Heinrich von Kleist Kleist, Heinrich von - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

von Kleist, Heinrich 1777-1811

German short story writer, essayist, journalist, and dramatist.

Unappreciated in his own time, Kleist posthumously received wide critical acclaim for his short prose. His eight short stories, or Novellen, originally puhlished in two volumes in 1810-11, are considered comparable to the work of Giovanni Boccaccio and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In addition to his Novellen, Kleist wrote eight plays and many political essays. The extreme stylization and frank sexuality of his works shocked his contemporaries, denying him the acclaim he coveted; however, these same qualities have ensured continuing interest in his work today, and he is now particularly praised for his acute psychological insight and honest depictions of sexuality.

Biographical Information

Kleist was born in Frankfurt an der Oder on October 18, 1777, into a prominent military family that had produced eighteen Prussian generals. He was educated privately until the age of eleven, when he went to the French Gymnasium in Berlin. He joined the army at the age of fifteen and participated in the 1793 Rhine campaign against the French. Kleist broke with family tradition in 1799 when, disillusioned with military life, he resigned his commission to attend the University of Frankfurt. There he studied mathematics, science, and philosophy for one year while also serving as tutor to Wilhelmine von Zenge, the daughter of a family friend. The two became engaged and Kleist left the university for a job in the civil service. Soon, however, he resigned his position to embark alone on a journey through Europe. Scholars note the importance of this trip in Kleist's intellectual development; it was in his letters to Wilhelmine that he first expressed his desire to pursue a literary career. Another key event in Kleist's education was his 1801 reading of Immanuel Kant's The Critique of Pure Reason (1788). Kleist's rationalistic belief in human perfectibility and immortality was challenged by Kant's ideas on the inability of reason to discern the truth behind appearances, and he entered a period of despondency that scholars commonly call his "Kant crisis." Critics note that Kleist's reaction to Kant set the tone for the metaphysical background of his creative work, especially his Novellen. Kleist wrote all of his major works between 1804 and 1810 and, with the German economist Adam Muller, started the literary journal Phöbus as a vehicle for his stories. Lack of financial support caused the journal's early demise. In 1810, the first volume of Kleist's Erzhälungen (the collection of his Novellen), which includes Michael Kohlhaas, "Die Marquise von O . . ." ("The Marquise of O . . ."), and "Das Erdbeben in Chili" ("The Earthquake in Chile"), was published. At this time he also started a political periodical, Die Berliner Abendblätter, in which he published anti-Napoleonic articles, but the paper was discontinued after six months due to a lack of popular support. Throughout his life, Kleist had expressed a wish to die and had frequently asked friends to commit suicide with him. In 1811, he befriended Henriette Vogel, an actress dying of cancer who agreed to a suicide pact. They traveled together to an inn near Potsdam, and on November 21, Kleist shot Vogel and then himself.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Kleist's eight Novellen were collected in the two-volume Erzhälungen: "Der Findling" ("The Foundling"); Michael Kohlhaas; "Das Bettelweib von Locarno" ("The Beggarwoman of Locarno"); "Der Zweikampf ("The Duel"); "Die Marquise von O . . ." ("The Marquise of O . . ."); "Das Erdbeben in Chile" ("The Earthquake in Chile"); "Die Verlobung in St. Domingo" ("The Engagement in Santo Domingo"); and "Die Heilige Cäcilie" ("St. Cecilia, or The Power of Music"). These narratives form the body of Kleist's short fiction and are considered major contributions to the German Novelle genre. Kleist himself has been variously described as extremist, neurotic, and tense. There can be no doubt that his personality as well as his failure to find acceptance, fame, and meaning in life informed his work. Arthur A. Cohen wrote that Kleist "was always intent on an inversion of sensibility, on externalizing the riot of passions that he discerned within himself and, by extension, with everyone. He used himself continuously as his test case." Kleist's internal conflicts infuse his stories and are manifested in the paradoxical themes of his work. Seemingly normal characters are tested under suddenly extraordinary and chaotic circumstances: an earthquake in "The Earthquake in Chile," a racial uprising in "The Engagement in Santo Domingo." The play of opposites is central to "The Foundling," in which good and evil characters resemble each other and whose names are anagrams of each other. "St. Cecilia, or The Power of Music" features men bent on destruction at a church who are transformed into G/tfria-singing acolytes. As Denys Dyer noted in his The Stories of Kleist: A Critical Studyy these stories are "narrated in a prose style staggering in its originality and quite unique in German literature." The singularity of these Novellen prompted E. K. Bennett in his A History of the German Novelle from Goethe to Thomas Mann to describe the stories as having "significantly no framework." Bennett concluded that the deviation of Kleist's Novellen from the standards of the time served to widen acceptable Novelle parameters, "opening the genre to other themes and other treatment."

