The principal themes are the interaction of race and power, the redemptive power of love, and the effects of misplaced trust. Heinrich von Kleist’s direly pessimistic view of human nature colors every aspect of this melodramatic tale. Set in the years of Haiti’s early unsuccessful efforts at achieving independence from France, the story offers a bleak picture of relations between the colony’s black and white inhabitants. The characters are stereotypes that build on negative European perceptions of African and African-descendant peoples, exemplified by Kongo Hoango. Overall, the story conveys an imperialist attitude that privileges white rulership and white domination in social and political relations overall.
For von Kleist, only Toni, because she is half white, embodies the possible improvement of black people’s natural disposition through miscegenation, revealing his belief in white superiority. Toni lies to Gustav about her and her family’s intentions, but is moved by his sincerity, and eventually both sleeps with and falls in love with him. The author portrays love between people of different races as impossible, so they have no future together.
Gustav, who claims to love Toni and to want to marry her, has no faith in her devotion deep down. His mistrust proves fatal. Believing that she has betrayed him, he verbally abuses her before killing her and then himself. Toni’s devotion to the white man, ostensibly based in her love for him, also represents her betrayal of her father, which justifies her death—but not for the reason Gustav believed.
Because Heinrich von Kleist regarded the human individual as a riddle, he made Toni the central figure of this story. She stands at the nexus of turbulent events and conflicting allegiances. As a child of mixed race, she enjoys the confidence and affections of both whites and blacks, but she also suffers the antipathy and mistrust of both. She must be clever and deceitful beyond her years to make the mother believe that her moral principles, not her attraction to Gustav, prompt her to plead for his release. Gustav himself has difficulty fathoming his feelings toward Toni: “If not for her color, which repelled him, he would have sworn that he had never seen anything prettier.” His mixed emotions are only more profound and ominous after their lovemaking: “He swore he would never stop loving her, and that it was only in the delirium of his strangely disordered senses that the mixture of desire and fear she inspired in him could have seduced him into doing such a thing.”
Kleist need not have made Toni a mere girl of fifteen if the innocence of youth had not been crucially important to her character. She is a riddle as much to herself as to the others in the story and to the author as well (no omniscient narrator questions or...
(The entire section contains 748 words.)
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