The premise of decadence was tremendously popular in late 19th century European literature. In addition, the degeneracy of the individual and society at large was represented in numerous contemporary works by Mann. In Death in Venice, the theme of decadence caused by aestheticism appears through Gustav von Achenbach’s eccentric, specifically homoerotic, feelings towards a Polish boy named Tadzio. Although his feelings spring from a sound source, the boy’s aesthetic beauty, Aschenbach becomes decadent in how excessively zealous his feelings are, and his obsession ultimately leads to his literal and existential destruction. This exemplifying, as will be examined in the following, how aestheticism is closely related to, and indeed often the cause of, decadence. Although the narrative is about more complexities, the author’s use of such vivid descriptions suggest the physical, literal aspect of his writing is just as important to the meaning of the story.
The first and most obvious instance of aestheticism and decadence as correlating themes in this story is the title, Death in Venice. By fore-grounding the name of the city in the title, Mann is highlighting the city's key role in the unfolding narrative. Mann aligns the word 'Venice' with the word 'death' in the title. This creates a relationship between these two words - the word death strongly infuses the word Venice with all its connotations. Death and decay is an important idea within the context of decadence. By shear nature the title relates the concepts of death and dying to the city of Venice, which implies that the location is where a death will occur. However, this is paralleled by the opening of the story when Mann drearily tells of Aschenbach’s stroll through Germa...
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...adent man he once despised. These themes of aestheticism and decadence, not in juxtaposition but in duality, are used frequently by Mann throughout the novella.
Mann, Thomas, and Clayton Koelb. Death in Venice: a new translation, backgrounds and contexts, criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 1994. Print.
Ritters, Naoimi, and Jeffrey B. Berlin. "the Tradition of European Decadence." Approaches to teaching Mann's Death in Venice and other short fiction. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1992. 86-92. Print.
Symmington, Robert, Thomas Mann, and Ross C Murfin. ""The Eruption of the Other: Psychoanalytic Approaches to Death in Venice." "Death in Venice: complete, authoritative text with biographical and historical contexts, critical history, and essays from five contemporary critical perspectives. Boston: Bedford Books, 1998. 3-45. Print.
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