Analysis

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Last Updated on August 27, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 338

For the 21st-century reader, the basic premise of Heinrich von Kleist’s novel is likely to be jarring. In The Marquise of O———, von Kleist shows European society’s negative attitudes toward female victims of sexual assault. Although the young marquise, Giulietta, was obviously raped by a gang of soldiers during an...

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For the 21st-century reader, the basic premise of Heinrich von Kleist’s novel is likely to be jarring. In The Marquise of O———, von Kleist shows European society’s negative attitudes toward female victims of sexual assault. Although the young marquise, Giulietta, was obviously raped by a gang of soldiers during an attack on a fort, almost everyone blames her when she gets pregnant. The fact that she blacked out during the experience compounds the problem, as she cannot name her assailant(s). In the eyes of her family and friends, this casts doubt on the veracity of her assertions. The central issue for her parents seems to be the shame they believe she has brought to the family. In contrast, however, the author also shows the remarkably bold steps that the marquise takes to shape her own future. Although her idea of marrying the man who assaulted her also clashes with modern views, von Kleist casts a positive light on her action of taking out a newspaper advertisement in an effort to identify him.

Count G----, Giulietta’s father, shows the most extreme reaction, as he throws his daughter out of the house. Gradually his wife prevails, however, and the pregnant daughter is allowed back home. When Count F---- presents himself as the responsible party, Giulietta is dismayed because she had believed he was her rescuer and yet had refused to agree to his earlier proposal. The author again shows her spirited side when she calls him a “devil.”

From this point, the plot seems even more unbelievable and contrived. Giulietta and her parents agree to the marriage, but only if the husband agrees not to live with his wife; he is permitted to visit the child occasionally. This arrangement continues until her attitude softens, and they actually celebrate a second wedding—at which point she confesses that she had loved him all along. The ending is ultimately unsatisfying because the author manipulates the flat characters in a didactic exercise, and his moralistic stance drives the resolution.

Style and Technique

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 601

The point in the story at which Giulietta seems to take control of her situation, her decision to advertise in the newspaper for the father of her child, may be considered one of its hinge points. It occurs roughly three-fifths of the way into this novella, but the reader has known since the story’s opening sentence the full content of the advertisement and Giulietta’s reason for writing it. In the same opening sentence Kleist manages in addition to tell the locale, the heroine’s social and family status, and her high reputation. It is a device at which he excels: the combined exposition and anticipatory revelation in such compressed form that it galvanizes the reader’s attention in order to learn what events could have prompted the lady’s unusual course of action—not to mention the source of her inexplicable pregnancy.

One would expect that a reply to her announcement in the paper will resolve the question of the father’s identity and disclose the details of the sexual encounter. By the time the respondent presents himself, however, his identity is no longer much in doubt, and the attentive reader has already noted enough hints of what occurred during Giulietta’s swoon to make any further account of it unnecessary. Instead of an answer and an explanation, Kleist sends the story off at once in another unexpected and baffling direction: The marquise refuses to accept the man whom her advertisement obviously describes. If one learns anything at all from this turn of events, it should be that one may have been asking the wrong question all along. What matters in “The Marquise of O——” is the process of “regaining consciousness”—not physically but cognitively.

To this end, Kleist employs a narrative perspective on the level of his characters rather than an omniscient one. The reader must thus experience the events and observable evidence in the same way as Giulietta and her parents and share in their confusion as they try to interpret them. As if willfully compounding their perplexity, Kleist—in his typical fashion—pushes the story forward as rapidly as it will go, relying most of the time on indirect discourse, eliding the rape scene with a mere dash in the punctuation of the crucial sentence, and joining one development to the next with forms like: “at once,” “already,” “just as,” “even before,” “meanwhile,” “in the act of . . . when.” All these devices generate an inexorable rush of events that the players are powerless to control or arrest.

The story’s unifying metaphor is the stronghold besieged by one side and defended by the other. Count F——’s first objective is to storm and capture the garrison at M——; at the same time, he assails and overpowers the marquise’s defenses as well. The rules of war oblige the commandant to surrender the fortress; his adversary in battle reappears as his challenger for the other prize as well: the widowed daughter whose virtue Colonel G—— is expected to guard and for whom his paternal devotion borders on illicit desire. Count F——’s characteristic approach is to rush ahead. Thus, he enters the room in the commandant’s house; thus, he delivers his ardent marriage proposal; and thus, when denied entrance to Giulietta’s country retreat, he breaches the garden wall to gain an audience with her. The beleaguered commandant’s rules of social conduct are no match for the count’s impetuous application of “military” tactics, and the fall of the citadel at M—— only prefigures the victorious siege of an eroded and crumbling system of social conventions.

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