Heinrich von Kleist
BORN: 1777, Frankfurt an der Oder, Prussia
DIED: 1811, Wannsee bei Potsdam, Prussia
GENRE: Drama, fiction, nonfiction
The Feud of the Schroffensteins (1803)
The Broken Jug (1803-1805)
Herman’s Battle (1809)
Prince Friedrich von Homburg (1811)
Heinrich von Kleist. Kleist, Heinrich Von, photograph. The Library of Congress.
Unappreciated in his own time, Heinrich von Kleist is now considered one of the greatest German dramatists, and his work is favorably compared with that of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller. Kleist’s short life is almost as much a puzzle as his works: His death came just a month after his thirty-fourth birthday, and he never married.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Military Background and a Military Life. Heinrich von Kleist was born in Frankfurt an der Oder on October 18, 1777, to a military family that had provided Prussia with eighteen generals. Kleist was educated privately until the age of eleven, when he went to the French Gymnasium in Berlin. Kleist joined the army at the age of fifteen and participated in the 1793 Rhine campaign against the French, but, to the disappointment of his family, he left the army in 1799 with no definite plans.
A Planned Marriage and Mysterious Travels. Kleist attended the university in his native city for one year, while also working as a tutor to Wilhelmine von Zenge, the daughter of a family friend. Kleist and Zenge fell in love, and their subsequent betrothal necessitated that he secure a financially stable position. He found employment in the civil service but soon left on a long journey through Europe, the true purpose of which has never been discovered. In his letters to Zenge, he refers vaguely to a medical condition for which he is seeking treatment and to a secret mission investigating industries outside Prussia. Scholars note the importance of this trip in Kleist’s development; it was in his letters to Zenge that he first expressed his desire to pursue a literary career.
Another key event in Kleist’s intellectual development was his reading in 1801 of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1788). Kleist’s reading of Kant challenged his rational ideas about human perfectibility and immortality. Kant maintained that reason was not able to discern the truth behind appearances; this sent Kleist into a period of despair that scholars commonly call his ‘‘Kant crisis.’’ Scholars and critics also suggest that Kleist’s reaction to Kant set the tone for his creative work to come—in which he despaired over the impossibility of anything being absolutely certain.
A Reluctant Civil Servant Turns to Literature. Financial constraints eventually required Kleist to return to the civil service, but in 1801 he again gave up his position and moved to Paris with his half-sister Ulrike. Life in France did not please Kleist. Reading the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, he became determined to lead a simple, natural life: Later that year he retreated to Switzerland and asked Zenge to join him there in an idyllic retreat. She refused but explained in a letter that she understood his need to satisfy his literary ambitions before returning to Germany. Kleist did return to Prussia in 1804 to assume another minor civil service post in Potsdam, but his betrothal to Zenge never proceeded to marriage.
Kleist wrote all of his major works between 1804 and 1810, during which time he was sometimes a civil servant and sometimes not. He also, with the German economist Adam Muller, started the literary journal Phobus as a vehicle for his stories. Lack of financial support caused the journal’s early demise; this disappointment was compounded by the failure of Goethe’s 1808 production of Kleist’s play The Broken Jug. In 1810 the first volume of Kleist’s Erzahlungen, a collection of stories and novellas, was published. At this time he also started a political periodical, Die Berliner Abendblatter, in which he published anti-Napoleonic articles, but lack of popular support resulted in the closure of the paper after six months. In 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte had led a coup d’etat that effectively ended the French Revolution that had been in effect since 1789, and in 1804 he installed himself as emperor of France and began military campaigns designed to bring all of Europe under his thrall. His victories over Prussia and other German states were greeted by some with equanimity, since he was seen as a tonic against the revolutionary forces stewing all across Europe, but were intensely galling for nationalists like Kleist.
A Sensational Suicide. Throughout his life, Kleist had expressed a wish to die and had frequently asked friends to commit suicide with him. In 1811 he befriended Henriette Vogel, a well-known actress who was dying of cancer; she agreed to a suicide pact. The two traveled together to an inn near Potsdam, and on November 21, Kleist shot Vogel and then himself. The double suicide was reported throughout Europe and attracted much attention and debate, thereby helping to keep Kleist’s memory alive and ultimately—albeit rather morbidly—stimulating critical interest in his works.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Kleist's famous contemporaries include:
Jane Austen (1775-1817): A British novelist famous for her works Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, widely considered classics of English literature.
