Last Updated on September 5, 2023, 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 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.