One day when he is feeling over-taxed, he goes out for a walk and spots a red-haired man dressed as a traveler. Although the man appears to view him with disdain, at the sight of him Aschenbach is suddenly possessed with the desire to travel.
After stopping a few days on an island in the Adriatic, he decides to go to Venice. The city is gray and unwelcoming. The air is miasmic, and he wonders if he should have come. Then at the hotel he sees a beautiful boy. At first he simply enjoys looking at him, but eventually he becomes erotically fixated.
In writing this novella, Mann wanted to examine the relationship between art and the mind, a life of the senses and a life of intellect. At first, Aschenbach tries to rationalize his obsession by philosophizing about it. Mann makes many allusions to Greek mythology and calls the boy’s beauty godlike. But Aschenbach is lead inexorably into mental degradation. On the boat to Venice he was repelled by an older man, hair dyed and face rouged, who was traveling with a bunch of students. By the end of the novella, he has become that man.
While respecting the merits of the novella, I found Aschenbach’s obsessions and rationalizations repulsive, but I believe that is what Mann intended. In many ways, the story has similarities to Nabokov’s Lolita. However, while Nabokov’s language was beautiful enough to make me somehow grasp what Humbert Humbert felt, Mann’s was written with a different intent, I think.