A fine study of hysteria and ambiguity?–“The Marquise of O–” by Heinrich von Kleist

Today, I’m going to risk an admission which will perhaps annoy, shock, dismay, or plain confuse those readers who’ve known me long enough to know what a good feminist I try to be and how much I want to observe correct sexual politics:  I really like Heinrich von Kleist’s story (from the German Romantic period) entitled “The Marquise of O–,” in which a widow with children, living at home with her parents in a secluded and quiet fashion, somehow finds herself pregnant with another child, and without knowing who the father is or when the conception occurred.

When male writers remark upon this story, it’s usually with the remark that it is a fine study in hysteria and ambiguity and an excellent portrait of the additional Electra-like relationship which the Marquise has with her father, Colonel G–, the Commandant of the citadel of M–, clearly throwing their hats in the ring as Freudian interpreters who excuse the story for its perhaps dated notion that a woman could fall in love with someone who had impregnated her on the sly.  The key word in the whole story, however, which was discoursed upon at length by my excellent Comparative Literature professor in my undergraduate days, the much-beloved Professor Holdheim of Cornell University, was the word “circumstances.”  Everything hinges upon this word, and in fact Professor Holdheim even re-translated some parts of the story for us in which in German the German word for “circumstances” had been left out or altered by our textual translator, Martin Greenberg:  circumstances are that important in the story.

Here are the basic circumstances:  In the northern Italian town of M–, where the widowed Marquise of O– lives with her father and mother (and the marquise is said to be “a lady of unblemished reputation and the mother of several well-bred children”), the Marquise has published in the newspapers that though she is in the dark as to how this has happened, she is “in the family way” (the literal expression is “in other circumstances,” a euphemism), and that she would like for the father of the engendered child to present himself, as “out of family considerations” (family being another important “circumstance” in the story) she considers herself bound to marry him.  She had left her own estate of V– to live with her parents after the death of her husband, until the — War filled the locality with the troops “of nearly all the powers, including those of Russia.”  Her father was ordered to defend the fortress, but before the ladies could be sent to safety, the citadel was attacked and the women were forced to flee.  In the confusion, the Marquise was seized upon by some rowdy Russian troops, who certainly had the intent to rape her, but before they could carry out their intention, she was rescued by a gallant Russian officer who greeted her in French, punished the attackers vigorously, and “who seemed [to the Marquise] a very angel from heaven.”  He led her to the other wing of the castle which had not yet caught fire, “where she fainted dead away.”  A short time later, her waiting women appeared and he told them to call a doctor, said the Marquise would soon recover, and went back to the battle.

While doing his duty as a Russian soldier, the young Russian officer who had rescued the Marquise, Count F–, also helped put out the fire of the attack and other such deeds of generous heroism, and had allowed her father safe passage, acting in accord with all the more charitable duties of a conqueror.  As is remarked upon in the text, when he is praised for his gallantry to the Marquise by his own general, who wants to have the men who had “dishonored the Czar’s name” shot if the Count will identify them, he blushes furiously, gives a “confused reply” that he couldn’t identify them in the dark, and looks “embarrassed,” but someone else identifies them and they are shot.  “[T]he Count made his way through the crowd of hurrying soldiers to the Commandant [the Marquise’s father] and said how very sorry he was, but under the circumstances [italics mine] he could only send his warmest regards to the Marquise….”

The next news the family of the Marquise receives of their hero is that he has been killed in another skirmish elsewhere, and though this monopolizes their attention for a while, soon they have other problems, viz., the strange illness which is afflicting the Marquise.  The illness at first passes, and the Marquise jokes with her mother that if another lady told her of the condition (or “circumstance”) that she would think the lady pregnant.  But the Marquise recovers a few days later and the illness is forgotten.  Not long after, they have another piece of astounding news:  a servant comes in and announces that Count F–, the Russian officer whom they had thought dead, is there and is seeking an audience.  The officer “turned, with an expression of great tenderness on his face, to the daughter; and the very first thing he asked her was, how did she feel?”  It comes out that the Marquise has been ill, but when the Marquise expresses a confidence that nothing else will come of it, he agrees that he thinks so too, and asks her if she will marry him.  They put him off and delay and question why he is so emphatic, but he continues to press his suit vigorously, saying that it’s necessary for “his soul’s peace.”

The family explains courteously that the Marquise had determined never to marry again after the death of her husband, but that since Count F– has been so genteel and has “laid so great an obligation” of gratitude on her that she will take some time to consider his proposal.  Again and again, he urges his suit, again and again they ask him to wait, and to carry out his duties to go to Naples as ordered.  They say that then he may come and be a guest at their dwelling while their daughter and they consider the matter and get to know him.  With rare alacrity, the young man cancels his trip and asks to stay right away.  The family actually begins to fear for his future professionally, sure that he will get into trouble with his superiors.  Finally, they agree to tell him that until his return from Naples, the lady will not “enter into any other engagement.”  He is overjoyed and agrees to go to Naples, while having letters of report sent to them from his own family and superiors proclaiming his character.  When he takes leave he again says that he loves the Marquise and wants very much to marry her.  The family is totally perplexed, but leaves the matter aside until his return.

