Heinrich von Kleist

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Heinrich von Kleist Short Fiction Analysis

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“Das Erdbeben in Chili” (“The Earthquake in Chile”) was the first of Heinrich von Kleist’s Novellen to appear in print, and in many ways it is emblematic of all of his tales. The refugees from the earthquake, which hit Santiago in 1647, experience in literal fashion what Kleist regards as the general condition of human existence—people are set adrift from the regular order of their days, and the visible framework of the world falls into unexpected collapse. Life’s cataclysms, be they geological or psychological, are not inevitable, but they are unpredictable. Kleist’s stories are fraught with accidents and unexpected reversals which confound human response.

When Jeronimo hears the bells signaling his lover’s execution, he vows to die with her. He is preparing to hang himself when the earthquake hits, destroying the prison and setting him free. Each lover thinks the other is dead, but they find each other, and Josepha has their baby with her. In the company of other refugees, they experience a night of Edenic calm, convinced they have been saved by divine miracle. Those who have fled with them do not mention their illicit love, which had sentenced Josepha to death and Jeronimo to prison. Drawn together in extremity, the human family is as one. By morning the tremors stop, and Josepha is eager to go to the cathedral to give thanks. As she and Jeronimo enter, they hear the priest describing the earthquake as a punishment for moral laxity, and he mentions the young lovers by name. They try to leave but are recognized. The outraged crowd turns murderous and beats them to death in front of the cathedral.

Kleist’s later protagonists do not fall victim to the sort of direct, unanswerable force which destroys Jeronimo and Josepha. Later characters are more active and articulate; their fates are more complex. No matter how involved their stories, however, all Kleist’s heroes share a native ingenuousness with the two young lovers in “The Earthquake in Chile.” These characters attempt to keep a strange world at bay by allegiance to an inner certainty which is precarious and enigmatic but deeply felt. Such convictions may produce suffering and confusion or, on occasion, redemption. Kleist’s characters ask questions, faint, describe the world or themselves as mad, but they cling to their own sense of truth as best they can. This haphazard bravery has its wellspring in human feeing, which in Kleist’s world endows it with a sort of purity and honor.

“The Marionette Theater”

In “Über das Marionettentheater” (“The Marionette Theater”), Kleist describes the difference between a marionette and a human dancer. Because the puppet is built around a center of gravity, its limbs move effortlessly and in harmony; it is possessed of every grace. Perfectly controlled from above, it is so light its feet barely touch the earth. Human dancers, although free from strings and able to move as they desire, are weighted to the earth. Their motions are typically awkward and artificial attempts to mime the weightless grace of the marionette. Characters such as Littegarde and Friedrich in “Der Zweikampf” (“The Duel”) and several of Kleist’s heroines intimate that some dancers can locate the center of gravity and dance with intuitive grace.

The Marquise of O——

The Marquise of O—— is one such character. She is a young widow rearing her children quietly in the shelter of her father’s house. To her great disbelief, she learns that she is pregnant. Her parents are shocked and then mortified when she denies any knowledge of how such a condition could have arisen. An examining doctor makes jokes at her expense; she...

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is scorned by her brother and driven from the house by her father. Retaining her dignity and poise, the marquise settles herself and her children in new quarters and advertises in the newspaper for the unknown man to come forth.

A few months before, Count F—, commander of forces which had the marquise’s father’s castle under siege, had rescued the young widow from a band of his own men. She called the count her angel and fainted, but the commander himself then took advantage of her. Count F— returns months later and asks to marry the marquise. He is in love with her and ashamed of his deed, but he does not admit to the rape. By then, the marquise has discovered her pregnancy and rejects him, declaring herself unworthy.

In great embarrassment, Count F— answers the newspaper ad. The family is happily relieved. Ashamed of their past conduct, they are anxious to put the embarrassing incident aside. They welcome the count into the family and make wedding plans. It is the marquise who hesitates. Her trust had been betrayed, and she is too honorable to capitulate immediately to the count’s advances; she is also too honest to deny love for the sake of revenge. She marries Count F—, and the two produce a houseful of children and live happily ever after. The marquise, who answers to no force except her own honorable convictions, is one of the strongest heroines in all of short fiction. Toni, the heroine of “Die Verlobung in St. Domingo” (“The Engagement in Santo Domingo”) is a similar character, but her faith and confident actions cost her her life.

“The Foundling”

Tension between inner convictions and the confusions of the external world is at the center of most of Kleist’s stories. Only in “Der Findling” (“The Foundling”) does Kleist allow unexpected tragedy to assume the proportions of perverse malevolence. “The Foundling” is an oddity in Kleist’s corpus, and it lacks the authenticity of his other tales, which present life as paradox.

Michael Kohlhaas

Kleist’s finest and most complex study of ambiguity is Michael Kohlhaas (1810), which purports to be the story of one man’s search for justice. While taking a group of horses to market, Kohlhaas is illegally detained at the Brandenburg-Saxony border and charged a tax. He is forced to leave two horses as substitute payment and also a man to tend them. When he has proof that the tax is illegal, he presses charges. On his return, he finds that his horses have been abused and his man is missing. He is still patient, confident that the law will redress his grievances. Kohlhaas presses his case further, but it is ignored by the magistrates. When his wife is accidentally killed while trying to bring his case to an authority’s attention, Kohlhaas vows to take things into his own hands. His fervor for justice turns to self-righteousness and violence when he attacks a nunnery and begins burning towns. His band of marauders is feared throughout the land, and Kohlhaas, swept up by his own sense of power, names himself an emissary of the Archangel Michael and has himself carried by porters. Justice and revenge become inseparable.

