The Marquise of O- and the Earthquake of Chile

marquis-of-oIn Richard Stokes’s introduction to The Marquis of O-, we are told that one of the turning points in Heinrich Von Kleist’s life was his reading Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. In fact, it was his lack of faith in man’s ability to shape his own destiny – influenced by Kant’s rejection of the notion of a world developing according to a plan predestined by God – that led him to writing fiction until his early death at the age of 34.

Kleist, perhaps in a final protest/or perhaps an ultimate embrace of his convictions, made a suicide pact with a woman suffering from Cancer. The same dark overtones would color the three stories in Hesperus Press’s slim volume.

The title story, “The Marquis of O-” begins with a young widow who conceived a child placing an advertisement in the newspapers inviting the unknown father to see her. We are given hints about how she was taken advantage of during a battle which raged in her father’s castle. How could these aristocrats miss the obvious? Of course, the tale’s focus is on the hysterical reaction of her parents and the role of social norms in leading the lady to her ludicrous position.

“The Earthquake in Chile” was Kleist’s first published story. It is 1647 and a young man gets a convent girl pregnant, transgressing the honor of the maiden’s family and the law of the Church. The man promptly thrown into prison, decides to hang himself after hearing of his beloved’s upcoming beheading. But just moments before their doom, both are saved by an earthquake of cataclysmic proportions that ravaged the whole city of Santiago. The two lovers and their child are brought together again. But if they were saved by the natural catastrophe, the injustice and violence of the social explosion that followed ultimately sealed their end.

The last, “The Foundling” is a gaudy tale set in Rome about an ungrateful orphan who indulges in vices, act like some sort of Casanova, and betray his benefactors in the lead up to his bloody end. Kleist, in his exploration of the absurd and the incomprehensibility of human existence, is another writer that belongs (though not mentioned by Borges), along with Kierkegaard, in the essay, “Kafka and his Precursors.” ■

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1 Comment

  1. Karlo: For anyone interested, there are film versions of both The Marquise of O (directed by Eric Rohmer) and the Earthquake in Chile is directed by Helma Sanders-Brahms. The former is a very faithful adaptation (I loved it), but I haven’t seen the earthquake film. It was just released on DVD.

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