Betrothal in San Domingo by Heinrich Von Kleist

Haitians tell the story of how Haiti saved the United States from Napoleon’s imperial ambitions. Bob Corbett, a retired professor from Webster University with a deep interest and involvement in Haiti writes:

But, over dinner a discussion came up in which the Haitians present were teasing me about how Haiti “saved” the United States. I was fascinated. I didn’t know this story. It certainly was not taught in my history courses in school.

When I did finally get back to the states, I started reading about this “saving” story. The glory of the tale is rooted in a late 20th century view of the world. From that perspective little bitsy Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the world, by resisting Napoleon’s invaders, had saved the U.S. since Napoleon was really on his way to attack the huge and glorious U.S.

But, the real story, as set in the very beginning of the 19th century was much more glorious than the Haitians knew. Haiti was the economic giant, the plum of Napoleon’s empire, and the jewel around which he would build his empire. The then small and less interesting U.S. would simply be a feeding ground for the slaves he intended to reinstate in Saint-Domingue.

This Haitian revolution is Kleist’s setting for his excruciatingly  tense Betrothal in San Domingo. The revolution raged during the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century. A quintessentially Romantic tragedy, complete with tragic hero, a heroine felled by misinterpreted intentions and the hero’s subsequent suicide, Kleist’s prose and fiercely realised characters give the story a compelling force. Like its sister tale The Chilean Earthquake, another colonial story full of tension and despair, Kleist opts to end with the hint of cathartic redemption.

Monday was the 200th anniversary of Kleist’s suicide, so it felt right to be reading one of his magnificent stories. It is also German literature month. The comments to Nicole’s post about another Kleist story lead me to Betrothal in San Domingo.

10 thoughts on “Betrothal in San Domingo by Heinrich Von Kleist

    • I find that Kleist is one of those writers that polarises readers. Tony is not the first reader to find Michael Kohlhaas entertaining but problematic, particularly that gypsy scene that is referenced in the comments to your post on the story.

      I enjoy Kleist’s passion for the extremes of emotion and violence. He is not subtle but always finds a way to pull his stories back from becoming nihilistic. In Michael Kohlhaas he appears to be pushing to the edge what happens when a man, both moral and on the edge of insanity, decides they are the source of laws/rules.

      You wrote very perceptively the other day about Kleist being driven mad by Kant; I think there is a lot of truth in that and that he explores those issues of moral philosophy in his stories.

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      • Well, my post today is a little more positive (although, after the ‘Michael Kohlhaas’ review, the only way really was up!). I’m sure that I’ll read the second volume of ‘Erzählungen’ at some point – perhaps it’s a shame that I chose the story I did as my introduction to Kleist…

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  1. Haiti was also the first black Republic and did indeed deafeat Napoleon’s army which you wouldn’t find in any French history book, that’s for sure.
    This isn’t my favourite of his story but it has all the typical “ingredients” so to speak.

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  2. This story and Michael Kohlhaas are absolute masterpieces, and everything else Kleist did is amazing. One of my favorites. He defies much more comment beyond that; I’m just wildly enthusiastic.

    Do you know the story of his suicide? He found a woman who was already dying, left his wife for her, then arranged a joint suicide pact with the other woman, leaving a suicide note telling his wife he would love her forever.

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  3. Pingback: German Literature Month 2011: Author Index « Lizzy’s Literary Life

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