Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Because of length, and Kleist’s reputation as an early nineteenth century master of the anecdote form, one might at first think of “The Beggarwoman of Locarno” as an example of this genre. Its narrator recounts a remarkable occurrence, building to the story’s critical point with the objective economy that typifies the anecdote. However, despite its brevity, this work is almost always named among Kleist’s novellas, stories that, on average, run to more than ten times the length of this short piece. Its dramatic character is what places “The Beggarwoman of Locarno” most decisively in the category of the novella.

That the story is told with objective economy does not imply stylistic simplicity. Kleist’s prose is highly individual, some would even say perversely eccentric, whether to the modern ear or to that of his own time, and his translators seem able to succeed only by simplifying his syntax and punctuation to some degree. However, there is a strictly observed dramatic purpose in Kleist’s idiosyncratic use of language. Whereas an epic narrator employs a grammatical style that is markedly sequential, emphasizing the discrete interest of the individual links of the narrative, Kleist’s sentences depend heavily and crucially on interlocking grammatical subordination: hypotaxis rather than parataxis. The effect of his language in “The Beggarwoman of Locarno” is thus more nearly simultaneous than sequential; this is the essence of drama, in which the test of every element is in its purposeful relationship to the climatic moment.

“The Beggarwoman of Locarno” differs from the ghost stories of Kleist’s contemporaries, such as Johann Ludwig Tieck and E. T. A. Hoffmann, in that it does not seek to generate the kind of ghostly atmosphere that is so effective in Tieck’s and Hoffmann’s tales of the supernatural. To do so would have risked creating moments or scenes with a substance of their own, which might divert or delay the reader’s interest and thus slow the critically breathless pace of the story’s events.