Lade Inhalt...

The Representation and Negotiation of Work Ethics and Masculinity in Thomas Mann's "Death in Venice"

Work in Progress / Work on Progress

Seminararbeit 2016 16 Seiten

Germanistik - Neuere Deutsche Literatur



1. Introduction

2. Theoretical Background: Work Ethics and Masculinity Studies

3. From the Apollonian to the Dionysian: Gustav von Aschenbach’s Work Ethics in Relation to his Masculinity
3.1 With a Clenched Fist and a Stiff Upper Lip: Gustav von Aschenbach and the Protestant Work Ethic
3.2 Letting Loose: Death in the New Life of Leisure

4. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice, which was published in 1912, is regarded as one of the most influential works of German literature in the twentieth century. Literary scholars from all over the world have studied the book from different approaches. One strand of literary criticism that flourished over the last decades and gained prominence in the discourse on Death in Venice is the field of masculinity studies (cf. Marshall 33). Scholars like Michael Kimmel, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and R. W. Connell had a significant influence on the theorization of masculinity studies and its practical application over the last years. Drawing upon their findings, contemporary literary critics like Esther K. Bauer (2015), Karsten Essen (2007) and Daniel Marshall (2015) analyzed Death in Venice and shed light on the novella’s representation and negotiation of masculinity. In their applications of masculinity studies to Thomas Mann's renowned work these scholars either give a general overview on the composition of masculine gender roles in the novella or focus on specific parameters of masculinity, in particular the aspect of homosexuality.

It is certainly true that readings like these contributed to the understanding of Death in Venice in general and its representation of masculinity in particular. Yet, the highly relevant issue of work ethics as a parameter of masculine identity is clearly understudied. While all of the scholars mentioned above touch upon the aspect of work in the novella, none of them focuses on the representation of work ethics and its relation to the construction of masculinity. That is why I seek to deepen and extend our understanding of how masculinity is negotiated in the novel by uncovering the reciprocal connection between work and masculinity.

First of all, I argue that the representation and negotiation of work ethics in the book is seminal for a thorough understanding of the book and the characterization of its protagonist. Thus, Gustav von Aschenbach’s attitude to work and its shift in the course of the novel hold out key insights for the reader’s understanding of the main character's trajectory. Yet, instead of analyzing the rendered work ethics in the novella as a theme of its own, I suggest to consider it a component of the construction of masculinity because both, the representation of work ethics and masculinity are closely connected and interdependently related in Thomas Mann's text. I will illustrate Aschenbach’s shift from an active, diligent and hard-working man whose masculinity goes along with traditional conceptions of manhood, to a passive, idle and leisurely man who consciously refutes the same traditional conventions eventually. In Death in Venice the act of breaking with descriptive and prescriptive stereotypes of masculinity is induced by but also induces a liberation from a partially inherited, partially socially indoctrinated and partially self-inflicted work ethic that represses the freedom of the individual.

My analysis of the representation of work will be based on Max Weber's concept of the Protestant Work Ethic that were first published in the year 1904. The theoretical background for my analysis of masculinity will be mainly informed by the masculinity scholars Michael Kimmel and R. W. Connell. By drawing on other gender scholars in the field I will reveal work as a foundational constituent of what is generally perceived as masculinity. These theories will be outlined in the first chapter of my project. After that, I apply these theories to the subject of my research, Death in Venice by Thomas Mann. In the first section of my analysis I will describe Aschenbach's work ethic and the concomitant image of masculinity before he sets out to Venice. Subsequently, I will reveal his shifting work ethic and altering performance of masculinity during the protagonist's stay in Venice. At, I will sum up and evaluate the most important findings of my study before I provide a prospect on further possible research on this topic.

2. Theoretical Background: Work Ethics and Masculinity Studies

In order to analyze work ethics in a literary work it is certainly advisable to base one’s interpretation on a theoretical model that serves to study work as a social, political and economic phenomenon and that stresses the importance of work ethics for the individual but also for the community within a society. One theoretical theory that lends itself for a study of the representation of work ethics in a literary text is Max Weber’s concept of the Protestant Work Ethic that he outlined in his The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism[1] that was first published in 1904 and is still approved and supported by renowned contemporary historians like the recently deceased Harvard professor David Saul Landes (cf. 177ff). As the German scholar Karsten Essen points out, Mann was familiar with Weber’s work and also quoted him directly in some of his non-fictional works (cf. 120).