Simon Bolivar (1783-1830): A Venezuela-born resistance leader who was instrumental in Hispanic America's liberation from Spain and in founding the Spanish colonies of Gran Columbia.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834): A British poet, philosopher, and critic who is widely known as one of the founders of the Romantic movement.
Francis Scott Key (1779-1843): The American lawyer and author who wrote the United States' national anthem, ''The Star-Spangled Banner.''
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832): A German Romantic poet, playwright, and novelist, most famous for his drama Faust.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Because of the scandal and controversy surrounding his death, Kleist has come to represent the idea of the ''tragic artist'' driven to extremity by the constraints of society. Here are some other works either by or about ''tragic artists'':
Lust for Life (1934), a novel by Irving Stone. This biography of Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh was the first of many successful biographies written by stone. Van Gogh suffered bouts of mental illness.
A Season in Hell (1873), a poem by Arthur Rimbaud. This extended poem was enormously influential on later European writers. Rimbaud himself led a troubled and troubling life full of excesses of all kinds, and details of his personal life have given his work added mystique.
Waiting on God (1950), a collection of essays, letters, and other writings by Simone Weil. Weil was a French social activist and mystic whose devotion to her causes was deemed by those around her to be extreme at the very least, and possibly insane. She starved herself to death in 1943 out of sympathy for those suffering under the German occupation of France during World War II.
Works in Literary Context
Philosophical and Literary Precedents. Kleist’s life and work were influenced by his study of the works of Rousseau and by his close reading of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1788). Kleist also took cues from literature; for example, The Feud of the Schroffensteins (1916) borrows from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with its story of family hostility standing in the way of young love. Likewise, his play Penthesilea (1808) was inspired by a Greek myth about an Amazon queen.
Kleist’s dramas are written in blank verse rather than the smooth, classical verse used by Schiller and Goethe, the authors with whom he has been most often compared. Kleist’s style is characterized by frequent enjambments, caesuras, and abrupt changes of speaker; for instance, although only the first ten scenes of Robert Guiskard have survived, the existing fragment suffices to demonstrate how powerful a drama it might have become had Kleist been able to finish it. A play about the Norman leader’s plan to conquer Constantinople, Robert Guiskard reveals how Kleist used dramatic gesture, the similes of Homer, exaggerated metaphor, and disrupted word order and unfinished utterance to indicate the emotional conflicts and secret thoughts and feelings of the characters.
Human Frailty and the Existential Vision. Scholars note that Kleist’s work is informed with an existential vision—one that emphasizes human frailty. Robert Guiskard, for example, examines the plight of a dying army commander, an ambitious man who ultimately comes to despair over his inability to realize his goals. Kleist’s plays and stories often depict uncontrolled erotic passion, mental confusion, and violent emotional outbursts that in his time offended common notions of propriety and good taste. This concern with uncontrolled passion and violence is evident in his first play, The Feud of the Schroffensteins (1803; published 1916), for instance, a tragedy incorporating a plot similar to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, except that the feuding fathers kill their own children to prevent their love affair.
Works in Critical Context
One of the most enigmatic of German writers, Heinrich von Kleist has been the object of critical debate and controversy from his appearance on the literary scene in the first decade of the nineteenth century to the present day. That his creative genius was of an exceptionally high order has not been disputed. It was rather the extreme stylization and frank sexuality of his depictions that shocked his contemporaries, denying him the public and critical acclaim he craved and believed he deserved. In his plays and stories, raging passions result in shattered skulls and suitors slain and devoured in the name of love; however, these tendencies have ensured continuing interest in his work during the twentieth century, and he is now read with a keen eye to his acute psychological insight and honest depiction of sexuality. Equally, readers over the years have been all but obsessed with assigning meaning to Kleist’s death by suicide.
Nineteenth-century critics searched Kleist’s works for evidence of mental illness, focusing on the extreme and eccentric nature of his characters. In the early twentieth century, scholars influenced by Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche focused on Kleist’s suicide as part of his literary makeup and read Kleist as an example of Nietzsche’s tragic artist. Others saw Kleist, in the words of Julius Petersen, as the ‘‘classic of Expressionism,’’ interpreting his works as a quest for philosophical certainty. German nationalist critics in the period of Adolf Hitler’s rule cited Kleist’s suicide as the ultimate sacrifice of an individual for his country and praised his works, especially Prince Friedrich von Homburg and Herman’s Battle, for their glorification of individual commitment to the German nation.
