Although Heinrich von Kleist wrote a number of shorter stories, his two long novellas, The Marquise of O—— and Michael Kohlhaas, reveal the primary concerns of his writings. Each of the novellas deals with a wrong committed against an individual by some outside (though not supernatural) force; this force is often beyond the individual’s knowledge or control. The protagonists of each story strive to create some kind of order out of the chaos, but each character succeeds only partially in restoring order to his or her own life.
A child of the Enlightenment, Kleist believed that individuals could bring order to their lives through a rational plan that they could follow methodically. Life can be planned, and such a plan—a Lebensplan—helps to eliminate randomness. If one constructs such a life plan and follows it correctly, then one can find truth, happiness, and justice. Kleist’s stories reflect this focus on the orderliness by which one must live and the tragic consequences that result when one fails to live in such a manner.
The Marquise of O——
The Marquise of O——, perhaps the most famous of Kleist’s Erzählungen, or novellas, takes it subject from a purportedly true incident whose story, Kleist tells us in an opening epigraph, was repeated from north (Germany) to south (Italy). In its attempts to pull back the dark veneers of reality to find the truth to a mysterious circumstance, the novella anticipates Edgar Allan Poe’s inscrutably dark detective stories. Also, in the characters’ struggles to discover the borders between good and evil, The Marquise of O—— anticipates Nathaniel Hawthorne’s morality tales.
Readers were outraged at the excerpt of the novella that Kleist published in his journal Phöbus. In this excerpt, an aristocratic young woman publishes a notice announcing that she has become pregnant without her knowledge and asking the father of her child to step forward so that she may marry him and satisfy the demands of her family and society.
The Marquise of O—— is the story of a rape and its consequences for the aristocratic woman and her family. The marquise, already a widow with two young children, lives in northern Italy with her parents in a fort commanded by her father. One night, the fort is attacked and overrun by Russian forces. As her section of the fort is consumed by a fire, the marquise flees to seek shelter in another part of the fort. During her flight she is accosted by a group of Russian soldiers, who carry her off with the intention of raping her. When a Russian officer intervenes and drives the soldiers away, the marquise faints both from the terror of her own ordeal and from the officer’s gentility. When she recovers, the officer, who has remained at her side, returns to battle. As the battles move away from their town, peace returns.
A few weeks later, news of the Russian officer’s death reaches the marquise’s family, which mourns his passing. However, within a few weeks, the marquise, usually very healthy, begins to feel sick. Her confusion is compounded when the officer—who was supposed to have been killed on the front line—appears one Sunday at the family’s home, declares his love for the marquise, and asks her to marry him. She agrees conditionally to the marriage. In a few weeks, she discovers that she is pregnant, which her doctor and midwife confirm. Disgusted by her pregnancy, her parents throw her out of the house, and she goes to live in her house in the country.
Kleist masterfully creates mystery and suspense as the marquise tries to unravel the events that led to her pregnancy. Because she is a widow and has not been intimate with anyone, how can she be pregnant? When did this happen? Although her doctor and her family believe that she has been sexually intimate—her pregnancy is proof of her illicit sexual relations—the...
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