Kleist is known for his writing style in which sentences tend to be long and intricate—with many clauses and complications. In this, however, he is not that much different from other early-nineteenth-century writers in German (and in English as well, for that matter). The opening sentence of "The Earthquake in Chile" is a good example:
In St. Jago, der Hauptstadt des Königreichs Chili, stand gerade in dem Augenblicke der großen Erschütterung vom Jahre 1647, bei welcher viele Tausend Menschen ihren Untergang fanden, ein Junger, auf Verbrechen angeklagten Spanier, namens Jeromino Rugera, an einem Pfeiler des Gefängnisses, in welches man ihn eingesperrt hatte, und wollte sich erhenken.
(In Santiago, the capital of the kingdom of Chile, exactly in the moment of the great earthquake of 1647 through which thousands of people came to their destruction, a young Spanish man by the name of Jeronimo Rugera, who was accused of a crime, stood against a pillar in the prison in which he had been confined, and had the intention of hanging himself.)
In this translation, I've tried to keep the structure of the sentence in English as close to the original German as possible. In other words, it is too literal to be a good translation; probably most translators would break it up into more than one sentence. The question for our purposes is: does the complication relate to the meaning and themes of the novella, or is it simply a general characteristic of Kleist's style? Or, as we've already suggested, is it a stylistic feature of the period as a whole (the early 1800s) and is thus reflective of the more complicated and elevated style of prose in past writings compared to our own age?
The answer to all of the above is yes. This harrowing story—in which a city is smashed into rubble by an earthquake and in which a young couple, even after surviving the quake, are murdered by a mob—is told in a style of typical (but nevertheless almost surreal stylistic) intricacy.
Kleist's themes and his treatment of them are focused on the randomness and chaos in the world and the tragic consequences suffered by innocent people. There is also the theme of the individual alone against society, exemplified by the lost, accused young couple Jeronimo and Josephe—just as Kleist presents in his historical novella Michael Kohlhass.
From our perspective, the complications of his prose contrast with the simpler, streamlined character of writing from our own time to the extent that the eerie, haunting quality of a story like this is enhanced—just as in the stories of E.T.A. Hoffmann and the American writers Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe.