Epiphany in Venice
Epiphany can be defined as the sudden realization of the essence or meaning of something, as well as the understanding of the truth of certain situations or one’s life as a whole. In Death in Venice, Gustav von Auschenbach’s recognition of his love for and obsession with Tadzio is a kind of epiphany that, while not exactly beneficial or positive marks a point in which the character experience complete clarity and begins to express honesty about his previously rejected desires.
Gustav von Auschenbach, having led a life of dedication to his craft, prides himself on disciplined perfectionism and dignity. His life up to the point at which the novel takes place has been largely uneventful. Many ominous occurrences help to illustrate Gustav’s state of mind at the story’s opening. His exchange with a strange gondola rower who turns out to be a criminal, as well as his sighting of a disturbing old man dressed to look youthful are both v
aguely perilous encounters which serve to establish Gustav’s uneasiness. Upon discovering Tadzio, Gustav slowly allows his principles and dignity to erode as his obsession expands. Tadzio seems to tap into the lifelong desires that Gustav has repressed in the interest of being fully committed to his work. The end result of this obsession, however, is the writer’s death.
While not necessarily in the dark before this epiphany, von Auschenbach was certainly very repressed. After feeling a vague need for a vacation, he travels to Venice completely unaware of what waits for him. The obsession is something that, given his principles, is extremely hard to verbalize. However, when he finally declares, “I love you,” it is clear that he has accepted the truth about his feelings and desires. Though neither overtly religious or spiritual, von Auschenbach’s epiphany marks a change in his profound change in his state of mind and worldview and could therefore be seen as spiritual. This epiphany was solely brought on by the travel experience, before which von Auschenbach had lived a stable and principled life. His deeply ingrained longings were awakened through his trip to Venice and his sighting of Tadzio. While von Auschenbach’s Venetian experience led him to a greater freedom and honesty, which is not to be ignored, his travels ultimately resulted in his mental torture and death.
Epiphany is not always positive, as indicated by Death in Venice. Discovery, especially self-discovery, can be quite painful and sometimes thoroughly detrimental. Gustav von Auschenbach, having lived a monotonous and increasingly stagnant life was unable to process the hard truths of his dangerous desires, considering them foreign, unpleasant, and sinful; his inability to ever speak or reach out to Tadzio being proof of this. While it was certainly a moment of complete honesty, von Auschenbach’s revelation and declaration of his love led him to further introversion. The downward spiral that began with the first time he laid eyes on the young boy grew from a preoccupation to a complete obsession leaving him unable to focus on anything else and changing his worldview and philosophy to suit his festering desires. This epiphany of his uncontrollable lust led to his bizarre death but allowed him to gain a deeper knowledge of himself.