Even in its own time, “The Engagement in Santo Domingo” was a problematic story on many levels. One of the most troubling aspects is that Heinrich von Kleist, who suffered from mental health problems, took his own life and that of a young woman only a few months after the story was published, in almost exactly the same way Gustav kills Toni and himself in the story. To most readers, this murder-suicide would seem like one of the most far-fetched aspects of an already fantastic story. Sadly, the tragic acts were within the author’s range of plausible behavior, and he did in fact carry them out.
Reading this story more than two centuries later, the racial relations expressed both on the personal level and the broadly social level are very difficult to accept. The gender imbalance shown when Gustav rationalizes his sexual misconduct toward Toni by telling himself she looks likes his dead fiancée is troubling. Toni’s flirtatious behavior, connected to her participation with the rebels, can be understood as coerced by her violent stepfather and her complicit mother. However, as her attraction to Gustav grows, the author shows that she willingly participates in the sex acts that he euphemistically elides. Von Kleist also clearly intends to convey that what they both felt was true love, represented as engagement symbolized with a Christian cross.
However, the deep animosity toward black people, especially those with dark skin, is unmistakable. In one regard, this racism makes the story into a useful window into Northern European attitudes of the time. The only adult male African character, Hoango, is represented as evil because he wantonly murders whites, even though the author puts forward some limited understanding of the political causes of rebellion. But a greater crime seems Hoango’s ingratitude for the “favors and kindnesses” with which his “master” had rewarded him for properly submissive behavior. The author deliberately offers no middle ground and paints the reasons blacks cite as reasons for self-rule as related to the excesses of a few Europeans. Toni, who is caught between two racial and social worlds, embodies the impossibly hybrid situation on which postcolonial writers have commented. Personal loyalty to a white man takes precedence over filial loyalty to her black parents.
Gustav’s long conversation with Babekan shows the idea of black racism toward mulattos and mestizos that many Europeans believed was common. Toni, with her “yellow” complexion, is not light-skinned enough to pass as white, be recognized as the child of a white man, or to marry a white man. Gustav is portrayed as having a big heart because he looks beyond her skin color, which “repelled” him. Deep inside, however, he could not believe that she would be loyal to white people and, when he thinks this suspicion has been proved, he immediately murders her. Gustav shows his repentance by taking his own life. Incredibly, despite his actions, his European friends interpret his behavior as reinforcing his true love for her, and they even memorialize it with a monument when they return home.
Like any number of Kleist’s other stories, “The Engagement in Santo Domingo” pulls first one way and then the other on the reader’s expectations. It appears that Gustav von der Ried will die as other whites before him have; then, because he has violated Toni, it seems likely that his fate at Kongo Hoango’s hands will be unusually cruel. There...
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