Martin Luther issues a proclamation declaring Kohlhaas’s actions evil and appeals to him to stop. Since he respects no man more than Luther, Kohlhaas goes to him and humbly follows his directives. A series of unfortunate events follow which eventually cost Michael Kohlhaas his life. The incompetence and inattention of government authorities turn out to be the horse dealer’s greatest enemies. Kohlhaas is an earnest individual who is unable to elicit honorable redress from a disorganized bureaucratic system. In his quest for individual justice, he resembles many a twentieth century protagonist. This theme appears to be the central one of Michael Kohlhaas until the last several pages of the story, at which point the plot is riven in two.

As the story reaches its conclusion, the reader is told that Michael Kohlhaas carries a locket around his neck in which is contained a piece of paper which reveals the fate of the House of Saxony. Kohlhaas was given the paper by a Gypsy Woman at a carnival shortly after his wife died, although this event is not reported in the narrative. When the Elector of Saxony learns that Kohlhaas is the man with the prophecy, he offers to spare the doomed man’s life if he will give him the paper. The Gypsy Woman visits Kohlhaas in prison and warns him that the Elector will take the amulet from him after death if he does not relinquish it. She also tells him that the bit of paper can save his life. Kohlhaas, however, does not give up the paper. He reads it, peers straight into the Elector’s eyes, places it in his mouth and swallows it. Then he walks to the scaffold to meet his death.

This unexpected turn of events has a disorienting effect on the entire story. What seemed to be a complex tale of an unfortunate individual in a bureaucratic society is redirected into another realm of human experience. The Gypsy Woman makes a reader reexamine all the earlier events of the story. Is it the government which is disordered and disorienting to an individual like Michael Kohlhaas or is it the nature of life itself? Human foolishness and sloth cause government’s inconsistencies, but what causes universal inconsistencies? The Gypsy Woman is a supernatural force associated with irrationality and accident. Her presence is evidence that magic and mystery are at large in the cosmos whether man recognizes them or not.

Kleist’s themes are remarkably echoed by his prose style. His language is objective in tone and apparently sequentially presented, but what is connected in the orderly schemata of the German sentence is often neither logical nor sequential.

“The Beggarwoman of Locarno”

“Das Bettelweib von Locarno” (“The Beggarwoman of Locarno”), Kleist’s briefest story, illustrates the power the author could create almost solely from the force of language. The plot per se is but the sketchiest of anecdotes. An Italian count orders an old woman to sleep behind the stove. As she crosses the room, she slips and hurts her back but does manage to get behind the stove. The next morning she is dead. Some time later a prospective purchaser of the castle is hosted in the room where the beggarwoman died. During the night, he hears a ghost and leaves the next morning. The count and countess spend a night in the room themselves. They hear scratchings as if someone is crossing the room. The countess rushes away and the count, “weary of life,” burns down the castle. The reader is never told whether there is a ghost or whether the count believes there is. The old woman’s ghost prompts all the action and yet her presence is questionable. She might be called a palpable sense of nothingness. If her spirit is present, the reader has no sense of what it is, what its motives are, or what it means. Such moments of complete and eloquent silence are a hallmark of Kleist’s narrative style.

“St. Cecilia”

In Kleist’s stories, supernatural power is visible in every human turning, but its meaning seems to pose the same questions for the narrator as it does for his readers and his characters. At best, the artist can describe a multiplicity of perceptions which might be regarded as true. Kleist calls one of his stories a legend and draws further attention to its ambiguous meaning when he names it “Die heilige Cäcilie: Oder, Die Gewalt der Musik” (“St. Cecilia: Or, The Power of Music.”)

During a period when iconoclasm is rife, four brothers take it upon themselves to rid the world of one particularly obvious popish relic, the convent of St. Cecilia. They gather a band of like-minded protesters and, on the Feast of Corpus Christi, enter the church intending to reduce it to rubble. The nuns, although outwardly composed, are quite undone. The men are milling around awaiting a signal from their leaders when a pale nun enters and approaches the orchestra. The other sisters are surprised to see the orchestra conductor, whom they believe to be deathly ill. As the first notes of the glorious festival music sound, the four brothers fall on their knees before the altar and remain motionless throughout the concert. Their baffled followers wait in vain for a signal. Hours later the four have to be removed to a lunatic asylum. There they keep their prayerful attitude which is broken only when they bellow the gloria in excelsis each night at midnight.

Six years later their mother arrives in Aachen. She hears the festival described by one of the protesters as a youthful misadventure. The Mother Superior describes the feast as a miracle, since St. Cecilia herself apparently conducted the music. No one, however, accounts for her insane sons whose ghostly singing still splits the night. Such is the pitch of Kleist’s miracles and mysteries. They have as many meanings as observers, and one meaning as good as cancels out the others. Paradox remains at the center: Count F— is a devil and an angel, Michael Kohlhaas is an honorable and terrible man, and the miracle of St. Cecilia is both glorious and horrible. Contradiction is life’s basic truth.


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