“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 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.
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