In this book, the sociologist, philosopher and political economist argues that Protestantism yielded a specific work ethic due to group-specific socialization processes and a particular religious education, which had been highly influenced by Calvinist teachings (cf. 170). This work ethic, which he calls the Protestant Work Ethic, is mainly defined by the belief in and appreciation of “intense worldly activity,” which can be understood as work (cf. Weber 112). According to Weber, Protestant societies don’t value work as a means to an end but as an end in itself. Hence, hard labor becomes a systematic, self-controlled and autotelic activity (cf. Weber 117). This attitude to work goes along with the valorization of an ascetic lifestyle to increase productivity and a “formalistic, hard, correct character” (Weber 166). At the same time he argues that enjoyment of any kind –idleness, luxury and too much sleep – was originally interpreted as a refusal of one’s calling by God and therefore regarded as “the deadliest of sins” (Weber 157f). According to Weber, this religiously inspired refusal of leisure also had an everlasting impact on the Protestant (work) ethic. Weber's theory represents an interesting and eligible approach for an analysis of work ethics in Death in Venice because it was published contemporaneously and because the novella's protagonist is of Prussian descent on his father's side and also grew up in Prussia, a state that was highly influenced by Protestantism.

For my study of masculinity, I will mainly draw upon the theory and terminology of the renowned masculinity scholar Michael Kimmel and also on R. W. Connell’s concept of hegemonic masculinity. For Kimmel masculinity is not naturally inherent and real, but an idea, a social construct, which is not static or timeless but changing and developing over time. This construct is the product of certain representations of masculinity during a certain time at a specific place and in a particular economic, political and cultural context (Kimmel x). Therefore, masculinity can’t be understood as a manifestation of a preordained biological "plan," but as an idea that is charged with meaning and means "different things at different times to different people" (Kimmel 4). R. W. Connell uses the term "hegemonic masculinity" to address the issue of a "culturally idealized form of masculine character (in a given historical setting), which may not be the usual form of masculinity at all" (69). He contends convincingly that there is always an "ideal" but mutable conception of masculinity next to a multitude of competing masculinities against which men measure themselves (ibid.).

For various scholars in the field of masculinity studies, like for example Victoria Robinson and Jennifer L. Hockey work is a striking component of masculinities and the ways they are constructed and negotiated. They argue that the self-identification of a man as a “man” can be re-affirmed or questioned by his profession and his attitude to work (20, 88). A prominent idea of masculinity which is still perpetuated in contemporary times is the myth of the “hard-working male hero” (Negra and Tasker 16). Literary critics like Hannelore Mundt have already identified the motif of the “strict work ethic” in Death in Venice (88), but have not discussed this vital theme in the novella in detail. Also, scholars like Daniel Marshall read Death in Venice in the light of gender but mostly approach Mann’s novella “as a foundational text for male homosexual identity” (38) while they disregard work as a parameter of constructed manhood. Another approach to study gender in Death in Venice was introduced by Bauer, who draws a connection between age and gender, which he regards as vital for an understanding of the text (22f). In his reading, Aschenbach conforms to stereotypical conceptions of masculinity by submitting to culturally constructed notions of age (cf. Bauer 37). Against the backdrop of these reflections on work ethics, the construction of masculinity and the interdependent relation between the two, the following chapter sheds light on the representation and negotiation of work as a parameter of masculinity in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice.

