Die Marquise von O…

[This page by Martin Swales]

Die Marquise von O… ; The Marquise of O. (first published 1808)

Die Marquise von O… is more or less unique in Kleist’s narrative work in that it opens with – and sustains – a complex register of comedy. The Marquise, a blameless lady with two children, widowed some years previously, puts an advertisement in a local paper asking that, if the father of the child that she is expecting will appear at a specified time and place, she will marry him for the sake of familial seemliness. We then have an extended flashback. The Marquise is living with her parents in a fort of which her father is commander. The fort is attacked and taken by Russian troops. She falls into the hands of some violent soldiers who are about to rape her when a senior officer, the Graf F (Count F), appears and rescues her. She falls senseless at his feet. When her servants appear, he shows himself entirely concerned for her well-being. Not long afterwards the Graf appears and asks the Marquise to marry him. The family is amazed and insists that any such course of action is premature. But the Graf continues, over the weeks that follow, to exert pressure. During this time the Marquise discovers that she is pregnant – but she has no knowledge of having had intercourse with any man. Her parents are scandalized and she withdraws to her own estate. But gradually she is reconciled with her family. Hence the advert in the paper – to which a response appears, saying that the father of the child will appear. It turns out to be none other than the Graf F. The Marquise is initially horrified that her angelic saviour should have so devilishly dishonoured her. But the marriage takes place; after some time has elapsed, the two of them are united in true happiness.

Perhaps it is helpful, as one takes stock of this story, to think initially in terms of three interpretative registers. One is comic, as I have already suggested. The other is (as so often with Kleist) existential. And the third is, for want of a better word, Freudian. The comedy of the story is largely anchored in the attempt of a dignified, conventional family to retain their decorum in the face of the mysterious pregnancy that has befallen the daughter. When the latter, assuring her mother of her sexual purity, says that one should nevertheless send for a midwife, the mother exclaims, in a line entirely worthy of Lady Bracknell: ‘Ein reines Gewissen und eine Hebamme!’; ‘A clear conscience and a midwife!’ Frequently the sheer contradictory nature of events produces comedy. At one point news is brought to the family that the Graf has been killed, but shortly afterwards he re-appears, to general consternation. One might also mention, under the heading of comedy, the following moment. After what we discover is the Graf’s rape of the unconscious Marquise, he ‘versicherte, indem er sich den Hut aufsetzte, dass sie sich bald erholen würde’; he ‘ascertained, as he put his hat back on, that she would soon recover’. The detail of his putting on his hat is eerily comic. And finally, there is the moment towards the end of the tale where the Marquise is reconciled with her father in a scene of extraordinary sexual intensity (to which I shall return in a moment), and the mother, in the best tradition of farce, witnesses the scene from behind the father’s chair. Yet these registers of comedy coexist with a passionate human drama about the intelligibility of human experience, both physical and metaphysical. When the Marquise is rejected by her family, she finds reserves of courage in herself. We read: ‘Ihr Verstand, stark genug, in ihrer sonderbaren Lage zu reißen, gab sich ganz unter der großen, heiligen und unerklärlichen Einrichtung der Welt gefangen’; ‘her reason, strong enough not to fail her in her strange situation, gave itself up to the great, sacred and inexplicable construction of the world’. She converts the inexplicability of what has befallen her into a sacred mystery. In a weird echo of the Virgin Birth she thinks that the child she is carrying is somehow divine because his ‘Ursprung, eben weil er geheimnisvoller war, auch göttlicher zu sein schien als der anderer Menschen’; ‘his origin, precisely because it was mysterious, seemed also more divine that than of other people’. When the mystery is explained, it is, I think, fair to say that the reader is not exactly surprised. The reason why the family – and the Marquise in particular – cannot make the obvious connection, is that the Graf has seemed to be ‘ein Engel des Himmels’ (‘an angel from heaven’), a saviour in every sense of the word. And she desperately needs to believe in her angel because that belief is part of the faith that has helped her throughout all her tribulations. At the end of the story, the Graf is forgiven ‘um der gebrechlichen Einrichtung der Welt willen’; ‘because of the fragile construction of the world’. And the Marquise comes to acknowledge that he is neither an angel nor a devil – but a human being, a decent one, but profoundly faulty all the same. The order of the world, then is neither holy nor mysterious. It is simply – and profoundly – flawed. At the heart of that faultiness is human sexuality. The story probes the working of desire with astonishing boldness, and it does so a century before Freud argued that the pressures of unacknowledged sexual drives and fears and traumas are profoundly constitutive of the human personality. Clearly the Graf has to come to terms with the monstrousness of what he has done. The excitement of rescuing the Marquise from the soldiers transforms itself into uncontrollable sexual arousal. When the father learns of his daughter’s pregnancy, his outrage is clearly fuelled by sexual jealousy. When he is reconciled with her, that pent-up sexuality is released; and the narrator makes explicit the intense desire that is at work. We read that the father ‘lange, heisse und lechzende Küsse […] auf ihren Mund drückte: gerade wie ein Verliebter!’; ‘pressed long, hot and licking kisses […] on her mouth: exactly like a lover!’. At another point we read that he is ‘wieder mit Fingern und Lippen in unsäglicher Lust über den Mund seiner Tochter beschäftigt’; ‘busy again with his daughter’s mouth, his fingers and lips with unspeakable lust’. The issue of subliminal sexuality is also present in the metaphorical force of so many events. The Graf storms the citadel and takes it by force – as he does the Marquise. When he asks to marry the Marquise, the father realizes that this will entail a second act of surrender on his part. There are also incidents which we (perhaps all too readily) are inclined to describe as ‘Freudian symbols’ – the Graf’s prowess with the hosepipe as he puts out the fire in the fort, the father’s firing off a pistol as he banishes his daughter. What Kleist captures in this story is the fierce power and volatility of sexuality in human behaviour, a power that can often make nonsense of human beings’ attempts at finding a secure structure of values and meanings by which to live. In its mixture of comedy, philosophy, and sexual analysis, Die Marquise von O… is an uncomfortable work. It generates interpretative responses in us, the readers, that are as profound as they are scandalous.

