The Engagement in Santo Domingo

by Heinrich von Kleist

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 438

The title of The Engagement in Santo Domingo has a double meaning. It concerns an engagement for marriage and an encounter such as a military battle. Thus the title encapsulates the romantic and adversarial relations among the characters and, more broadly, within the French colony on Santo Domingo (the modern country of Haiti).

The background to the story’s incidents is France’s changing political and legal position in regard to the status of African and African-heritage people in this colony, especially the 1794 law that declared its enslaved persons to be free. Widespread rebellion among the black people threatened the colony’s status for several years. In this story, one rebel leader has taken over the plantation where he had been enslaved, killing the master and his family and living in the house. This bitter old man, originally from West Africa, is named Kongo Hoango.

The plot centers on the ruses that this man, his wife, and other rebels in the area use to lure and then kill white colonists. Believing the house to be a refuge, white people arrive but never leave. The plantation also serves as the rebel’s base for local offensives.

The central incident, which lends the love-related aspect of the title, is the romance between Kongo Hoango’s daughter, Toni, and a Swiss man who comes seeking help. Gustav is a soldier who is trying to reach the capital with his servants and family members. Stranded in the nearby woods, he reaches the house and asks for provisions. When Babekan, one of the rebels who is Toni’s mother, tricks him into staying overnight, he and Toni are smitten with each other. She decides she cannot support the rebels’ plan and decides to rescue him instead. Gustav’s love quickly deepens after they have sex, and they decide to get married. Believing that Kongo Hoango, who is away, will return with support, Gustav agrees to stay another night.

Toni, who has secretly sent word to his comrades about the plot, meanwhile uses some delaying tactics to forestall suspicion. Realizing that her father has returned, she ties Gustav to the bed while he is asleep. Unfortunately, her efforts at deception backfire, and Gustav thinks she has betrayed him. Gustav’s comrades arrive and fight to free him—the other engagement of the title. As soon as he is untied, Gustav grabs a pistol and shoots her dead. Upon realizing his error, however, he shoots himself through the head.

In the final scenes, Gustav’s people place rings on the deceased pair’s fingers and, once back home in Switzerland, erect a monument to them.

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