Themes

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Last Updated on August 27, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 405

The Marquise of O––– is a short novel written by Heinrich von Kleist about a woman who is attempting to find the father of her unborn child so that they can be married. After being betrothed to a man who is away on duty, the Marquise becomes pregnant and many...

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The Marquise of O––– is a short novel written by Heinrich von Kleist about a woman who is attempting to find the father of her unborn child so that they can be married. After being betrothed to a man who is away on duty, the Marquise becomes pregnant and many assume she has committed adultery, while she alleges rape and attempts to find the man who fathered her unborn child. Her case is eventually proven and she is vindicated, showing she did not commit adultery. Let's examine some of the themes in the work.

Stigma and Redemption

As is still the case in modern times, women who are unwed and pregnant are often ostracized and cast out by society, and sometimes even those in their family. Upon learning of the Marquise's pregnancy, she is shunned by many in the town, and her father casts her out of her house. Though she professes her innocence, she is forced to live in her dead husband's estate until it is proven that she did not commit adultery. The theme of stigma is also interwoven with the idea of redemption. The Marquise is redeemed from her situation as an unwed and shunned mother when she marries the Count (the father of her child). She eventually comes to forgive the Count. Thus, he, too, is redeemed and becomes a devoted husband and father. While there is a great amount of trauma in the work, in the end, the characters are redeemed and live full lives.

Unclear Identities

This work deals heavily with the idea question of identity. This is most obviously demonstrated through the search for the identity of the father of the Marquise's child, but there are other stylistic elements and plot events that contribute to this theme as well. Many characters and locations are addressed simply by a letter—there is Count F, Colonel G, town M, Marquise of O, and so on. This stylistic choice lends a sense of mystery to the text and, on the most basic level, reinforces the lack of clarity about people's identities—a driving plot point of the novel. The Marquise's identity (in terms of her reputation) is also called into question when her parents conclude she has sought a sexual partner while unmarried. The Count's identity undergoes a similar shift when, upon realizing that he is her rapist, the Marquise reevaluates her previous opinion of him and accuses him of being the Devil.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 540

“The Marquise of O——” is a web of the known and unknown, that of which its heroine is either conscious or unconscious. (“Knowing,” “consciousness,” and indeed “conscience” are all closely related words in the vocabulary of Heinrich von Kleist’s German text, a fact not always evident in the English translation.) What the marquise knows and acknowledges in the story is the clear implication of the empirical evidence that the doctor and the midwife have confirmed: the fact that she is pregnant but not the explanation for it. The power of consciousness is both destructive and redeeming. Giulietta owes her condition to a state of unconsciousness (the fainting spell during which Count F—— violated her), and she can rise above it only by the strength of consciousness of her own innocence.

Feelings, as Kleist understands and portrays them, are Giulietta’s means of dealing with the empirical, “known” evidence and the foundation for her self-knowledge and sense of her own blamelessness. Of course, the conflict of physical evidence with knowledge of self is a valid issue in this story only if one believes that Giulietta is as unconscious of her sexual encounter as she professes to be. Her confusion and self-questioning seem genuine, but the reader may wonder exactly what she means in telling Count F—— that his first appearance seemed to her angelic; was it only because he arrived as her gallant rescuer? It bears remembering that Kleist himself scoffed (tongue in cheek?) at the idea of the lady’s crucial fainting spell as a “shameless farce.” Having merely “kept her eyes shut” would also make a farce of Giulietta’s reputed virtue, but it obscures a question of greater importance and interest: that of repressed memory. Kleist was clearly psychologist enough to know and exploit the mind’s capacity to conceal from itself the conscious knowledge of a forbidden act.

There is a difference between questioning Giulietta’s innocence of what befell her and condemning the act itself. Kleist’s own morality seems to have been sufficiently ambiguous to preclude his censure of Count F——, the impetuous perpetrator of the deed. Nor does any other person in the story condemn the count. He is one of those typically Kleistian characters who act impulsively, without reflection, and this is both his virtue and his vice. He is alternately called bestial and godlike, devilish and angelic. To Kleist’s mind, the self-conscious, questioning majority of individuals have lost their intellectual innocence and are condemned to grope for certainty in a world of conflicting realities and appearances, while both the dumb beast and the god (and Count F—— is called both) are free of the self-consciousness that marks the fallen nature of ordinary humanity. The marquise and her family acknowledge the “great, sacred and inexplicable order of the world” and seek their answers in the social and moral conventions derived from that understanding of it. Count F—— is not defeated by the search, for at the beginning of the story he takes by storm what he could not have for the asking, and at its end “His instinct told him that, in consideration of the imperfection inherent in the order of the world, he had been forgiven by all of them.”

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