The Marquise of O (Die Marquise von O) by Heinrich von Kleist, 1810

views updated

THE MARQUISE OF O (Die Marquise von O)
by Heinrich von Kleist, 1810

"The Marquise of O" ("Die Marquise von O") caused an outrage in polite German society when Heinrich von Kleist first published the story in 1808 (collected in Erzählungen in 1810). Today the work lays claim to being one of the greatest pieces in the entire canon of German short fiction, a masterpiece that within its modest length touches on issues that lie at the very heart of human existence as it is played out in its social context: male and female sexuality, filial bonds, family status and honor, the fragility of social order in times of war or catastrophe, the nature of forgiveness, and that key question to Kleist and Western philosophy—how does one prove to others what one feels to be true?

Kleist's subject matter was by no means original: a woman finds herself pregnant and does not know how. The theme can be found in Montaigne and Cervantes, but Kleist's treatment takes the story well beyond the bounds of mere curiosity, although it is by means of the curious that Kleist typically seizes his reader's attention at the very beginning of the story. In an opening sentence that is both a cascade of information and an intricate linguistic web characteristic of the story as a whole, the incredulous reader is told that a certain titled lady, a widow and mother of impeccable character, has announced through the newspapers that she finds herself inexplicably with child and would be prepared to marry the father if he would declare himself. Having caught the reader's imagination, Kleist immediately meets the desire for further information by giving a detailed, businesslike account of the lady's background and the events that have led to this bizarre public announcement. Only a second or third reading will betray to the careful reader the subtle shifts in narrative perspective and the presence of a distancing irony. By the end of the story, which a superficial reading would reduce to a mere gothic precursor of the detective story, the reader is in possession of all the external facts: the Marquise was raped while in a swoon by a Russian officer, the Count F, who had led the storming of the citadel commanded by the Marquise's father. This young Russian had only moments before saved the lady from the hands of his own soldiers, and her impression of him before she lost consciousness was that of her saving angel. Once order has been restored to life in the citadel, Count F displays an ardent concern for the Marquise's well-being, culminating in a seemingly impetuous request for her hand in marriage. Her family are both touched and disconcerted by this ardor and press their daughter's rescuer to be patient. Military duties compel the Russian to travel away, and it is during his absence that the Marquise's changing physical condition plunges her into confusion and despair. It is at this point that Kleist brings us to the heart of the matter. The Marquise's awareness of her own unblemished conduct stands in total contradiction to what her senses tell her: "Oh God! said the Marquise, beginning to convulse, how can I set my mind at rest? Do not my own inner and all too familiar feelings tell against me?" Her avowal of innocence to her mother and her plea for confirmation of her condition provoke the most exquisite oxymoron in the German language as the Marquise's mother retorts, "A clear conscience and a midwife!" Yet the Marquise is both blameless and pregnant. Her inner senses are indeed a finer guide than her conscious perception of her social behavior, which, as with all human beings, is far from being complete and infallible.

Rejected by her family, who now perceive their once cherished daughter as little more than a mendacious whore, the Marquise retreats to her country estate with her children to prepare for her labor and enters a moment of private idyll, a familiar device in Kleist and one that shows his delicate control of narrative pace. It is here she decides upon the unprecedented action of announcing her condition in the newspaper. (This unprecedented event is entirely in keeping with the tradition of the German Novelle.) Showing tremendous technical verve, Kleist prepares the appearance at the appointed hour of the respondent to the Marquise's announcement with impeccable dramatic timing and even permits an element of comedy. The respondent is the Russian Count, and this diabolical revealing of an unbearable truth causes the Marquise once more to faint.

Unlike many of Kleist's stories, this work restores harmony at the end: between the man and the woman, between the parents and the child. And the participants even gain a high degree of insight into the nature of existence. The Marquise understands why she swooned a second time on the day all was revealed, for as she confides to the Count, "He would not have appeared to her a devil if at his first appearance to her he had not seemed an angel." But now that the Marquise is aware that both categories were false perceptions, a third way of seeing him was necessary. And the Russian's sense of being reconciled is also based on an inner feeling, a belief that he has been forgiven because all now accept his crime as reflected in the "fragile order of the world."

It was not the rape itself that concerned Kleist. The text reduces that incident to the smallest typographical possibility available to him: a mere dash. Yet it is instructive to recall Erich Rohmer's acclaimed film version of the story to see how easy it is to distort the complex, hypotactic structure of Kleist's language. Rohmer's camera gives a motive to the rape by lingering over the Marquise's prostrate body, while the timing of the act completely misunderstands Kleist's intentions. In the film the Count commits his crime after he has taken control of the citadel, thus when order prevails; yet in the text the rape takes place exactly at that point in the siege when neither party is in charge, namely at the very moment when the all too fragile order of Kleist's world had collapsed.

—Anthony Bushell

About this article

The Marquise of O (Die Marquise von O) by Heinrich von Kleist, 1810

Updated About content Print Article