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  • Print publication year: 2003
  • Online publication date: April 2017

Strange News: Kleist's Novellas

from Language and Form


In der Kunst kommt es überall auf die Form an, und alles was eine Gestalt hat, ist meine Sache” (Kleist 2:810). Kleist's narratives have been seen as exemplary for the revival of novelistic form in German nineteenth-century literature after the Renaissance genre was rediscovered by Goethe and the Romantics. Organized around semantic oppositions with a moralistic bent — the violation of law and just punishment in “Der Zweikampf” and “Michael Kohlhaas,” erotic desire and superior moral sense in “Die Marquise von O …,” magnanimity and slyness in “Der Findling,” trust and treason in “Die Verlobung in St. Domingo,” the suspension of a social order and its restitution in “Das Erdbeben in Chili” — Kleist's stories seem to adopt the basic structural model of the novella and of the novella's revision of its immediate precursor, the exemplum. With a clear reference to that literary tradition, Kleist had even contemplated titling the first edition of his collected stories, to be published in 1811, “Moralische Erzählungen” (2:835). Kleist's fierce poetic imagination — the baby held to be Jeronimo and Josephe's illegitimate son is smashed against the edge of a church pillar, Piachi crushes Nicolo's brains out against the wall — however, does not mark the departure from the older genre conventions (Marx 9). Disturbing as it may have been to a late-eighteenth-century sensibility, literary fantasies of gruesome outrage or brutish revenge are characteristic of novelistic material in general (in the variations on the Herzmaere, for instance, the duped husband or upset father serves up the torn-out heart or cut-off head of the lover to his wife or daughter) and directly derive from the sources on which Kleist draws for “Das Erdbeben in Chili” and “Der Findling.” The seventh novella told on the fifth day in Boccaccio's Decamerone reports the fate of the slave Teodoro, who had fallen in love with his master's daughter Violante. When Violante's pregnancy is discovered, Teodoro is sentenced to death; her outraged father wants to force Violante to chose between poison and dagger and to have her illegitimate child “smashed against the wall” (Boccaccio 494, my translation). By coincidence, Teodoro's father, an influential Armenian diplomat, recognizes his long-lost son on the latter's way to the gallows and has the verdict suspended, and the lovers, now no longer different in social standing, can be happily and legitimately reunited.