Die Verlobung in St. Domingo

[This page by Martin Swales]

Die Verlobung in St. Domingo; The Betrothal in St. Domingo (written and published 1811)

Die Verlobung in St. Domingo is set during the Haitian Revolution of 1803-1804 which led to the founding of the first black republic. This is a colonial world where racial tensions between the indigenous blacks and their white masters have reached boiling point. A Swiss family is seeking to escape back to Europe. One night, one of their number, Gustav, finds shelter in the house of Congo Hoango, one of the ringleaders of the black uprising, who is away at the time. Gustav is welcomed with hypocritical friendliness by Babekan, Congo’s mulatto housekeeper, and her mixed race daughter Toni. Gustav and Toni are instantly attracted to each other and, after a night of love, they become engaged. But the following day Congo returns. Toni ties up the sleeping Gustav in order to protect him and buy time. Help arrives as the Swiss family burst into Congo’s house, overpower the blacks, and set Gustav free. In his fury he shoots Toni for what he takes to be her betrayal of their love. When the truth is explained to him, he shoots himself. The Swiss group are able to get away and return home where a monument is erected to the two ill-fated lovers.

Toni’s dying words to Gustav are ‘du hättest mir nicht misstrauen sollen’; ‘you should not have mistrusted me’. In one sense, they express what might take to be the moral of the tale. Yet the heartland of this story is a fictional universe from which no comfortingly clear moral can be derived; trust – above all between people of different races – is in very short supply. When the indigenous people rise up against their colonial masters, no regard is shown for the fact that some of the colonizers have been generous to the colonized people. The hatred felt by the blacks for the whites is a blanket emotion which dominates all the crowd scenes. And even the intimacy of Gustav and Toni’s love is poisoned by the racial issue. Gustav links the trustworthiness of Babekan and Toni to their near-whiteness; ‘Euch kann ich mich anvertrauen; aus der Farbe Eures Gesichtes schimmert mir ein Strahl von der meinigen entgegen’; ‘I can entrust myself to you; from the colour of your faces, a tint of my own colour shines at me’. Later in the story, in her proud declaration of her autonomy, Toni says to Congo and Babekan: ‘Ich bin eine Weisse und dem Jüngling, den ihr gefangenhaltet, verlobt’; ‘I am a white woman and engaged to the youth you hold prisoner’. Yet, in spite of all the emotional intensity felt by the lovers, Gustav remains ‘der Fremde’; ‘the foreigner’, and he is often described thus by the narrator. Even the sexual desire they both feel is mediated (and compromised) rather than authentic. This is suggested by a telling detail. When Gustav first comes to Congo’s house, Babekan is at pains to dress her daughter for maximum sexual allure; she sends her off to meet Gustav ‘nachdem sie ihr den Latz zugeschnürt hatte’; ‘after she had tied her bodice fast’. The bodice is pulled tight to both conceal and to highlight her breasts. In the love-making, the bodice is pushed aside: ‘ihr Haar war ihr, als sie niederkniete, auf ihre jungen Brüste herabgerollt’; ‘her hair had rolled down over her young breasts as she kneeled down’. The following morning she is at pains to restore order ‘indem sie sich mit ihrem Latz beschäftigte’; ‘by busying herself with her bodice.’ At the end, Gustav shoots her in the breast, and we read of Gustav’s uncle: ‘Herr Strömli drückte jammernd den Latz, der des Mädchens Brust umschloss, nieder’; ‘Herr Strömli, moved to pity, smoothed down the bodice that enveloped the girl’s breast.’ Sexual arousal, that primary human emotion, is somehow not separable from the cultural iconography of black, half caste and white bodiliness. When Gustav repudiates Toni, he calls her a whore. The story ends with a bloodbath, and Kleist is, as so often when violence is at issue, brutal in his attention to detail. Toni is ‘das in seinem Blut sich wälzende Mädchen’; ‘the girl writhing in her own blood’. And of Gustav we read: ‘des Ärmsten Schädel war ganz zerschmettert und hing, da er sich das Pistol in den Mund gesetzt hatte, zum Teil an den Wänden umher’; ‘that most poor man’s skull was entirely splintered and – as he had aimed the pistol into his mouth – it was partly splattered over the walls.’ Love becomes hatred and makes a mockery of trust and truthfulness. As with J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, a novel about South Africa, the mix of emotions involved in the colonial and post-colonial situation militates against cognitive certainty and humane values. Shame and guilt, strongly felt but imperfectly understood, are as close as the inhabitants of a racially riven world can get to authentic experience. As Bertolt Brecht never tired of reminding us, morality, for its functioning in human affairs, requires a society that is grounded in decency. If the socio-cultural context is tainted, then a value such as trust – invoked in Toni’s anguished last words – cannot prevail. This is the sombre insight that Die Verlobung in St. Domingo makes us confront.

Further Reading

Ruth Angress, ‘Kleist’s Treatment of Imperialism: Die Hermannsschlacht and Die Verlobung in St. Domingo’, Monatshefte 69 (1977), 17-33

Matthew Bell, ‘Kleist and Melancholy’, Publications of the English Goethe Society 78:1-2 (2009), 11-21

Benjamin Bennett, The Dark Side of Literacy: Literature and Learning Not to Read (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), pp. 278-84

Ray Fleming, ‘Race and the Difference It Makes in Kleist’s Die Verlobung in St. Domingo’, The German Quarterly 65:3-4 (1992), 306-17

Sander Gilman, On Blackness without Blacks: Essays on the Image of the Black in Germany (Boston, MA: G. K. Hall, 1982), pp. 83-92

Stephen Howe, Heinrich von Kleist and Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Violence, Identity, Nation (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2012), Chapter 3 on Die Verlobung in St. Domingo, pp. 95-127

Volker Kaiser, ‘Epistemological Breakdown and Passionate Eruption: Kleist’s Die Verlobung in St. Domingo’, Studies in Romanticism 42 (2003), 341-67

Todd Kontje, ‘Passing for German: Politics and Patriarchy in Kleist, Körner and Fischer’, German Studies Review 22 (1999), 67-84

Susanne Kord, ‘The Pre-Colonial Imagination: Race and Revolution in the Literature of the Napoleonic Period’, in Un-Civilizing Processes? Excess and Transgression in German Society and Culture: Perspectives Debating with Norbert Elias, ed. by Mary Fulbrook (Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2007), pp. 85-115

James P. Martin, ‘Reading Race in Kleist’s Die Verlobung in St. Domingo’, Monatshefte 100:1 (2008), 48-66

Tim Mehigan, Heinrich von Kleist: Writing After Kant (Rochester NY: Camden House, 2011), Chapter 10 on Die Verlobung in St. Domingo

Michael Perraudin, ‘Babekan’s “Brille”, and the Rejuvenation of Congo Hoango: A Reinterpretation of Kleist’s story of the Haitian Revolution’, Oxford German Studies 20-21 (1991-92), 85-103

Hans Jakob Werlen, ‘Seduction and Betrayal: Race and Gender in Kleist’s Die Verlobung in St. Domingo’, Monatshefte 84:4 (1992), 459-71

Wolfgang Wittkowski, ‘Justice and Loyalty: Kleist’s Die Verlobung in St. Domingo’, Journal of Black Studies 23:2 (1992), 188-99

Susanne Zantop, ‘Changing Color: Kleist’s “Die Verlobung in St. Domingo” and the Discourses of Miscegenation’, in A Companion to the Works of Heinrich von Kleist, ed. by Bernd Fischer (Rochester NY: Camden House, 2003), pp. 191-208

Web Link


Warwick University podcast on The Betrothal in St. Domingo