Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

It would be simple enough to draw from this story the lesson that a criminal act will eventually be punished, and that the punishment will fit the crime. In this case, the act amounts to murder, even if that was not the Marquis’s intent, because his tormenting of the defenseless beggarwoman was gratuitous and mean-spirited. Heinrich von Kleist does not prevent his reader from inferring that the Marquis’s economic circumstances worsened as a consequence of his heedless brutality, but he does not imply anything more than a coincidental connection, either. The Florentine nobleman, after all, seems quite prepared to buy the property, notwithstanding the ravages of “war and bad harvests” until his own terrifying experience in the guest room changes his mind and the minds of others who might also have come to the aid of the struggling owners.

The two ideas that are much more prominent here—and more characteristic of Kleist—are guilt and the guilty one’s consciousness of it. The “several years” intervening between the beggarwoman’s death and the decline in the Marquis’s fortunes are also years in which he forgets the unfortunate incident, or at least obliterates it from his conscious memory. At no time in the story is any word spoken or sign given by the Marquis to acknowledge what he has done, either at the time of the old woman’s death or in discussions of the frightening sounds in the fateful room. On hearing the nobleman’s report,...

(The entire section is 497 words.)