Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 660

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 a disillusioned contemporary writer in East Germany than from a Prussian nobleman.

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Merten, the merchant, and Esenbeck, the scientist, represent the forces of the Enlightenment, while Kleist struggles to express the Romantic worldview. The merchant and the scientist argue for an ordered universe that is ruled by reason. They show no understanding of the “lamentations of the literati.” Kleist enters the argument with a question about the role of beauty in this orderly world, then continues: “Our modern day civilization is steadily expanding the sphere of the intellect, steadily restricting that of imagination. We have almost reached the point at which we can predict the end of the arts.” It is highly unlikely that the real Kleist ever uttered these words. The lament is Christa Wolf’s, who speaks out of an artist’s frustration in a world devoted to technology and, in East Germany, to five-year economic plans.

When Gunderode enters the argument by accusing Savigny of having a “masculine brain” and of knowing only “curiosity concerning that which is incontrovertible, logically consistent, and soluble,” she, too, expresses the author’s views. Throughout the novel, Wolf acquaints her readers with her ideas on the relationship between the sexes. She finds her own thoughts expressed in Gunderode’s poem “Change and Constancy,” read by Brentano in the novel. The male of the species has a need to examine an argument and to judge its merits after mature consideration, while women acquire most of their knowledge more directly and more efficiently through a highly developed intuitive sense. The artist, male or female, works with both, intellectual and intuitive powers.

Kleist, in 1804, is still immature as a writer because his masculine pride conflicts with his developing sense of femininity, his poetic sense. He feels antagonistic toward Gunderode and misjudges her until both find a common ground; as poets, they share the male and female traits which make for an organic whole. In the course of the novel, Kleist, unhappy in the exclusively masculine sphere dominated by the men who believe in the Enlightenment, is slowly drawn into the female ambience of the Romantic age. Gunderode, on the other hand, is secure in her Romantic female sensibility but engages in an enervating struggle against the enlightened masculine world which would not grant her a position outside the traditional feminine role.

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