Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The Romantics were the first to show fascination with the human psyche and, in particular, its darker and more mysterious aspects. Accordingly, the destinies of the protagonists are revealed through recurring dreams. Both find themselves torn by attraction to and alienation from other human beings and from themselves; both feel unable to verbalize their thoughts and emotions because “words are incapable of depicting the soul.” The pivotal arguments of the novel ensue while the guests are about to leave for their walk outside (a symbolic step away from the confining atmosphere of the Enlightenment into the open spaces of a new Romantic era). The arguments are of an aesthetic as well as a political nature. Their meaning rests with the author’s basic position that German Romanticism was the harbinger of a new age of freedom in which the individual, man and woman alike, as well as poetry and the arts could flourish as never before. While the rear guard of the Enlightenment continued to wage war to restrain humanity’s irrational impulses, Romanticism’s newfound emphasis on irrational cognition was meant to enhance rather than to replace reason. Imagination was not supposed to supersede realistic representation in art but was supposed to allow a vision beyond realism. As Kleist points out: “That which can be thought ought to be thought.” Such a pronouncement may be read as applying to artistic freedom only, but it is more likely to be a plea for political freedom as well. Indeed, in the novel, Kleist’s pleas for an end to oppression in his own country, Prussia, sound more like a cry for help coming from...

(The entire section is 660 words.)