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  • The Bloody Price of AdoptionBetrayal and Absolution in Kleist’s “The Foundling”
  • Richard Block (bio)

Among his other accomplishments, Heinrich von Kleist may well have been among the first, and clearly most inspired, tabloid journalists.1 Even his novellas and dramas lend themselves to the sorts of headlines certain to seduce any inquiring mind: Amazon Warrior Devours Trojan War Hero and Lover (Penthilisea); Doomed Lovers Saved by Massive Earthquake Only to Succumb to Mob Violence (The Earthquake in Chile); Marionettes’ Pas de Deux Shames Famed Ballerina Daphne N (“On the Puppet Theater”); and in the novella that will be the focus of this essay, The Foundling, Adopted Son Serves Father Eviction Papers. Kleist was no stranger to journalism, most notably his failed Phöbus and then Berliner Abendblätter, in which many of his most notable prose pieces appeared in installments.2 With the exception of The Engagement in Santo Domingo, the sensationalist aspects of many of Kleist’s works stem not so much from the machinations of betrayal but more from merciless acts of revenge.3 To be sure, revenge and betrayal are not easily [End Page 27] thought apart; the one is often motivation for the other. But if one can even speak of betrayal in Kleist, its paradigm is hardly compatible with an analysis of a character’s psychology, something Kleist clearly eschews,4 but rather can best be understood in the manner that storytelling and language, in particular, hand his protagonists over to sensational fates.

An example is instructive here. What is important to emphasize is not that other tragedies by other authors could not be summarized as tabloid headlines, but rather that Kleist’s insistence on incorporating the mundane details in what appears to be an overarching narrative—and here, of course, I am speaking of his prose pieces—imbues such details with increased significance; details are charged with a meaning that exceeds their contingent nature.5 One reason for this is that the stories and anecdotes are apparently linked by an overarching moral, often in the form of a political critique (Wagner 1991, 19). The minor detail seems to hold the key to understanding often unfathomable turns of events; mystery becomes fateful, by virtue and despite the mundane. The Beggar Woman of Locarno is exemplary in this regard. A marquis returns from a hunt to discover a beggar women in his castle and orders her to get up and move behind an oven, whereupon, “unter Stöhnen und Ächzen,” (“moans and gasps”) she dies.6 In the years that follow, the marquis falls upon hard times and is forced to sell his castle. Already, a suggestion of payback is in play. But the castle is haunted, or at least mysterious sounds that echo the “Stöhnen and the Ächzen” of the beggar woman put off any potential buyers. When in a fit of rage the count sets fire to the castle, his bones, we are told, come to be in precisely the same corner from which he ordered the beggar woman. The incidental comes to be a sign of divine justice, save the narrative asserts what at best can be presumed: is it really possible that his bones found in rubble could be said to occupy the beggar woman’s corner? And were it not for the repetition of phrases, such as “Stöhnen und Ächzen” (as well as their synonyms) or the frequent use of the subordinate conjunction “dergestalt dass” (in the form of) the noises would probably be considered nothing more than wind wisping through a castle.7 The Christian traditions of mercy and justice are affirmed as they are deconstructed; the supernatural is revealed to be nothing other than narrative ruse. Language or at least, storytelling, both affirms and betrays the moral order. [End Page 28]

In choosing “The Foundling” rather than the more obvious “The Engagement in Santa Domingo” to explore betrayal, I hope to situate betrayal as constitutive of language itself, that is, something about the vexed relationship between signified and signifier establishes betrayal as fundamental to language itself. If such a claim merely restates what by now is something of a banality, it is...


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