The story takes place in the winter at Einfried, a sanatorium directed by Dr. Leander, a physician "whom science has cooled and hardened and filled with silent, forbearing pessimism." A young married woman (Frau Kloterjahn) arrives as a patient. Her husband denies the seriousness of her illness by calling it merely "a problem of the trachea." In reality, Frau Kloterjahn, who had recently given birth to a healthy son, is dying of consumption.

A not-so-sick novelist (Detlev Spinell) also lives in the sanatorium, and he quickly develops a romantic obsession with the new patient. One day most of the residents go for a sleigh ride, but Spinell and Frau Kloterjahn remain indoors. He cajoles her to play the piano for him, which has been forbidden. Picking up a score from "Tristan und Isolde," Frau Kloterjahn plays beautifully until exhausted. When her death becomes imminent, Herr Kloterjahn returns to her bedside. At this point Spinell writes Kloterjahn an excoriating letter, saying (in essence) that the man is an insensitive slob who doesn't understand his own wife.


The title tells it all--a tale of deep romanticism, complete with a sensitive artist, his dying lover, her brutish husband, and the lovers' exquisite moment of communion, which takes place amid the achingly beautiful piano chords of "Tristan und Isolde," which exult love, death, and eternity.

But wait a second! Something doesn't fit. Forget the fact that in this version the Tristan character doesn't die, and the Isolde character isn't in love with him. There is a deep irony here because the generative love of Frau Kloterjahn and her husband has produced a healthy baby boy, who is cooing with delight at the end of the story, while the arch-romantic novelist, who stalks despondently from the scene, brings death to whatever he touches. Herr Kloterjahn, far from being an insensitive clod, actually understands his wife.

So in "Tristan" the romantic love-death myth simply doesn't hold water. Frau Kloterjahn's consumption is just consumption; her death is just a death. Salvation lies in affirmation and generativity, not in eternal love.


First published in German in 1902. Translated by H. T. Lowe-Porter.

Primary Source

Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories



Place Published

New York



Page Count