Date of Award
Master of Arts (MA)
The works of Heinrich von Kleist are known for their rich complexity and multifaceted nature, which often defy singular or holistic readings through an employment of paradoxes, impasses, and contradictions. However, despite their high level of plasticity and their inexhaustible nature, his works often touch on two themes: violence and the nation. This thesis will argue that these two themes are inseparably connected, and through readings of Penthesilea, Die Hermannsschlacht, and Michael Kohlhaas it will demonstrate how Kleist uses physical violence to expose latent forms of institutional violence hidden within the power structures of nationality. Through an understanding of the German term Gewalt as a conceptualization of power, strength, authority, might, and dominion, it will be argued that Kleist perceived these concepts are synonyms for violence that find their expression in the conceptualizations of sovereign authority put forth by Thomas Hobbes, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In Penthesilea the concept of the founding myth as a structure for violently establishing, maintaining, and enforcing national institutions will be explored. It will be argued that Kleist’s depiction of a matriarchal society is still subject to a patriarchal superstructure. Building off of the conceptualization of myth put forth in Penthesilea, Die Hermannsschlacht will explore how Kleist problematizes his own propaganda against the French state through an ambivalent portrayal of patriotic violence, in which the ends of freedom are questioned by the violent means Hermann uses to achieve them. Lastly, a reading of Michael Kohlhaas will be used to explore the notion of violence as a means of legal authority. It will be explored how the inability of the Saxon government to protect its citizen’s civic rights through legal recourse results in a collapse of the social contract, and forces Kohlhaas to use violence from outside the law in order to reinvigorate it. Finally, through the narrational subplot of the Gypsy woman and the unspoken prophecy the themes of violence, power, and authority explored in this essay will be brought together as manifestations of the written word in literature. A medium, that allows for a middle path to be trod between violence and Enlightened discourse.
Thomas, Seth Harmon, "States of Gewalt: Violence in the Works of Heinrich Von Kleist" (2019). Germanic and Slavic Languages and Literatures Graduate Theses & Dissertations. 38.