The Engagement in Santo Domingo

by Heinrich von Kleist

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Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 953

The author describes the apparent loyalty and honesty that had characterized his service and the owner’s corresponding rewards of “innumerable favours and kindnesses.” Congo, however, had not only joined the rebels but became one of their leaders after dispatching with the owner, his family, and other colonists.

Congo Hoango had been one of the first to seize his gun and, remembering only the tyranny that had snatched him from his native land, blew his master’s brains out. He set fire to the house in which Madame de Villeneuve had taken refuge with her three children and all the other white people in the settlement.

Babekan and her daughter, who lives with him, are involved in Hoango’s plots to ensnare and kill other white people. Those who venture to the plantation home, believing they have found safety, are soon killed. The beautiful teenage girl, Toni, is used to entertain them while, unwitting, they await their fate.

Such indeed was his inhuman thirst for revenge that he even insisted on the elderly Babekan and her young daughter, a fifteen-year-old mestiza called Toni, taking part in this ferocious war . . . Babekan . . . dress[ed] up her young daughter in her best clothes, for Toni’s yellowish complexion made her very useful for the purpose of this hideous deception; she urged her to refuse the strangers no caresses short of the final intimacy, which was forbidden her on pain of death.

One night, a white stranger arrives and, overcoming his initial distrust, is convinced by the light-skinned Babekan that they are not hostile blacks. Gustav explains that he is a Swiss officer in the French army, fleeing the fort that has fallen to the rebels. Babekan convinces him that, because she is a mulatto woman, the whiteness evident in her skin makes her an equal target for the black rebels’ rage. Toni dresses in her best clothes and joins the conversation. Once the lamplight shows her beauty, Gustav is captivated and immediately grabs her.

“If I had been able,” he continued, pressing her ardently to his breast, “to look into your eyes as I am doing now, then even if everything else about you had been black, I should have been willing to drink with you from a poisoned cup.” He had flushed red as he said these words.

After some further conversation about racial heritage, during which Babekan tells him that Toni’s father was a white European, Gustav seems to believe that she could claim her paternity and become white. Babkean explains that this will never happen. He speaks of the horrors he has seen and other stories he has heard about the blacks’ horrifying behavior during the rebellion, such as a sick black girl who tricked a white man into sleeping with her and thereby infected him with yellow fever. Gustav saw this as worse than the actions of the slave owners.

The stranger . . . declared that it was his deep inner conviction that no tyranny the whites had ever practised could justify a treachery of such abominable vileness.

After he retires to his room, Toni brings him some water to wash up. He assesses her beauty: “but for her complexion, which repelled him, he could have sworn that he had never seen anything more beautiful.” Charming her with sweet words, he then

stroked . . . her hair, . . . whispering playfully into her ear, . . . called her his darling girl and clasped her in his arms, . . . rocked her on his knees, . . . and pressed a kiss on her forehead.

As she retreats, thinking she heard something outside, he then discusses her marital prospects and tells her about the death of his fiancée back in Europe. Hearing his sad story, Toni

was overcome by a sense of human compassion, and impulsively followed him, throwing her arms round his neck and mingling her tears with his.

There is no need to report what happened next, for it will be clear to anyone who has followed the narrative thus far.

Gustav decides he should marry her for sake of her reputation—possibly survival—and gives her a gold cross that had belonged to the fiancée. In this way, they become engaged. However, Hoango’s plot was meanwhile advancing elsewhere, and the couple is fated not to continue their relationship further. Toni decides to warn Gustav’s friends, who are waiting out in the forest. At the same time, she tries to fool her parents into thinking she is still on their side, and the next night, as Gustav sleeps, she ties him up. When the rebels return, the Europeans also converge on the house, and the two sides get into a fight. As the Swiss man wakes up and realizes Toni had confined him, he believes she has truly betrayed him. In front of his friends, who have rescued him and untied him, Gustav

stood up, . . . and before the two youths could tell what he intended to do with the pistol he now snatched from them, he had, gritting his teeth with rage, fired a shot straight at Toni. It went right through her breast; with a stifled cry of pain she staggered another few steps towards him and then . . . sank down at his feet; but he hurled the pistol over her to the ground, kicked her away from him, calling her a whore, and threw himself down on the bed.

After she dies, his friends tell him that she had really been helping them. Overcome with remorse, Gustav

took up the other, still loaded pistol, and blew his brains out with it . . . . [T]he wretched man’s skull was completely shattered, parts of it indeed adhering to the surrounding walls, for he had thrust the pistol into his mouth.

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