Gustave Aschenbach is the main character of the novella. Aschenbach is an aging, highly successful German writer, a man who has dedicated himself since childhood to a strict, hardworking, morally impeccable lifestyle. When he takes a holiday to Venice, however, he becomes obsessed with a young, beautiful boy, Tadzio. His obsession leads him to question his life, his art, and his sexuality, and he spirals into a midlife crisis in which he loses his dignity, his morality, and his life.
Tadzio is a Polish youth on holiday in Venice with his mother, his sisters, and his governess. He has blond hair, pale features, and graceful movements; at times he displays disdain for those whom he believes are “beneath” him. Aschenbach epitomizes Tadzio as a young Greek god. Aschenbach also suspects that the boy is delicate and may not reach adulthood, and Tadzio’s closeness to death thrills Aschenbach.
The Young-Old Man
The Young-old man is an old man who dresses like a youth. Aschenbach first sees him on his boat ride to Venice and thinks he is disgusting and undignified. The man wears gay, boyish clothing and behaves with the same carefree, dissolute manners of his young companions, who seem to tolerate him. Although Aschenbach condemns the young-old man for acting like a fool, Aschenbach himself comes to resemble a young-old man when his fixation with Tadzio makes him long to be young again.
The stranger is a figure who first appears to Aschenbach at the stone mason’s yard, but who also appears as a gondolier and as an itinerant musician in Venice. He has a distinct, bacchanalian appearance: red hair, a snub nose, feral-looking teeth, and a surly demeanor. His reappearance is more than coincidence in Aschenbach’s life. He functions almost like a guide to the Underworld, leading Aschenbach further and further into a depraved life. Each time he appears, Aschenbach slides further into such a life.