They receive all good reports of him from his superiors and his family, but in the meantime, the Marquise’s mysterious illness returns.  After consulting with her doctor and the midwife both, it becomes obvious that she is in fact pregnant, and her parents throw her out of the house to return to her own estate of V–.  “The midwife, as she probed the Marquise, gabbled about young blood and the cunning of the world; when she finished, she said she had had to do with similar cases in the past; all the young widows who found themselves in her predicament would absolutely have it that they had been living on a desert island; at the same time she spoke soothingly to the Marquise and promised her that the light-hearted buccaneer who had landed in the night would soon come back to her.  When the Marquise heard this, she fainted dead away.”  As is obvious, the literary convention of having women faint a lot from various kinds of psychological shock is tested to the utmost against reality, in which we are asked to believe that the Marquise actually does go into fainting fits a lot.  Her mother writes a note about “the existing circumstances” when her parents ask her to leave, and so she does, taking her children with her.

“Her reason, which had been strong enough not to crack under the strain of her uncanny situation, now bowed before the great, holy and inscrutable scheme of things.  She saw the impossibility of persuading her family of her innocence,” and in short decides to “lavish all her mother love on the third [child] that God had made her a gift of.”  She restores and makes repairs to disused parts of her estate and begins to make small garments for her potential new arrival.  At this point, she determines to put her notice in the newspaper to ask the father of the child, whoever he might be, to make his appearance and marry her.  In the meantime, Count F– returns from Naples to her parents’ home, and her parents and brother are shocked to find that the Count still wants to marry their daughter, insisting that he himself believes in her innocence.  He makes his way to her estate at V– and obtains an interview with her.  His vehement courtship attempts fail, however, even his attempt to tell her some secret or other which he feels will sway her will.

There seems to be no hope for his cause.  Then, the Marquise’s brother tells him about her advertisement in the newspapers, and the Count says that he knows now what he has to do.  Again in the meantime, her mother visits her and by a ruse determines that the Marquise, however definitely pregnant, also definitely has no notion as to who has put her “in those circumstances.”  The daughter is forgiven, and taken home to her parents’ house, and now comes the strange Freudian scene between the Marquise and her father.  Her mother seems oddly clueless when she sees it, but even pre-Freudians must’ve found something a bit peculiar about this scene:  the Commandant allows his daughter to sit on his lap, which he has never done before.  After peering through the keyhole, “[the mother] opened the door and peered in–and her heart leaped for joy:  her daughter lay motionless in her father’s arms, her head thrown back and her eyes closed, while he sat in the armchair, with tear-choked, glistening eyes, and pressed long, warm and avid kisses on her mouth:  just as if he were her lover!  Her daughter did not speak, her husband did not speak; he hung over her as if she were his first love and held her mouth and kissed it.  The mother’s delight was indescribable; standing unobserved behind the chair, she hesitated to disturb the joy of reconciliation that had come to her home.  At last she moved nearer and, peering around one side of the chair, she saw her husband again take his daughter’s face between his hands and with unspeakable delight bend down and press his lips against her mouth.  On catching sight of her, the Commandant looked away with a frown and was about to say something; but calling out, ‘Oh, what a face!’ she kissed him in her turn so that his frown went away, and with a joke dispelled the intense emotion filling the hushed room.  She invited them both to supper, and they followed her to the table like a pair of newlyweds….”  This is not to suggest, be it said, that the Commandant is the father of his own grandchild, only that there is some strong element of hysteria in the family and in the era as well (as I mentioned, the period was the German Romantic period); this hysteria seems foreign and psychologically suspect to us now, with the fact that both the mother and the daughter have fainting fits, and the father is weirdly affectionate in an overly compelling way with his own daughter.

Near the end of the story, Count F– places himself before the Marquise and her parents and confesses by gesture and implication that he is the man she advertized for.  She runs from the room in confusion, calling him the devil, and sprinkling them all with holy water.  The parents agree on their daughter’s behalf that they will marry the next day.  The daughter goes into a fever, tries to refuse, says that she can’t marry, “especially not him,” but her father insists that she must keep her word.  “He also submitted a marriage contract to the Count in which the latter renounced all his rights as a husband, at the same time that he agreed to do anything and everything that might be required of him.”  The pair are married, but the new Countess refuses to look at, touch, or have anything to do with her husband for a long time.  He lives in a separate dwelling in M–, while the Countess continues to stay with her parents.  “Thanks only to the delicate, honorable, and exemplary way he behaved whenever he encountered the family, he was invited, after the Countess was duly delivered of a son, to the latter’s baptism.”  He puts a gift of 20,000 rubles in the baby’s cradle and a will making the mother his heiress in the event of his death.  “When his feelings told him that everybody, seeing what an imperfect place the world in general was [literally “for the sake of the fragile constitution of the world,” which speaks to the constitutions of the characters as well], had pardoned him, he began to court his wife the Countess anew.”  They are remarried a year later, and the whole family moves to V–, where the young people beget “[a] whole line of young Russians.”  The story concludes with this indirect “moral”:  “[W]hen the Count once asked his wife, in a happy moment, why…when she seemed ready to accept any villain of a fellow that came along, she had fled from him as if from the Devil, she threw her arms around his neck and said:  he wouldn’t have looked like a devil to her then if he had not seemed like an angel to her at his first appearance.”

