Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice is centered upon a lonely and overworked author of considerable renown. The man’s name is Gustave Aschenbach. The old man hailed from Munich, Germany and had dedicated his entire life to pursuing perfection in his art and appreciation of beauty in the surrounding world. He was so dedicated to his artistic pursuits that he had forsaken intimate relationships following the death of his young wife and shunned vacations as times of lost productivity. Once our man catches a fancy to travel and spend time abroad to escape the increasing workload he was under. After an unsatisfying stay on an Adriatic island, Aschenbach determines that Venice is the place his heart desires and makes immediate plans to change course and spend his respite in the elegant Italian jewel. Upon arriving in Venice, he happens upon a Polish mother and her children. Mann becomes infatuated with one of the sons of the Polish family, as the lad bears striking physical resemblance to the subjects of classical sculpture which Aschenbach admires as idealized forms of beauty. Although he never speaks to the boy, he ascertains the boy’s name to be Tadzio from the calls of his playmates on the beach. The longer he stays in Venice the more he abandons his prior repression and becomes maddened with desire for the boy.
Aschenbach follows the family everywhere they go, although he is careful never to speak to them or be seen following. All the while, word of a plague is spreading throughout Venice, despite the best efforts of city officials and merchants. Aschenbach himself learns the full frightening extent of the plague in advance of the general public, but he is so far into his obsession that he tells no one out of fear the family would leave. Eventually, however, word gets out and the Polish family prepares to leave. Aschenbach ventures to watch Tadzio play in the sand with his friends one final time. It is here that the boy’s gaze first meets the old man’s and it is here that Aschenbach symbolically gives into to his debased state and physically he gives in to the plague which his insistence upon staying has bestowed upon him. Before his death, he imagines the boy calling him into the ocean and the afterlife.