Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The terrible destructive force of the earthquake levels both buildings and human institutions. At the same time that it kills scores of people, it liberates Jeronimo and Josephe from the bonds of the old hierarchical social and political order. The Rousseauistic promise of a new, egalitarian social order based on the natural goodness of humanity, however, deludes the lovers into desiring to return to the city immediately—to the one building left standing where the old power structure could reassert itself and incite people to return to their old ways. The earthquake, Heinrich von Kleist suggests, brings out the best and worst in everyone, and the evil that triumphs in the Dominican church is an evil upheld by a church governed by a powerful need to protect its own authority and interests. Kleist’s sympathies clearly lie with Jeronimo and Josephe, yet the purity of their love is no match for the far stronger social conventions and structures that ultimately destroy them.

The world is the staging ground for vast, unpredictable forces—whether natural, human, political, or religious. It is chance that saves the lovers at first, chance that brings them together at the spring, chance that they are recognized and slain outside the church, and, finally, chance that saves their son. If there is no final certainty, only a universe governed by irrational forces and a God who is incomprehensible and largely absent from everyday life, how should one act? Jeronimo, Josephe, and Don Fernando all act with a natural grace and dignity in the face of turmoil, yet each pays dearly for it. Kleist’s deep pessimism about the nature of human behavior and institutions leads almost inevitably to tragedy. Don Fernando embodies Kleistian moral character and provides the story its small yet persistent hope that a more just moral order might yet prevail.