So now, we have four “balls” of literary interpretation with which to juggle the meaning of this story:  ambiguity, Freudian gestures including both hysterical ones and sexual ones, and the devil/angel study in contrasts.  Still, I wonder if that’s quite enough:  perhaps feminist politics do have a place herein, or at least a feminist questioning of the Marquise’s situation.  She is a woman rooted in family, at a time when family and social status considerations were paramount.  She has lived in a protected family grouping even though she has lost her own mate, and has accepted her father’s role as the arbiter of rules and regulations, and her mother’s role as persuader of the sometimes tyrannical sway he practices.  Her “circumstances,” in fact, are such that when she is “in other circumstances,” otherwise a happy time, she must count her own family not among her advocates but among her animosities.  And who presents himself?  A man whom she was greatly and favorably impressed by in his role of gentle conqueror, at a time when men in society were viewed as conquerors of women’s minds, hearts, and souls anyway, a blurring of lines which she must’ve found confusing.  She could of course have been killed, or gang-raped by the several original attackers from whom he took her, but he protected her from the worst ravages of war.  This is not to excuse him.  But there is in my mind a vague memory of seeing a movie version of this story in which, after he saves her and she is lying fainted-away on the straw or something, he sees her as a beautiful sleeping image of a woman, and then of course the camera cuts away to other scenes.  This transition from warfare to quiet solitude and from multiple images of distress and despair to her with her clothing in a bit of disarray and him standing over her looking admiringly down is the movie-maker’s explanation of the situation the Count finds himself in.  And if the woman accepts her apparent fate as his new wife, can we really scorn her choice, given the pressure of her society and her parents, and the unlikelihood of her ever otherwise finding respectability again in a society which prizes it highly?  If you feel the story is uncomfortable, I think that perhaps von Kleist, being the complex man he was in all of his writings, probably meant for it to be so, despite the glossing of “happy ending” with which the story ends:  after all, some people to be happy fight constantly as he himself did, with Goethe and others, to be accepted.  Others fight only so long, and then accept that their “circumstances” are bigger than themselves.  One can surmise that the Marquise of O– was just such a one, who found her own ways of coping with what must’ve been a shock, a misfortune, and finally a conditioned (or circumstantial) happiness.  What do you think?



Filed under Articles/reviews, Literary puzzles and arguments

7 responses to “A fine study of hysteria and ambiguity?–“The Marquise of O–” by Heinrich von Kleist

  1. D. James Fortescue

    The Count (ah ah ah!) would appear at fault for having his way with the unconscious Marquise, but his insistence that he marry her after the pregnancy became known says something for his character. It may have been the accepted process (and still is these days), but his determination seemed to speak more of his desire to do the right thing. We all make mistakes, and all we can do is make amends as best we can.

    You are right in that the ‘sides’ change, as her family turns against her for a time, and the man she thought well of before does something to undermine his character. While not everyone’s feelings on the final outcome is presented explicitly, it likely was the ‘happily ever after’ of the book’s time period.

    Fantastic analysis as always, good Doctor =)


    • Thanks for the praise, DJ. The thing is, the story waffles on whether the Count’s act is a rape or a seduction, and though we are to suppose that he was “gentle” enough that the Marquise didn’t wake up from her faint, it still was a dastardly thing to do to an unconscious woman, or to any woman, though there is a long history of wartime rapes, and indeed of women marrying the conquerors of their countries. I’m almost aggravated with myself for liking the story so much, until I accept that it’s the story’s complexity and ambiguity which make it a masterpiece, and that an easy answer would defeat the purpose of von Kleist’s apparent intention, which seems to be to get us to question even more ordinary situations in which women marry their enemies.


  2. annoy, shock, dismay, or plain confuse…they are the only four states of mind I have. I have to read this now!


    • Hi, Ste J! I really hope I’m not the source of your annoyance, shock, dismay, or confusion–do read the story, and you’ll see how von Kleist has, I think, carried it off fairly well. It’s not really a happy ending without some quibbles to be made, but it’s a gesture toward a completion of the story line, anyway.


  3. Nice analysis, I think Kleist purposely made a difficult story, but he was writing at a time when he had to leave a way out for those who couldn’t face up, or he would face not being published. Thus the ambiguity and happy ending.

    The film is by Rohmer, which I just reserved at the library before finding your post. I saw it years ago, and read the story years ago as well. I was brought back to it by a line in Montaigne’s essay on drunkenness in which he recounts a similar tale – a woman raped while drunk advertises for the father who turns up and marries her – but they were all peasants; and lived happily after as well. Wonder if Kleist knew the essay…


    • I’m not sure. It’s been a long time since I was familiar with any background to the story. As for my analysis, you’re overly generous: it’s rather a sort of slanted retelling of the story, emphasizing those points which I feel, rightly or wrongly, that Kleist meant to highlight. I do think the movie did an excellent job of conveyinig a lot of the main points.


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