Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Because Heinrich von Kleist regarded the human individual as a riddle, he made Toni the central figure of this story. She stands at the nexus of turbulent events and conflicting allegiances. As a child of mixed race, she enjoys the confidence and affections of both whites and blacks, but she also suffers the antipathy and mistrust of both. She must be clever and deceitful beyond her years to make the mother believe that her moral principles, not her attraction to Gustav, prompt her to plead for his release. Gustav himself has difficulty fathoming his feelings toward Toni: “If not for her color, which repelled him, he would have sworn that he had never seen anything prettier.” His mixed emotions are only more profound and ominous after their lovemaking: “He swore he would never stop loving her, and that it was only in the delirium of his strangely disordered senses that the mixture of desire and fear she inspired in him could have seduced him into doing such a thing.”

Kleist need not have made Toni a mere girl of fifteen if the innocence of youth had not been crucially important to her character. She is a riddle as much to herself as to the others in the story and to the author as well (no omniscient narrator questions or probes the reasons for her actions). She is experienced at playing the decoy for many hapless white fugitives up to now, but she is overtaken by love’s desire in the encounter with Gustav; in affairs of the heart she is...

(The entire section is 495 words.)