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[60] The Marquise of O– & Other Stories – Heinrich von Kleist

The reading of this collection of short stories spanned my entire getaway, a little short of a month. Not only because I was busy traveling and doing the toursy thing, but also due to the fact that Kleist writing style requires frequent back tracking to assure I understand all that is going on. The world of all the Kleist’s stories is an unpredictable one, a world of dislocated casuality on which inexplicable factors include and in which sanity is poised on the brink of destruction. For example, The Marquise of O– is a detective-type, psychological mystery. An upright widow who has lived in unblemished reputation finds herself pregnant without a clue how and who might have caused her pregnancy. She is clear of her conscience although she finds intolerable the thought that the baby she has conceived in the tymost innocence and purity and whose origin, in addition to being mysterious, also seems to her more divine, is destined to bear a stamina of disgrace in society. But Kleist at first withholds one last fact, which persists to the end and buries in it the key to resolve the situation.

The stories also reflect Kleist’s preoccupations with the deceptiveness of human nature. In The Foundling, the story tells how a man, out of his compassion and kindred spirit, adpots an orphaned boy leads to his own destruction. The coming of age young man lusted after the old man’s young wife. When he by chance discovers her strange emotions that fixate on a young Genoese nobleman who, 12 years earlier, had saved her from a burning house, and had died of an injury incurred during the rescue, humiliation, lust, and desire for revenge conspire his mind to engender a deed of vileness. The subsequent turn of events in this story depicts the transformation of an once kind man into an obsessed avenger who literally craves for hell.

The Duel bears a premise that is similar to that of The Marquise of O––one in which an apparently chaste woman is suspected of unchastity on the basis of seemingly damning evidence. The case against Lady Littegarde would be weakened of this Count Rotbart were obviously a scoundrel, but he is regarded as an honorable man by many, despite his dissolute life. He is on the trial for his life on a charge of murder that, as an alibi, he seemes justified in making his disclosure that the night on which the murder was committed had been spent by him in Lady Littegarde’s bedroom. She can invoke no testimony except that of her irreproachable way of life against all the accusations of her shameful conduct. A chamberlain who vows to prove her innocence urges her to hold fast at all costs to her inner intuitive feeling that she is innocent, notwithstanding all the indications to the contrary.

I have always talked about the beguiling opening sentence of The Earthquake of Chile, which raises the deepest theological and existential questions. It reveals Kleist’s epistemological obsession, his preoccupation with the tragic or potentially tragic deceptiveness of appearances in the world and in human nature. In reading Kleist we may realize that our own familiar and dependable moral framework seem to have weakened and shaken loose. You have to read it for yourself.

In The Betrothal in Santo Domingo, the essential theme of the story is not the cruelty of man to man, nor even the unaccountable operations of God (like in The Duel or The Earthquake of Chile) or nature or fate, but that of love being put on trial. The lovers are confronted with an ambiguity of appearances, with ambiguous behavior on the part of the beloved, which leads to a fatal understanding, with tragic results. All the character has (to judge with) is tangible evidence of senses: to grasp something so intangible as the reality of love. Again, this story is built up in series of twists and turns that keeps reversing reader’s assumptions and expectations, to an extent in which we don’t know who really the characters are.

5 Responses

  1. Hi Matt — Your extended visit will, I’m sure, provide you a lifetime of memories and I thank you for sharing your trip with us. That being said, I’m glad you’re home.

  2. Sounds very intriguing. I may have to find a copy of this….

  3. This author sounded good when you first mentioned him before. I am not really a very good short story reader, but these sound intriguing! I will have to add it to my wish list!

  4. […] reading materials. Wovens between the novels I read short stories, the most memorable one being Heinrich von Kleist, who really has a knack to pack incredible amount of information in his opening sentence to get you […]

  5. […] The first line of a novel does not have to be very catchy or foreshadowing or earth-shattering, although the opening paragraph might hints at something important the author wants to convey. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell just by looking at the first sentence. An example of an introductory sentence that not only encapsulates something essential about the remainder of the work would be this from Heinrich von Kleist’s story The Earthquake in Chile, from the collection The Marquise of O and Other Stories: […]

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