3. From the Apollonian to the Dionysian: Gustav von Aschenbach’s Work Ethics in Relation to his Masculinity

Throughout the entire novella Mann stresses Gustav von Aschenbach’s relation and attitude to work. At the beginning of the book Aschenbach is represented as a hard-working, disciplined and austere author who is very successful and highly regarded by society. His seemingly stable sense of identity and self-control is shaken when he decides to leave his place of residence to go on a vacation which has him end up in Venice eventually. When he sees Tadzio, a Polish boy who resides in the same hotel as Aschenbach with his family, Aschenbach’s former sense of identity is shattered and turned upside down. Amazed by the boy’s beauty, Aschenbach regards him as a perfect piece of art and decides to prolong his stay in Venice to watch, study and follow the boy as much as he can. He gradually despises and abandons his formerly dutiful work ethic and his ascetic lifestyle. In contrast to that, Aschenbach discovers the joys of idleness and leisure that he used to suppress his whole life long. He seems to enjoy his new lifestyle and the psychological and physical liberation that goes along with it. His personal transformation is complete at the end when he sits in a chair on the beach, watches Tadzio for one last time before he slumps down and dies of a cholera infection which was most likely caused by contaminated strawberries he bought and ate in Venice. Against the backdrop of this overview the following subchapters will illustrate the different stages of Aschenbach’s transformation in more detail to illustrate how his sense of work ethics is related to his masculinity and how it has an impact on his identity formation.

3.1 With a Clenched Fist and a Stiff Upper Lip: Gustav von Aschenbach and the Protestant Work Ethic

At the beginning of the book, Gustav von Aschenbach’s work ethic is described along stereotypical conceptions of masculinity. On the very first page of the book the reader comes across an extensive passage on Aschenbach’s labor as a writer. Right from the start the protagonist is represented as a diligent and efficient person whose work is described as difficult and dangerous which is why it requires caution, vigorousness and the precision of his will (cf. Mann 9). His labor as a writer is presented as so exhausting that Aschenbach, who is in his mid-fifties, feels compelled to go on a walk or sleep in the afternoon to recover after strenuous hours of dedicated work in the morning (Mann cf. 9). Aschenbach is rendered as loving his work even though it becomes more and more exhausting for him. That is why he is constantly afraid that his work might be corrupted and flawed by his growing fatigue (cf. Mann 16). Despite his decreasing physical capabilities he aspires to keep up the high quality of his writing because missing to meet his own and the public expectations would be tantamount to absolute failure for him. In this regard the way Aschenbach's relation to work is described at the beginning of the book clearly goes along with Weber's theoretical conception of the Protestant Work Ethic.

This ethic, however, is rather represented as a burden than a blessing. Von Aschenbach constantly feels an “obligation to production” because of his own will and also because of what the narrator describes as his “European soul” (Mann 15). Implicitly, the text creates a notion of a European work spirit that forces itself on people like Aschenbach. Every day of his life seems to be structured in a way that maximizes the output of his creative power. He is rendered as waking up early in the morning and taking cold showers before sacrificing his newly gained energy and his most valuable hours of the day for his work (cf. Mann 22). Thus, work is associated with agony and has to be met by strong willpower in order to be properly conducted. His literary success as a writer is explained by pointing out that Aschenbach always remained strong, self-disciplined and persistent at his work despite all impediments, like grief, anguish, poverty, loneliness, physical weakness, vice and passion (cf. Mann 23).

His martyrly attitude towards his work is also regarded as the key motif of his literary oeuvre (cf. Mann 23). The narrator draws connections between Aschenbach and his novels when he says that his books reflect his own inner struggle. In this regard it is interesting to see that his characters typically represent an “intellectual and youthful masculinity,” which is able to endure all pain in life and can keep the composure nonetheless (cf. Mann 22). The narrator even claims that it is exactly this motif of persistence despite physical frailty that made von Aschenbach’s texts so successful, but also so fitting and relevant for the time they were written in (cf. Mann 23). This idea of the hard-working, unshakable man who bears all the pain and misery in life without shedding a tear ties in well with the concept of the “formalistic, hard [and] correct character” that Weber describes in his theory on the Protestant Work Ethic (166). Despite all the pain it entails, this particular ethic describes Aschenbach's attitude to work, the themes of his own writing and explains his popularity in a society that valorizes exactly these norms and values.

Since Aschenbach feels attached to Munich, the place where he lives and works, he is typically not attracted by other places in the world and never wanted to leave Europe. For him, travelling is merely a hygienic necessary measure that needs to be taken every once in a while (cf. 13f). It is made obvious that throughout all of his life Aschenbach successfully suppressed his inner drives for adventure and travelling by reason and self-discipline. The protagonist is represented as literally living for his work. That is why for him trip around the world would only mean a loss of precious time to finish his oeuvre before his death (cf. 16).

