old man wore.