How might you describe the city of Santiago as it is presented in the novel The Earthquake in Chile?

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Kleist's description of Santiago's physical qualities is in a sense limited by his plot because the city is immediately struck by an earthquake and mostly destroyed. The one building that remains intact is the Dominican Church. Even before this, what we learn of the city shows the extent to which it's dominated by religion. The whole tragedy begins in the garden of the Carmelite Cloister where Jeronimo meets with Josephe. And the personal catastrophe for the couple occurs in the church as the story concludes.

If anything Kleist seems to be emphasizing the centrality of religion in seventeenth-century Latin America. But the ruthlessness of the crowd in turning on the beleaguered pair is evidence of a fundamental hypocrisy. Before this, when the city has been almost completely destroyed by the quake, the displaced population gather in groups in the open and develop a kind of solidarity as a result of their misfortune. There is a kind of peacefulness found amid this scene of destruction as Jeronimo, Josephe, and their child find refuge in the foliage under the moonlight and a nightingale is singing.

The message is clearly that the state of raw nature in which people find themselves is a milder, more comforting and sanctified place than the built-up city had been—with its viceroy's palace and all the symbols of authority and religion. In the sanctuary of the church at the conclusion, all the people revert to judgment and barbarism. As in other works by Kleist, it is a pessimistic and horrifying vision of the herd mentality, in which individuals who assert their independence end up crushed by society. Kleist's description of Santiago is a microcosm of the entire world as he saw it.

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