Yet, it is not only the yearning for adventure and travel the he always tried to suppress. It is also made obvious that Aschenbach suppressed his feelings in general as they would have interfered with his work and derailed his strive for perfection by making him less ambitious and easy to satisfy. Already as a young man, von Aschenbach only strived for excellence and suppressed anything that wasn't compatible with his ambition. The narrator describes him as follows: “Schon als Jüngling von allen Seiten auf Leistung – und zwar die außerordentliche – verpflichtet, hatte er niemals den Müßiggang, niemals die sorglose Fahrlässigkeit der Jugend gekannt” (Mann 20). So, von Aschenbach never really had a carefree youth and never got to experience idleness and leisure. In the manner of what Weber describes as the Protestant Work Ethic Aschenbach has always been rejecting any kind of enjoyment that might distract him from his work.

This inner conflict between work and enjoyment can be illustrated by describing it as a struggle between the Nietzschean concepts of the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Throughout his whole life Aschenbach consciously repressed his Dionysian side in order to allow his Apollonian side the required space for (literary) excellence. Before he leaves for Venice, Aschenbach seems to have lost his Dionysian side entirely. He has no more inspiration for his writing and is therefore suffering from a writer's block (cf. Mann 17). Yet, Aschenbach’s total dedication to work is not only represented as a self-inflicted restriction of his emotional, non-rational side, but also as a denial of a balanced human existence in general. Finally, he decides to go on a vacation to find extrinsic inspiration that might promote his writing process. Thus, his final decision to go on a vacation seems a necessary measure to regain his productivity as a writer and his inner balance as a human being.

The conflict between the Dionysian and the Apollonian is also illustrated by Aschenbach’s lineage and the norms and values that seem to have been passed on from one generation to the next. In the novella, Aschenbach is said to have been born in Silesia as a son of a judicial officer. The ancestors on this paternal side were officers, judges and administration secretaries. As the narrator points out, all of them worked for the king and the state and lived austere, decent and sparse lives. Therefore, their professions and characters tie in perfectly well with the concept of the Protestant Work Ethic. This family line represents an Apollonian world of reason and rationalism. In contrast to that, von Aschenbach’s maternal side is symbolic of a different inner drive, that is, the drive for an emotional and a passionate experience of the world. His mother’s father was a chapel master from Bohemia and therefore part of the reason how the sober Silesian conscientiousness on the paternal side mixed with the feisty Bohemian temper and “fiery impulses” on the maternal side (19). The dichotomy between both families seems to become evident in Aschenbach’s inner psychological struggle between the Apollonian and the Dionysian. During the course of his life, Aschenbach seems to have learned how to make use of the paternally transmitted self-discipline to maintain a dominance of the Apollonian over the Dionysian in his life. Quite fittingly, his whole character is symbolically described by the metaphor of a clenched fist (cf. 20f). Figuratively speaking, Aschenbach always tried to have a firm grip on life and never wanted to let loose.

By the end of the second chapter the characterization of Gustav von Aschenbach as a man can be summarized and based upon the representation of his work ethics. In multiple ways he seems to fit to Weber's model of the Protestant Work Ethic. Thus, he exemplifies what Negra and Tasker describe as the "hard-working male hero," an idea which is seminal for hegemonic models of masculinity (Negra and Tasker 16). The Apollonian side dominates the Dionysian and this is imbalance is staged by Aschenbach's dutiful attitude to work and his concomitant traditional performance of masculinity.

In order to gain new inspiration for his current literary project he decides to go to Venice. The impact of the impressions he gains in Venice are so powerful that they do not only give him inspiration, but also shatter and subvert both his work ethics and masculine identity. This process and the different sense of identity are described in the next chapter.


1 Since I was not able to get access to the original version in German with the title Die protestantische Ethik und der ‘Geist’ des Kapitalismus, I decided to use Talcott Parson’s English translation of the text.


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
425 KB
Institution / Hochschule
University of South Carolina – Department of Languages Literatures and Cultures, German Program



Titel: The Representation and Negotiation of Work Ethics and Masculinity in Thomas Mann's "Death in Venice"