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Bills of Mortality

Disease and Destiny in Plague Literature from Early Modern to Postmodern Times


Patrick Reilly

Bills of Mortality: Disease and Destiny in Plague Literature from Early Modern to Postmodern Times explores the dynamic between the fact of plague and the constructs of destiny deadly disease generates in literary texts ranging from Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year to Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. The volume is of interest to readers in both literary and scientific, especially medical, fields. In addition, it serves as an accessible introduction to plague literature and to the arena in which it has evolved since ancient times. To undergraduate and graduate students, Bills of Mortality affords an opportunity for scholarly engagement in a topic no less timely now than it was when plague struck Milan in 1629 or ravaged Venice in 1912 or felled Thebes in antiquity.
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Chapter Four: Dead on Arrival. Death in Venice

← 70 | 71 → CHAPTER FOUR


Death in Venice

Character is destiny.


No work of art is possible without the help of the devil.


Thomas Mann declared that everything in his 1912 novella, Death in Venice (Der Tod in Venedig), was drawn from real life—that he had only to put it all together. According to his wife, Katja, in her Unwritten Memoirs, the novella originated during a holiday she and Mann spent with his brother in Venice in 1912, on which occasion Mann encountered a beautiful Polish youth who became the model for the character he named Tadzio (60-3). The novella’s composition may owe a creative debt as well to a 1911 newspaper account of an actual Asiatic cholera epidemic that had crossed the Adriatic Sea and infested Venice and its environs, although the topic of plague, be it metaphorical or real, appears to have commanded a fascination for Mann throughout his career, as his novels The Magic Mountain (1924) and Dr. Faustus (1947) attest. In those works, too, disease (tuberculosis, syphilis) is linked intimately to the evolution of the protagonist’s destiny.

As in the texts of Defoe’s journal and Manzoni’s history of a plague year, in Mann’s novella disease substantively redefines destiny. However, whereas Defoe and Manzoni, at least in part, aesthetically invest the earthly fact of plague in ← 71 | 72 → seventeenth-century London and Milan with the divine force of destiny by which human souls are justly damned or...

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