Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Michael Kohlhaas, a horse dealer from Brandenburg, is on his way to sell some of his fine horses when he is stopped at Tronka castle in the neighboring state of Saxony. He is asked to pay a toll and show a pass before proceeding—a requirement he has not had to satisfy on seventeen previous trips. Leaving his groom Herse and two horses as security, Kohlhaas goes to Dresden, capital of Saxony, where he is given a pass, though no pass is required. He returns to the castle to find his horses emaciated, and he learns that his groom has been beaten and chased away. Determined to find justice for himself and other travelers, he rides home to question his groom; if the groom was at fault, he is prepared to forfeit the horses.
Kohlhaas finds that Herse has been badly injured and his horses were mistreated. He returns to Dresden to file suit against the castle owner, Wenzel von Tronka, asking that the knight be punished, that the horses be restored to health, and that he be compensated for damages done to him and his groom. The suit is dismissed because two relatives of Tronka have influence at court. Kohlhaas is advised to negotiate with Tronka for return of the horses without seeking further legal action.
Kohlhaas decides to sell his properties as he plans his next course of action. He tells his anxious wife Lisbeth that he will present his complaint to the Saxon ruler in person, but he accepts her offer to hand his petition to the elector of...
(The entire section is 991 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
It was this novella that originally established Kleist as a major writer. Its focus is a sober and determined Michael Kohlhaas, who struggles to pursue justice in a thicket of complicating circumstances and conflicting jurisdictions of power. The historical chronicle that Kleist used includes the unfair confiscation of Kohlhaas’s two horses, the difficulties Kohlhaas has in obtaining legal redress, his meeting with Martin Luther, and the attempt to burn down Wittenberg. Many other realistic details are anchored in sixteenth century German politics and feudal society. The enigma the story poses is: How can a decent, honest man become a robber and a murderer?
The first segment of the story shows how an innocent upstanding citizen, like Kohlhaas, is susceptible to unfair treatment by noblemen, despite his circumspection and patience. Junker von Tronka acts arbitrarily and cruelly by abusing Kohlhaas’s horses and severely beating Kohlhaas’s loyal groom. Kohlhaas demands justice publicly because many others have, like him, suffered under this junker’s misrule. Getting no satisfaction in the Saxon courts, Kohlhaas appeals to the elector of Brandenburg. The first case is dismissed because of the intervention of powerful aristocrats; the second is handled by a chancellor, who, since he was related to the junker by marriage, takes no action. In both instances, Kohlhaas is advised not to pursue this issue any further in the courts.
In the next...
(The entire section is 541 words.)