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Symbolism In “Death In Venice”: An Exploration


Symbolism is an extraordinary tool used by writers in order to get the attention of the reader and create literary meaning using existing cultural tools. Symbolism itself is important in the cultural sense because it allows us, as humans, to attach meaning to things that were once devoid of meaning. Symbolism can be found across cultures and geographical areas, and has been shown to be part of human history since time immemorial. That being said, we can importantly change the meaning of a symbol just by using it in context, as many authors do. In “Death in Venice”, Thomas Mann uses a number of these symbols to illustrate points that he was making. The topic of the story is homosexual in nature, which also means that Mann may have had additional pressure to hide some of the ideas he wanted to use behind the cloak of symbolism and imagery. The ideas presented in “Death in Venice” were controversial to the original audience, which often gives symbolism an additional use within the text. In terms of literature, this can be termed as a contextual symbol which means that the idea only has symbolism in its current context, something that Mann illustrates beautifully. This can be seen in the text where the protagonist is exploring his unconscious through engaging with the sea in Venice, the use of mythological figures that take on new roles within the story, and the repeated explorations of pederasty to represent the idea that idealism can hide disturbing things. The idea of using pedophilia and pederasty for both shock value and an exploration of idealism is nothing new, a symbol of loving “each other with a premature love, marked by a fierceness that so often destroys adult lives”.

The use of Nabokov’s Lolita for this exploration is multiple. There are a lot of similarities with “Death in Venice” even on the surface. They are both about a forbidden love, and there are elements of pedophilia in both, although the term for the type in “Death in Venice” is pederasty. Both stories are rich in contextual symbolism, ideas which only make sense within the context of the book. Both stories can also be quite challenging to read for their topic matter, which is even directly addressed by the protagonist describing himself as “despicable and brutal, and turpid, and everything”. The use of contextual symbolism adds to the debate here because it helps to soften an otherwise controversial subject matter. Nabokov uses the symbol of clothing to show his affection for Lolita, which in a way mirrors the use of external Greek allegory as a symbol in “Death in Venice”. For Humbert Humbert, clothing symbolizes how he feels about Lolita, but also serves from her perspective as a bribe. Lolita once idealized and idolized pieces of clothing, which is why they are such an easy tool for Humbert to use when bribing her to keep quiet about his crimes. The reason that this is relevant is because it is contextually symbolic and works as a method for Nabokov to show the idealism that Humbert has. This is similar to the fact that Mann wanted to expose the idealism of the Ancient Greek culture to show that it can be hiding some fairly sinister things.

The use of pederasty in “Death in Venice” is also an excellent use of contextual symbolism. Mann refers to a lot of elements of Greek culture within the story, and pederasty is one of them. The idea here is that Aschenbach’s feelings towards Tadzio is somehow culturally appropriate to a different culture to his own, which is complicating matters. It is noted that Aschenbach has “the feeling that the eros which had taken possession of him was in a way singularly appropriate and suited to such a life”. It is clear here that his feelings towards Tadzio are being used as a symbol for everything that was wrong about Greek culture, to explore the fact that our romanticizing of Ancient Greece may be reducing the role of some sinister elements of that culture. As a result, the pederasty of the book is a contextual symbol for something larger, the ability of the human race to idealize things that it thinks are wonderful at the peril of forgetting the things that are not. Ancient Greece is seen as a bastion of hope, democracy, freedom and intelligence, but there were also elements of their culture that would certainly not fit in with the moral fortitudes we make today. Pederasty is used as a symbol for how we tend to do this, and it is contextual because outside of “Death in Venice” it is unlikely that it would retain this meaning to a wider audience. It is the very central concept of the story, and it serves as an excellent base from which to explore the ways in which symbolism is often used in context to soften the blow, or mitigate things that audiences may not otherwise agree with or understand.

Another symbolism that Mann uses throughout “Death in Venice” is the persistent use of Greek mythology. This is linked to the concepts that Mann wanted to explore in the story, of idealism and fate, but also illustrates how we can change the meanings of symbols based on their context. These Greek characters were symbolic within their own culture, but Mann has cleverly engineered them to take on a new symbolism by their role within the story.

Mann also cleverly uses the symbol of the sea to represent the unconscious and the psyche. Traditional symbolism would place the sea as a calming and positive source of energy, but by putting it in a different context Mann has created a much darker role for the sea as its role in the psyche. Aschenbach himself even decides to travel to the sea and this is a symbol for exploring the consciousness, which in terms of “Death in Venice” is plagued by some pretty black and confusing thoughts. The sea here is a symbol for the unconscious, but also for unconscious desires which may be deep and dark in their very nature. The sea is something that can help Aschenbach to explore his own desires whilst he is in Venice, something which has actually been the source of a huge amount of emotional turmoil for the man since falling in lust with a teenage boy. In this sense, Mann has given the sea a much darker quality than it possesses in traditional literature, and it seems to bring the promise of calm for Aschenbach without actually bringing any of the relief he craves. It is this type of use of symbolism that really helps the reader to question their own thoughts and feelings about cultural symbols, and that is what Mann was trying to do with “Death in Venice”. It shows that our idealism may be based on symbolism such as this, and it does not actually do much for our understanding of the world. Mann appears to be telling the reader that our trust in symbols is not something that should be taken for granted, but rather pulled apart lest we miss something important which we have glossed over in our hunt for idealism.

In summary, there are many important uses of contextual symbolism within modern literature, none more so than in “Death in Venice”. Mann appears to be subverting our entire approach to our culture and the views we may hold of Ancient Greece with “Death in Venice” through the use of contextual symbolism. Pederasty is a key symbol within the book of something that can be wrong with even the best civilizations, as Mann puts it in the context of Ancient Greece rather than the context of the protagonist himself. The use of Ancient Greek gods is also used to exploit this idea, and we begin to associate them with rather more negative things than we would in other contexts. This use of contextual symbolism also flows to the repeated use of the sea, which the protagonist himself seems to be yearning for in many cases but it is not bringing about the traditional sense of calm that the sea brings in other novels. This use of contextual symbolism is important because it shows how our ideals and views can be upset and explored in different ways simply by changing the meaning of some of our most common symbols. In this sense, pederasty is the main symbol in the book and outside of “Death in Venice” most people would be very quick to denounce it. Within “Death in Venice”, it takes on the wider role of symbolizing something greater and more sinister. Overall, it is evident that Mann felt very strongly about the role symbolism plays in the contextual sense. It is also evident that we can use it to romanticize even the most morally corrupt of concepts.