(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

A young widow, Giulietta, the marquise of O——, has placed a notice in the newspaper announcing that she is pregnant and does not know how she came to be pregnant. The notice says that she will marry the man who presents himself as the father of her child. The marquise already has children and enjoys the respect of her family and community. Her father is a colonel and in command of a fortress, and her late husband, the marquis, had died on a business trip to Paris. After his death, she was urged home by her mother, and she has been living with her parents quietly, pursuing her own education and that of her children while caring for her parents.

War breaks out, disturbing the marquise’s tranquil retreat. Before she and her mother can leave the fort, Russian troops storm in. The wing of the house where the women have taken shelter catches fire, and the marquise flees, separated from her mother and exposed to the invading soldiers. A group of sharpshooters attacks her with the intention of raping her. Russian count F—— comes to her rescue. He fights her attackers, gives her his arm with a polite address in French, and guides her to safety in the other wing of the palace. She perceives her rescuer as an angel. The marquise’s women servants arrive, and the count leaves to return to the fight.

Colonel Lorenzo G——, Giulietta’s father, has been awaiting an opportunity to surrender to the proper authority, and when the count appears he hands over his weapon and asks to see his family. He learns of the attack on his daughter and tells the Russian general who comes to take charge of the fort about the disgraceful behavior of his troops. The count, meanwhile, has been working feverishly to put out the fire in the palace, and when his general asks him to identify the men who insulted the marquise, he says that he was unable to see their faces. The general orders summary execution of the men after finding one wounded participant in the attack who names his partners in crime. The Russian troops, including Count F——, vacate the fort. The marquise tries to contact her hero, but he sends his apologies and does not see her again.

While the family is trying to find a way to thank the count, news arrives that he has been fatally shot in battle, a shot witnessed by the bearer of the message himself. The count’s dying words indicate that the shot is his just punishment for a crime he has committed against a woman named Giulietta. The marquise, hearing this, is amazed that he has been intimate with a woman who shares her first name.

The colonel and his family turn the fort over to the Russian victors and move into a house in the nearby town, where they resume their quiet and ordered life. The daily routine is disrupted when the marquise begins to have symptoms that, in any other woman, she would identify with pregnancy. They all laugh about this impossibility.

The count shocks the family by appearing at their new home. He looks pale, and before they can ask any questions, he inquires about the health of the marquise. She answers that she has been a little ill. He unexpectedly asks her to marry him. The whole family feels astonishment, and they...

(The entire section is 1309 words.)

The Marquise of O—— Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Although a comedy with several amusing scenes, this tale illustrates serious themes in Kleist’s works: the crisis of trust and the inaccessibility of vital knowledge. The riddle of rape, its moral implications, and the father-daughter relationship in this story have been controversial. Like other Kleist narratives, this one opens with an enigma: a newspaper announcement in which a woman asks that her child’s father, who impregnated her without her knowledge, make himself known so that she can marry him. A long flashback follows to explain how the marquise came to write this.

The marquise’s calm life with her family was rudely interrupted when Russians bombarded the citadel where they lived. Close to being sexually assaulted by enemy soldiers, she was rescued by a Russian count, who brought the fainting woman to a safe place. The Russian army left the next morning, denying the marquise a chance to thank her savior in person.

The count suddenly reappears twice to court the marquise. The first is a surprise because he is believed to have been killed in battle; the second is also a surprise because he enters her garden surreptitiously. His respectful, polite demeanor remains in tension with expressions of emotion, such as blushing and abrupt gestures. The demands of his military career and social conventions constantly thwart his desire to wed the marquise.

Despite her decision not to remarry on principle, there are indications that the marquise feels attracted to the...

(The entire section is 615 words.)

The Marquise of O—— Bibliography

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Fischer, Bernd, ed. A Companion to the Works of Heinrich von Kleist. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2003. This useful overview places Kleist in the history of the novella and offers a fine general reading of this particular story. It includes chapters on theme as well as chapters centered on specific works.

Gelus, Marjorie. “Patriarchy’s Fragile Boundaries Under Siege: Three Stories of Heinrich von Kleist.” Women in German Yearbook: Feminist Studies in German Literature and Culture 10 (1995): 59-82. Gelus offers a balanced feminist approach to The Marquise of O—— with special attention to the symbolic nature of the count’s dream about the white swan.

McAllister, Grant Profant, Jr. Kleist’s Female Leading Characters and the Subversion of Idealist Discourse. New York: Peter Lang, 2005. This book approaches Kleist from a philosophical perspective and reads female characters such as the marquise in terms of their power to contest the dominant ideological frame of the works in which they appear.

McGlathery, James M. Desire’s Sway: The Plays and Stories of Heinrich von Kleist. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1983. McGlathery offers a compelling reading of the centrality of human desire—which may issue in love or death—in Kleist’s novellas and plays.

Weineck, Silke-Maria. “Kleist and the Resurrection of the Father.” Eighteenth Century Studies 37, no. 1 (Fall, 2003): 69-89. This article carries out a nuanced psychoanalytical reading of The Marquise of O—— in relation to other works by Kleist that treat the role of the father figure.

Winnett, Susan. “The Marquise’s ’O’ and the Mad Dash of Narrative.” In Rape and Representation, edited by Lynn A. Higgins and Brenda R. Silver. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991. Winnett offers a feminist reading of the novella replete with the most current theoretical thinking, in particular that of critic-novelist Monique Wittig. Winnett’s reading helps explain the ongoing interest in this early nineteenth century tale.