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 Brandenburg, his sovereign. Lisbeth is badly injured by an aggressive guard and dies shortly thereafter. Before she dies, she shows Kohlhaas a passage in the Bible urging forgiveness for one’s enemies. At her funeral, he receives the elector’s reply to his petition: He is to pick up his horses at Tronka castle and pursue the matter no further; otherwise, he risks a jail sentence.
Planning his revenge, Kohlhaas issues a decree ordering Tronka to return the horses and fatten them in Kohlhaas’s own stables. When his order is not obeyed, Kohlhaas sends his children away, arms seven grooms, and leaves for Tronka castle. He sets the castle on fire and kills a relative of the knight, as well as the castle warden, steward, and their families, but Tronka escapes.
Kohlhaas arms additional men and is about to attack a convent where Tronka is thought to be hiding when a mighty lightning stroke stays his hand. Told that Tronka is in Wittenberg, Kohlhaas...
(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...
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Bibliography (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Ellis, John M. Heinrich von Kleist: Studies in the Character and Meaning of His Writings. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979. Contains a detailed analysis of Michael Kohlhaas that assumes a close knowledge of the text.
Gailus, Andreas. Passions of the Sign: Revolution and Language in Kant, Goethe, and Kleist. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006. Explores the influence of the French Revolution upon Kleist and two other major German Enlightenment thinkers. Reads both Michael Kohlhaas and a critical essay by Kleist to argue that the author puts forward an energetic and unstable model of language and human subjectivity that reveals the precarious nature of society and of social institutions.
Greenberg, Martin. Introduction to The Marquise of O——, and Other Stories, by Heinrich von Kleist. New York: Criterion Books, 1960. A brief assessment of Kleist’s career and his approach to the novella.
Hamburger, Michael. Contraries: Studies in German Literature. New York: Dutton, 1970. Includes a chapter on Kleist that discusses specific aspects of Kleist’s writings and worldview. Draws on a thorough knowledge of Kleist’s life and texts to provide a sophisticated overview of his work.
Helbling, Robert E. The Major Works of Heinrich von Kleist. New York: New Directions, 1975. Offers general observations about Kleist’s literary practice and brief comments about Michael Kohlhaas.
Mann, Thomas. “Kleist and His Stories.” Preface to The Marquise of O——, and Other Stories, by Heinrich von Kleist. Translated by Francis Golffing. New York: Criterion Books, 1960. A psychological profile of Kleist, followed by an essayistic discussion of his stories.
Silz, Walter. Heinrich von Kleist: Studies in His Works and Literary Character. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1961. Contains a detailed and informed discussion of themes in Michael Kohlhaas.
Simonsen, Karen-Margrethe. “Evilness and Law in Heinrich von Kleist’s Story Michael Kohlhaas.” In Understanding Evil: An Interdisciplinary Approach, edited by Margaret Sönser Breen. New York: Rodopi, 2003. Explores the relationship between legal and moral discourses within Kleist’s novella.