Twentieth-Century Approaches to Kleist’s Death and Works. Kleist criticism after World War II took an existentialist turn, with readers seeing Kleist’s suicide as the normal response to the tragic nature of human existence. For example, Swana L. Hardy, who interprets Kleist’s work as the “allegory’’ of his life, suggests in her essay ‘‘Heinrich von Kleist: Portrait of a Mannerist’’ that one can ‘‘perceive in Kleist and his work a paradigm [a model] of the existentialist interpretation of man.’’ Since the 1960s there has also been increasing emphasis on studying the social, political, and historical aspects of Kleist’s works. Many Marxist scholars believe that Kleist’s primary concern was the relation of man to society under capitalism—though they debate as to whether Kleist condoned middle-class values or supported a rebellion against authority.
More recent responses to Kleist have focused on his short stories, as collected in the Erzahlungen, with an eye to understanding these stories' relationship to other writers and thinkers. Anthony Stephens, for instance, suggests that Kleist’s ‘‘practice as a literary writer is invariably to quote, with varying degrees of scepticism or irony, convictions he had once uncritically espoused.’’ Coming from another angle, Sean Allan observes with some satisfaction that ‘‘literary critics are no longer predisposed to see the works as ending on a note of reconciliation but rather as riddled with elements of ambiguity and irony to the extent that they negate any prospect of establishing a habitable order in which human progress might be possible.’’
Responses to Literature
1. In his analysis of Kleist’s short fiction, Denys Dyer suggests that the chaos depicted in the stories mirrors the upheaval in Europe caused by the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. To consider Kleist's writing in this context, research an event related to the period of Napoleonic rule and find evidence of the event as it informs one of Kleist's works, such as Herman’s Battle (1809) or Prince Friedrich von Homburg (1821). Analyze examples from the work that show Kleist's attitude toward Napoleon.
2. Many Marxist scholars believe that Kleist's primary concern was the relation of man to society under capitalism. In a group effort, find evidence that would support this critical interpretation and evidence that would argue against it. Hold a debate where both sides are expressed. In a Kleist work, for example, where does the author show he condones middle-class values? In contrast, where does he seem to favor a rebellion against authority? Offer a detailed analysis of examples to defend a pro or con position.
3. In an introduction to Kleist’s short story ‘‘On the Marionette Theatre’’ Idris Parry writes, ‘‘On the centenary of his death, the critics agreed he was a hundred years ahead of his time. In 1977 they said he’d come into the world (on 18 October 1777) two hundred years too early.'' Read a Kleist story and consider what would appeal to readers today. Do you agree that Kleist was ahead of his time? Why or why not?
4. As a proto-existentialist thinker and writer, Kleist often showed opposition to theories of human perfection. Consider what it means to be perfect: make a list of human goals that strive toward perfection (in sports, in academics, in the workplace, in relationships). What characteristics in our lives make us, however, less than perfect? How does Kleist show human fallibility? How does this play out in the lives of his characters? What does Kleist's own attitude toward the fragile human condition seem to be?
Blankenagel, John C. The Dramas of Heinrich von Kleist: A Biographical and Critical Study. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1931.
Dyer, Denys. The Stories ofKleist: A Critical Study. Teaneck, N.J.: Holmes and Meier, 1977.
Graham, Ilse. Heinrich von Kleist: Word into Flesh: A Poet’s Quest for the Symbol. Berlin: De Gruyter, 1977.
Hardy, Swana L. ‘‘Heinrich von Kleist: Portrait of a Mannerist.’’ In Goethe, Calderon and the Romantic Theory of Dramas. Heidelberg, Germany: Carl Winter, 1965.
Maass, Joachim. Kleist: A Biography. Trans. Ralph Manheim. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1983.
Angress, Ruth K. ‘‘Kleist’s Treatment of Imperialism.’’ German Speech and Literature 69 (1977): 17-33.
Lefevre, Manfred. ‘‘Kleist-Forschung, 1961-1967.’’ Colloquia Germanica 3 (1969): 1-86.
Heinrich von Kleist, ‘‘On the Marionette Theatre.’’ Idris Parry, trans. Southern Cross Review. Retrieved May 16, 2008, from http://southerncrossreview.org/9/kleist.htm.
The Kleist Portal (in German). Retrieved May 16, 2008, from http://www.kleist.org/.
Project Gutenberg. Kleist, Heinrich von, 1777-1811. Retrieved May 16, 2008, from http://www.gutenberg.org/browse/authors/k#a2127.