Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Like any number of Kleist’s other stories, “The Engagement in Santo Domingo” pulls first one way and then the other on the reader’s expectations. It appears that Gustav von der Ried will die as other whites before him have; then, because he has violated Toni, it seems likely that his fate at Kongo Hoango’s hands will be unusually cruel. There follows a stretch of frantic but somewhat brighter expectation as Toni works to win freedom for Gustav and herself. (She firmly believes that they can escape together to Europe.) None of these developments prepares the reader for the surprise ending.

Other expectations prove illusory, too. Gustav’s story of the black slave girl who lured her former white owner into her fatal embrace with the promise of saving him from the rampaging rebels only appears to foreshadow what Toni will soon do to Gustav, and her denial that she could commit such treachery seems—and surely is intended to be—deceitful of her. The story that parallels it, in which Gustav tells of his own former bride-to-be and her self-sacrifice to the revolutionary mob in France for his sake, unambiguously prefigures Toni’s faithfulness. Gustav gradually discovers that it is the European woman to whom Toni bears a mysterious resemblance. The ironic reversal comes only at the end, when Gustav confuses faithfulness with duplicity and takes it on himself to execute the second of his redeeming angels.

Some of the story’s devices belong to Kleist’s stock-in-trade: the fateful confusion of appearance and reality; the intoxication—in this case erotic—that abruptly changes the course of characters’ actions; and the appearance of the beloved in the blissful escape of a dream vision, such as that in which Toni finds Gustav as he sleeps on the final night of the story. The motif of forbidden love-at-first-sight, the young girl’s awakening to the power of love, and the concluding love-death scene are all familiar to readers from the Romeo and Juliet tradition in literature.

It is worth recalling that, in November of the same year in which this story appeared, Kleist carried out a suicide pact with a woman of his acquaintance, firing a bullet through her heart and a second one through his own head.