The novel Death in Venice is a direct parallel to the life of Thomas Mann, its author. The novel's main character, Gustav von Aschenbach, is the son of a high-ranking legal official who is descended from a family with a long tradition of austere and disciplined service to the Prussian state. His mother was the daughter of a music director from Bohemia. Mann's father held a similar position with much the same heritage, and his mother was half Portuguese-Creole Brazilian. Both men are a combination of discipline and passion. .
The novel is a narrative on Aschenbach's trip to Venice, where he becomes obsessed with a young boy named Tadzio and dies of cholera. The novel begins with Aschenbach taking a walk to relieve stress caused by his writing. He sees a stonemason's yard with blank tombstones and an ugly foreign man. Although nothing happens in this encounter, it causes Aschenbach to become disgusted with the his environment and leads him to pursue foreign travel. The ugly man Aschenbach sees sharply contrasts with the aesthetic beauty which surrounds Tadzio latter in the novel, and the blank tombstones clearly foreshadow death.
Aschenbach travels first to an island in the Adriatic, but it is rainy and Aschenbach has no access to the sea because of the island's high cliffs. After searching for a ship, he quickly makes for Venice. Aschenbach's trip to Italy is also very typical of Thomas Mann. Mann would frequently visit Italy to gain relief from the stress of writing and to gain inspiration. Venice also serves as a symbol for Aschenbach because, though it is very beautiful on the surface, it is built in a swamp and is slowly decaying and sinking into the mire. Aschenbach is also decaying internally because of the austere and intellectual facade he is forced by his society to maintain.
When Aschenbach arrives in Venice, he catches a ride to the dock in a black gondola. The color of the gondola is an obvious symbol for the impending death foretold in the title.