A film version of the story was produced in 1976, directed by Éric Rohmer, starring Edith Clever and Bruno Ganz.

Further Reading

Seán Allan, ‘“…auf einen Lasterhaften war ich gefaßt, aber auf keinen – Teufel”: Heinrich von Kleist’s Die Marquise von O…’, German Life and Letters 50:3 (1997), 307-22

Peter Barton, ‘The Problem of Knowledge and the Discourse of the Hysteric: Exploring a Lacanian Interpretation of “Die Marquise von O…”’, in Heinrich von Kleist and Modernity, ed. by Bernd Fischer and Tim Mehigan (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2011), pp. 217-32

Benjamin Bennett, The Dark Side of Literacy: Literature and Learning Not to Read (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), pp. 264-70

Curtis C. Bentzel, ‘Knowledge in Narrative: The Significance of the Swan in Kleist’s “Die Marquise von O…”’, The German Quarterly 64:3 (1991), 296-303

Matthew H. Birkhold, ‘The Trial of the Marquise of O.: A Case for Enlightened Jurisprudence?’, Germanic Review 87:1 (2012), 1-18

Elizabeth Boa, ‘Losing the Plot? Kleist, Kafka, and Disappearing Grand Narratives’, German Life and Letters 70:2 (2017), 137-54

Michel Chaouli, ‘Irresistible Rape: The Lure of Closure in The Marquise von O…’, The Yale Journal of Criticism 17 (2004), 51-81

Dorrit Cohn, ‘Kleist’s Die Marquise von O…: The Problem of Knowledge’, Monatshefte 67 (1975), 129-44

Linda Dietrick, ‘Immaculate Conceptions: The Marquise von O… and the Swan’, Seminar 27 (1991), 316-29

Lilian R. Furst, Through the Lens of the Reader: Explorations of European Narrative (New York: State University of New York Press, 1992), Chapter 5 on Die Marquise von O., pp. 67-82

Katherine R. Goodman, ‘Swan Song of Prussia? Kleist’s Marquise von O…’, Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift 82:4 (2008), 552-73

Laura Martin, ‘Die Marquise von O… and The Scarlet Letter: A Study in Vicarious Gender Jumping’, in Schwellen: Germanistische Erkundungen einer Metapher, ed. by Nicholas Saul, Daniel Steuer, Frank Möbus and Birgit Illner (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 1999), pp. 251-64

Armine Kotin Mortimer, ‘The Devious Second Story in Kleist’s Die Marquise von O…’, The German Quarterly 67:3 (1994), 293-303

Harriet Murphy, ‘Theatres of Emptiness: The case of Kleist’s Marquise von O…’, Oxford German Studies 24 (1995), 80-111

Anthony Stephens, Heinrich von Kleist: The Dramas and Stories (Oxford: Berg, 1994), Chapter 10

Erika Swales, ‘The Beleaguered Citadel: A Study of Kleist’s Die Marquise von O…’, Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift 51 (1977), 129-47

Hermann F. Weiss, ‘Precarious Idylls: The relationship between father and daughter in Heinrich von Kleist’s Marquise von O…’, Modern Language Notes 91 (1976), 538-42

Further Reading in German

Heinz Politzer, ‘Der Fall der Frau Marquise. Beobachtungen zu Kleists Die Marquise von O…’, Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift 51 (1977), 98-128

English Translations

Heinrich von Kleist, The Marquise of O – and Other Stories, trans. by David Luke and Nigel Reeves (London: Penguin, 1978)

Heinrich von Kleist, The Marquise of O –, trans. by Nicholas Jacobs (London: Pushkin Press, 2019)

Web Links


Warwick University Podcast on The Marquise von O...


The text of Die Marquise von O… in German