Critical Reception

Kleist's potential genius was acknowledged by such leading German literary figures as Goethe and Christoph Martin Wieland, though most considered Kleist's work eccentric and problematical. Since his death, speculation about the cause and meaning of Kleist's suicide has been an integral part of most interpretations of his works. Nineteenth-century critics searched the author's writings for evidence of mental illness, focusing on the extreme and eccentric nature of his characters. In the early twentieth century, scholars influenced by Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche regarded Kleist's suicide in a more positive light, elevating him as an example of Nietzsche's tragic artist. Others saw him, in the words of Julius Petersen, as the "classic of Expressionism," interpreting his works as a quest for philosophical certainty. In the later twentieth century, critics influenced by existentialist philosophy saw Kleist's suicide as a normal response to the tragic nature of human existence, and they praised his artistic obsession with the human struggle to make sense of an incomprehensible universe. It was not until Marxist critics expressed interest in the political and historical aspects of Kleist's works that literary interpretation was separated from biographical concerns. Many Marxist scholars believe that Kleist's primary concern was the relation of man to society under capitalism, though they debate whether he condoned middle-class values or supported a rebellion against authority. Despite such uncertainty, critics have praised Kleist's perception and honesty and have acknowledged the unique power of his prose narratives.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Short Fiction

Erzhälungen [Tales] 2 vols. (short stories and novellas) 1810-11

The Marquise of Oand Other Stories (novellas; translated and with an introduction by Martin Greenberg, preface by Thomas Mann) 1960

Other Major Works

Die Familie Schroffenstein [The Feud of the Schroffensteins] (drama) 1804

*Amphitryon: Ein Lustspiel nach Molière [Amphitryon: A Comedy; adaptor; from the drama Amphitryon by Molière] (drama) 1807

*Penthesilea: Ein Trauerspiel (drama) 1808

Der zerbrochene Krug: Ein Lustspiel [The Broken Jug: A Comedy] (drama) 1808

Das Käthchen von Heilbronn oder Die Feuerprobe: Eins großes historisches Ritterschauspiel [Kate of Heilbronn] (drama) 1810

*Die Hermannsschlacht [The Battle of Arminius] (drama) 1821

*Prinz Friedrich von Homburg [Prince Frederick of Homburg] (drama) 1821

*This is the date of first publication rather than first performance.

Donald H. Crosby (essay date 1964)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Heinrich von Kleist's Der Zweikampf," in Monatschefte, Vol. LVI, No. 4, April-May, 1964, pp. 191-201.

[In the following essay, Crosby examines the motifs, language, and origin of "Der Zweikampf "]

Kleist's Novelle "Der Zweikampf is customarily included last in collections of his stories and rarely draws the critical encomiums accorded, say, Michael Kohlhaas or "Die Marquise von O. . . ." Erich Schmidt [in the "Einleitung" to Kleist's Erzählungen in the Werke, ed. by Erich Schmidt and others, 1904-05], citing what he called the Novelle's "verblasene Reden" and "die wohlfeile Abrechnung zwischen Tugend unde Laster," thought "Der...

(The entire section is 4751 words.)

Richard L. Johnson (essay date 1975)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Kleist's Erdbeben in Chili," in Seminar, Vol. XI, No. 1, February, 1975, pp. 33-45.

[In the following essay, Johnson explores Kleist's preoccupation with morality, and focuses on its role in "Das Erdbeben in Chili." ]

Kleist subordinated knowledge to moral action. In some of his works understanding plays a central role, but only after a main character is able to act in a threatening situation. In "Das Erdbeben von Chili" Jeronimo and Josephe act with great resolve to save their child, but they die before knowledge is attained. Don Fernando does have time to reflect about the child he has lost and the child he has saved, but his knowledge at the...

(The entire section is 3822 words.)

Robert E. Helbling (essay date 1975)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Foundling," "The Duel," "The Beggarwoman of Cocarno" and "St. Cecilia, or the Power of Music," in The Major Works of Heinrich von Kleist, New Directions Books, 1975, pp. 114-17, 152-59, 249-51.

[Helbling is a Swiss-born American educator and critic. In the essay below, he analyzes the theme of artifice in "The Foundling, " the anguish inherent in "St. Cecilia, or the Power of Music, " and "The Beggarwoman of Locarno, " and ambiguous aspects of "The Duel, "]

"The Foundling"

It has been surmised that this Novelle is one of Kleist's earlier works, conceived sometime in 1805-6, and that it underwent considerable revision...

(The entire section is 4377 words.)

