Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“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...

(The entire section is 540 words.)