Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 730
Heinrich von Kleist
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Heinrich von Kleist (HIN-rihkh fon klist), a writer and dramatist, twenty-six years old, the orphaned son of an impecunious Prussian noble family. Kleist is unable to harmonize the need to find a socially acceptable occupation with his desire to write. His constant sense of guilt and melancholy, his slowness of speech, and his uneasiness in the presence of others are symptomatic of his conviction that there is for him “no place on earth.” He frequently entertains thoughts of suicide. At the time of the story, he is recuperating from mental and physical collapse and has recently burned the unfinished manuscript of Robert Guiskard, a drama that might have become his magnum opus. Along with the other characters, Kleist is based on a historical figure. A few years after the time depicted in the novel, he takes his own life.
Karoline von Günderrode
Karoline von Günderrode (kah-roh-LEE-neh fon GEWN-deh-roh-deh), a Romantic poet and canoness. Unmarried at the age of twenty-four, highly cultured, and, like Kleist, also a member of the impoverished aristocracy, she suffers as a result of social alienation. Her recently completed volume of poetry, published under the pseudonym Tian, has received a negative review. She is drawn to Savigny, who prefers, however, a more chivalric friendship. These failures lead her to suspect that personal fulfillment as a woman and a poet may be impossible within the confines of social convention. Ever on the verge of suicide, she sees nothing strange in making a dagger her constant companion. The historical Günderrode eventually employed the weapon on herself, two years after the time depicted in the novel, when Friedrich Creuzer, a professor of mythology, spurned her love.
Clemens Brentano (KLEH-mehnz brehn-TAH-noh), also a young poet and writer. Having inherited both a handsome visage and financial security from his Italian merchant father, the newly wed Brentano exudes social poise and eloquence. He seems destined to succeed in his literary career. In almost every sense, he constitutes the antipode of Kleist.
Sophie Mereau Brentano
Sophie Mereau Brentano (meh-ROH), a poet and writer, Clemens Brentano’s attractive wife. Formerly married to a professor at the University of Jena, she divorced him so that she could marry Brentano.
Bettine Brentano (beh-TEE-neh), Clemens Brentano’s younger sister and a friend of Günderrode. Like her brother, she is beautiful, cultured, and without financial want. The historical Bettine later married poet Achim von Arnim, authored her own works of epistolary fiction, and published her correspondence with Günderrode.
Friedrich Karl von Savigny
Friedrich Karl von Savigny (FREE-drihkh kahrl fon sah-VIHN-yee), a lawyer. He is well off, independent, and self-assured. Although only in his mid-twenties, he already has embarked on what would become an illustrious academic career. He believes that the worlds of ideas and of political life should remain separate; philosophy and art should have little impact on the real world. Although quite intent on maintaining his friendship with Günderrode, he will not do so at the expense of his own marriage.
Gunda von Savigny
Gunda von Savigny (GEWN-dah), Karl von Savigny’s wife and the sister of Clemens and Bettine Brentano.
Joseph Merten, a wealthy spice and perfume merchant in his mid-forties. He prides himself on being a connoisseur of the arts and sciences. His country estate, located on the Rhine, is the setting for the novel.
Georg Christian Wedekind
Georg Christian Wedekind (GAY-ohrg KRIHSH-tyahn VAY-deh-kihnt), a physician and privy councillor at the electoral court of Mainz. After Kleist’s mental and physical breakdown, Wedekind cares for him and takes him in as a houseguest. He attempts to reintegrate Kleist into society.
Nees von Esenbeck
Nees von Esenbeck (nehs fon AY-zehn-behk), a botanist who places more value on scientific advancement than on what he calls the hypochondriac lament of the poets.
Lisette von Esenbeck
Lisette von Esenbeck (lee-ZEHT-teh), the wife of Nees von Esenbeck and a close friend of Günderrode. She is intelligent, educated, and the master of more than one Romance language but has elected to find her fulfillment in the unqualified support of her husband and his career.
Charlotte Servière (shahr-LOHT-teh sehr-VYEHR), a friend of Karoline von Günderrode and Paula Servière’s twin sister.
Paula Servière, a friend of Karoline von Günderrode and Charlotte Servière’s twin sister.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 633
No proof exists that Gunderode ever met Kleist, but it is a fact that Gunderode knew Merten. She stabbed herself to death at his country estate in 1806. Gunderode spent her life in a convent for impoverished daughters of the nobility. In 1804 and 1805, she published two volumes of poetry under the pseudonym “Tian.” By 1804, Kleist had resigned his Prussian army commission, failed in his effort to become a civil servant, broken his engagement to Wilhelmine von Zenge, and quarreled with his sister Ulrike. Influenced by Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781), he became deeply depressed, destroyed portions of his second drama, Robert Guiskard (1808; English translation, 1962), and suffered a physical and mental breakdown which brought him under the care of Dr. Georg Christian Wedekind, in Mainz. Kleist committed suicide in 1811.
The guests at Wolf’s imaginary tea party include the poet Brentano and his wife, the writer Sophie Mereau. Also at the gathering are Brentano’s two sisters: Bettine von Arnim, who, in 1840, published her correspondence with Gunderode, and Gunda von Savigny. Savigny’s husband, Friedrich Karl von Savigny, a renowned German jurist who for several years maintained a precarious personal relationship with Gunderode, is also present, as are Christian Nees von Esenbeck, a noted German botanist, and his wife, Lisette Mettingh, a woman of impressive intellectual ability and Gunderode’s closest friend.
All the major characters are historically significant, with well-known biographies to which there are constant allusions in the novel. The author, however, is not as interested in historical accuracy as in the circumstances which may have shaped these characters. Joseph Merten, the successful merchant, exudes self-satisfaction and is happy to live in an enlightened world which “curbed the baser passions and elevated reason to a position of power.” Esenbeck, though sickly, is the confident modern scientist who seeks salvation through scientific progress. Dr. Wedekind is a dedicated physician who, while not insensitive to the needs of his patient Kleist, finds it necessary to apply proven methods of healing rather than to probe the depth of a tormented soul.
On the side of the Romantics, Savigny is a kind of mediator between opposites; he avoids committing himself to any cause. Savigny enjoys being the object of Gunderode’s passion but does not wish to become passionately involved. Lisette Mettingh is tormented by her lesbian infatuation with Gunderode, who, in turn, sees Lisette as nothing more than a friend. The famous Brentanos, Clemens and Bettine, remain almost as obscure as their lesser-known sister Gunda. All three of them are self-assured, vain, and extroverted. They speak with the fluency of highly conceited people, in sharp contrast to Kleist, who stutters until, in his intimate conversation with Gunderode, his stutter disappears.
Kleist is alone. He does not know anybody at the party except for Dr. Wedekind. His illness, his mental instability, is in its acute stage, while Gunderode’s similar affliction has reached a chronic state. Wolf describes Kleist as a machine running at full speed with its breaks applied. His life is the constant struggle of a man torn between the creative elan of a gifted individual and the need to conform to the demands of a society to which he is inevitably bound.
While for Kleist the party represents a difficult hurdle to be cleared in order to make possible a return to life and to his vocation as a writer, Gunderode is taking leave. She no longer has the desire to be part of society. She has reached the point at which flirting with death produces not only dread but also intense joy. Secure in her decision to abandon the world at a point convenient to her, she finds it natural to carry a dagger with her and has had a physician show her the exact place where she must stab herself.