George M. Martin (essay date 1978)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Apparent Ambiguity of Kleist's Stories," in German Life & Letters, Vol. XXXI, No. 2, January, 1978, pp. 144-57.

[In the following essay, Martin explores the apparent contradictions in Kleist's short fiction, maintaining that there is in fact an "underlying order" and that "Kleist's own views, his fears and aspirations, emerge very clearly from a consideration of the overall arrangement, either of the individual story, or of the collection of stories. "]

In a paper delivered before the English Goethe Society in 1963 J. M. Ellis makes the claim that Kleist's "Das Erdbeben in Chili" must have different and contradictory interpretations. He later...

(The entire section is 6289 words.)

John M. Ellis (essay date 1979)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Character of Kleist Criticism," in Heinrich von Kleist: Studies in the Character and Meaning of His Writings, The University of North Carolina Press, 1979, pp. 143-64.

[Ellis is an English educator and critic. In the following excerpt, he presents a thorough survey of critical scholarship on Kleist's short fiction, and discusses the varying interpretations of several Kleist novellas and stories.]

Abstracting motifs and ideas from their context in individual works is .. . a more than usually dangerous procedure in Kleist criticism since his works demand a close attention to their twists and turns. The very notion of a context is more complicated in works...

(The entire section is 8576 words.)

James M. McGlathery (essay date 1983)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Erzählungen I: 'Michael Kohlhaas, ' 'Die Marquise von O . . . ,' 'Das Erdbeben in Chili,'" in Desire's Sway: The Plays and Stories of Heinrich von Kleist, Wayne State University Press, 1983, pp. 76-88.

[In the following excerpt, McGlathery examines the theme of sexual sublimation in Michael Kohlhaas, "Die Marquise von O . . . ," and "Das Erdbeben in Chili. " ]

Of the three stories which fill this volume of collected tales that Kleist published in 1810, only "Die Marquise von O . . ." obviously concerns sexual shame or guilt. This fact is especially surprising because all three tales were begun or finished in Kleist's middle period, between the...

(The entire section is 5136 words.)

Clayton Koelb (essay date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Incorporating the Text: Kleist's Michael Kohlhaas" in PMLA, Vol. 105, No. 5, October, 1990, pp. 1098-107.

[In the following essay, Koelb provides a stylistic and thematic analysis of Michael Kohlhaas.]

It is a paradox of German literary history that Heinrich von Kleist's novella Michael Kohlhaas is perennially among both the most esteemed and the most frequently censured works in the modern canon. There is nearly universal admiration for the story of Kohlhaas's attempt to obtain redress for an injustice done to him by the Tronka family and of the final righting of his grievance only after he is condemned for taking the law into his own hands. But...

(The entire section is 5827 words.)

Linda Dietrick (essay date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Kleist's Novellen: Narration as Drama?" in Momentum Dramaticum: Festschrift for Eckehard Catholy, edited by Linda Dietrick and David G. John, University of Waterloo Press, 1990, pp. 289-303.

[In the following excerpt, Dietrick assesses the dramatic elements in Kleist's short fiction.]

It was once a virtual commonplace for critics to observe that Kleist's tales—or Novellen, as the tradition has come to designate what he simply called Erzählungen—have a "dramatic" quality about them. In a famous interpretation of "Das Bettelweib von Locarno," the most prominent of those critics, Emil Staiger [in Meisterwerke deutscher Sprache aus dem...

(The entire section is 4120 words.)

Anthony Stephens (essay date 1994)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Das Erbeben in Chili—Die Verlobung in St. Domingo," in Heinrich von Kleist: The Dramas and Stories, Berg, 1994, pp. 194-211.

[In the excerpt below, Stephens provides a thematic comparison of Das Erdbeben in Chili" and "Die Verlobung in St. Domingo. "]

"Das Erdbeben in Chili" was the first of Kleist's stories to be published, being completed by autumn 1806, and may well have been the first to be thought out. There is no way of knowing whether any experiments in narrative form preceded it, and source studies have been characteristically unrewarding as far as the main plot is concerned. Kleist's control of complex narrative form in his first published story is...

(The entire section is 7108 words.)

Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Baker, Joseph O. The Ethics of Life and Death with Heinrich von Kleist. New York: Peter Lang, 1992, 124 p.

Examines Kleist's search for values, illuminating his literary motivation.

Cohen, Arthur A. "The Sufferings of Heinrich von Kleist." The New Criterion 2, No. 4 (December 1983): 26-34.

Biographical piece that describes the impact of Kleist's unhappy life on his writings.

Maass, Joachim. Kleist: A Biography. Translated by Ralph Manheim. London: Secker & Warburg, 1983, 313 p.

A straightforward biography.

March, Richard. Heinrich von Kleist....

(The entire section is 686 words.)