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Kleist, Heinrich von (1777-1811)  

The plays and novellas of the bisexual Heinrich von Kleist explore societal ramifications of transgressive sexuality and frequently yoke illicit sex and death.

Kleist emerges from the hands of critics and biographers as a complex and dynamic figure, at once a romantic, realist, Rousseauist, Prussian nationalist, social critic, existentialist, and more recently, modernist.

During the almost ten years of his creative life, Kleist was enormously productive, writing seven plays, one uncompleted; eight novellas published in two volumes of Erzählungen (1810-1811); and essays on art and literature, as well as journalism and verse. His oeuvre is unfailingly paradoxical, ambiguous, and provocative, reflecting the conflicts between individual consciousness and society, struggles often indirectly expressed in his treatment of sexual themes.

Kleist's personal associations are marked by similar ambiguities: fervent though physically unconsummated attachments to several women and close, turbulent relationships with male companions.

Born in Frankfurt an der Oder, the oldest son of a Prussian army captain, Kleist survived the early death of both father (1788) and mother (1793). Entering the army at Potsdam at age fifteen, he attempted to follow the family tradition of a military career and participated in the campaign against the French Revolutionary armies in the Rhineland.

Recent biographical criticism suggests that Kleist first formed gay relationships in the military, beginning lifelong associations with Ernst von Pfuel and Rühle von Lilienstern. In 1799, Kleist resigned his commission in order to study at the University of Frankfurt.

He became engaged to Wilhelmine von Zenge and shortly thereafter embarked for Würzburg in search for a treatment for what appears to have been a sexual disorder. Unsuccessful in his quest, Kleist was plagued by moral and emotional upheavals, including the famous "Kant crisis," which undermined his faith in truth and knowledge and inaugurated a period of despondency and personal anguish.

Shortly after breaking his engagement, he completed his first tragic drama, later entitled Die Familie Schroffenstein (Family Schroffenstein, 1804), and destroyed the manuscript of the drama Robert Guiskard (1803) while fighting against despair and a desire for death.

After protracted illnesses and a complete physical breakdown, Kleist left government work to complete the play Der Zebrochne Krug (The Broken Jug, 1806), as well as the dramas Amphitryon and Penthesilea (1807), while also working on his novellas and later writing and editing the periodical Phobus and the Berliner Abendblätter. In November 1811, he and Henriette Vogel formed a suicide pact; Kleist shot Vogel and then himself.

There is hardly a work in which Kleist did not yield to the lure of self-destruction, often through the yoking of illicit sex and death, as in the novellas Die Verlobung in St. Domingo (The Engagement in St. Domingo) and Das Erdbeben in Chili (The Earthquake in Chili). Die Familien Schroffenstein, a play that was criticized for its salaciousness, further explores societal ramifications of transgressive sexuality.

Scenes of the grotesque and the absurd are hallmarks of Kleist's style; they throw into sharp relief the chasm between individual consciousness and an illusory world. The shocking scenes of dismemberment and cannibalism in Penthesilea examine more pointedly the problems of identity, placing the unisexual societies of the Amazons and the Greeks against a backdrop of startling brutality.

With its overtones of rape and father-daughter incest, the novella The Marquise von O... adds guilt and repression to an already ambiguous moral order that marks it as characteristically Kleistian. Although Kleist has long been claimed by critics as "ahead of his time," the sexual tensions underscoring his work have yet to be adequately explored.

Anna Sonser


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Allen, Sean. The Plays of Henrich von Kleist: Ideals and Illusions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Angress, Ruth. "Kleist's Nation of Amazons." Beyond the Eternal Feminine: Critical Essays on Women and German Literature. Susan L. Cocalis and Kay Goodman, eds. Stuttgart: Heinz, 1982. 99-134.

Brown, H. M. Kleist and the Tragic Ideal: A Study of Penthesilea and its Relationship to Kleist's Personal and Literary Development 1806-1808. Bern: Lang, 1977.

Cixous, Hélène, and Catharine Clément. La jeune née. Paris: Union Générale d'Editions, 1975.

Maass, Joachim. Kleist: A Biography. Trans. Ralph Manheim. London: Secker and Warburg, 1983.

McGlathery, James M. Desire's Sway: The Plays and Stories of Heinrich von Kleist. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1983.

Prandi, Julie D. Spirited Women Heroes: Major Female Characters in the Dramas of Goethe, Schiller and Kleist. Bern: Lang, 1983.

Sembdner, Helmut, ed. Heinrich von Kleists Lebensspuren: Dokumente und Berichte der Zeitgenossen. Zweite, veränderte und erweiterte Auflage. Bremen: Schunemann, 1964.

Silz, Walter. Heinrich von Kleist: Studies in his Works and Literary Character. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1961.

Wilson, Jean. The Challenge of Belatedness: Goethe, Kleist, Hoffmannstahl. Lanham: University Press of America, Inc., 1991.

Zimmermann, Hans Dieter. Kleist, die Liebe und der Tod. Frankfurt am Main: Athenaum, 1989.


    Citation Information
    Author: Sonser, Anna  
    Entry Title: Kleist, Heinrich von  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated July 11, 2006  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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