Summary, pages 3-8
Gustave Aschenbach is a famous, fifty-year-old writer living on Prince Regent Street in Munich, Germany. On this May day in 19– (before World War I), Aschenbach has been working hard on his writing, but seeks a break. He takes a walk, hoping to refresh himself for more writing. He heads towards a park and passes sidewalk restaurants populated with diners, then walks towards the North Cemetery, where there are very few people. Exhausted, he awaits a tram to take him back home. While waiting, he notices the stone mason’s yard next to the cemetery, where in the late afternoon light the various headstones, monuments, crosses, and commemorative tablets proclaim such sentiments as “‘May the Light Everlasting shine upon them.’” Aschenbach idly reads the texts, musing on their “mystical meaning.”
His reverie is disturbed, however, when he notices a strange man standing “between two apocalyptic beasts” on the stairs of the mortuary chapel. The man is obviously a traveler or pilgrim; he wears a rucksack and carries a cape and a walking stick. Aschenbach takes in several details about his appearance: the man is red-headed and freckled, with a snub-nose and a pronounced Adam’s apple. He seems to be frowning and perhaps even sneering; he displays “long, white, glistening teeth to the gums.” Aschenbach turns away when he realizes that he has been rudely staring at the stranger.
As he turns away, however, he experiences a sudden “youthfully ardent thirst for distant scenes.” He imagines a tropical place, a sort of primeval island in a humid climate, with thick vegetation and blooming flowers, and trees whose roots reach into still, “glassy-green” river waters. In a bamboo thicket, a tiger crouches. Aschenbach is both intrigued and repelled by this foreign scene.
Aschenbach has the means to travel, but he rarely has. He has been devoted to his work, to “care and duty,” and his “travels” have consisted mostly of spending each summer in his country house in the mountains. He has always put his writing, his art, first. He must admit, however, that the discipline and hard work he has given to his craft have tired him; he seems to be suffering from writer’s block. He has lost his joy in writing. He thinks that perhaps a trip to some place foreign might revive his spirits and help him find joy in writing once again. He decides to take a journey “. . . not all the way to the tigers,” but to “some of the gay world’s playgrounds in the lovely south. . . .”
The narrator takes great care to present Aschenbach’s lifestyle and character as fastidious, serious, and solitary. Gustave Aschenbach seems to be above and separate from the general populace; on his walk he does not seek companionship, but instead he observes the people in the park and at the restaurants, and then he continues his solitary walk. The stone mason’s yard, filled with the usual, sentimental inscriptions on monuments and crosses, amuses this man who spends his days deep in his writing.
The stranger, when he appears, directly contrasts to Aschenbach’s surroundings. He is flesh among stone; with his traveler’s apparel and “ruthless” look, he is outside the ordered, civil life that Aschenbach lives and observes in the city; his hostile demeanor seems to mock the stoic sentiments engraved on the stones. The narrator’s description of the traveler—the colorless eyes, red hair and lashes, freckles, exotic dress, the fact that he stands among marble images of “apocalyptic beasts,” his hostility—all create an impression that he is more than just a stranger. His appearance in a place that symbolizes an orderly, rewarding afterlife seems prophetic. But of what, exactly?
For Aschenbach, his appearance sparks a latent desire to travel, to experience something beyond his ordinary life. He cannot quite put his finger on what it is he wants to experience, and indeed he is afraid to experience it. The narrator reports that Aschenbach imagines the island where he might go as “reeking,” “steaming, “monstrous,” and “rank.” The palms are “hairy,” and the plant life is “fat, swollen, thick with incredible bloom.” The trees have “naked”
roots that reach into “stagnant and shadowy” water. The narrator’s word choice suggests a carnal, bacchanalian place, a place far from the meticulously planned city streets and the cold, lonely stone mason’s yard. Such a place is far from Aschenbach’s lifestyle, indeed.
Summary, pages 8-15
The narrator provides background information on Aschenbach: he was born in a country town in Silesia. His father was an “upper official in the judicature;” his ancestors on his father’s side had been “officers, judges, departmental functionaries—men who lived their strict, decent, sparing lives in the service of king and state.” His mother’s father, however, had been a “Bohemian musical conductor.” From a young age, Aschenbach was both hard working and ambitious in his writing talents, and he earned a reputation as an accomplished writer very early. His dedication and his delicate constitution made him a solitary youth, but he did not mind having no friends; his writing was most important to him.
As a young man—and like many young artists of the time—he went through a questioning, carefree, cynical stage in which his writings on the nature of art and the artist “offended in speech and writing against fact and good sense.” But as he matured, he did a “right-about-face” and took on a detached, more austere viewpoint. His writing style changed to one with “a lofty purity, symmetry, and simplicity, which gave his productions a stamp of the classic, of conscious and deliberate mastery” and which earned him prestigious awards. He is loved by both public and critics alike for his portrayals of heroes overcoming weaknesses and triumphing.
Aschenbach married and had a daughter, but his wife died early on. The daughter is now married. Aschenbach lives alone.
Aschenbach is a man of “below middle height, dark and smooth-shaven,” with thinning, graying hair, gold spectacles, and a hooked nose. In general, his appearance is that of a man who has lived a hard life, who has witnessed things such as hospitals during war time. Of course, he has done no such things. The narrator makes clear that “it was art, not the stern discipline of an active career, that had taken over the office of modeling these features.” Aschenbach’s writing—his imaginings of heroes and wars—has aged him. He may have led a sedate, yet dedicated life, but such a life has produced a “fastidiousness, an over-refinement, a nervous fever and exhaustion, such as a career of extravagant passions and pleasures can hardly show.”
The narrator suggests that Aschenbach has inherited particular characteristics from his parents that have made him a great writer. From his father’s side, he inherited a strict work ethic and a will to influence others. From his mother’s side, he inherited a talent for using words, beautifully, to touch others. He has spent his whole life dedicated to his writing, living within his head, so to speak, rather than actually living in the world. And throughout this career, he has remained virtually solitary.