An Interpretation of the Morals of Heinrich von Kleist’s The Earthquake in Chile Akin to most writers of the Romantic Movement, Heinrich von Kleist eschewed the Enlightenment’s belief in reason, science and progress. He believed that life was too complex for it to be interpreted by reason and science. The impenetrability of life, particularly human nature, is the central theme of Von Kleist’s short story The Earthquake in Chile (1807). Set in the wake of a fictitious earthquake in Chile, the short story reveals how man-made norms prove to be useless in moments of disaster.
Thus, it is only in times of crisis that the true nature of individuals and or institutions is bared (Allan, 108). The earthquake is traditionally used as a metaphor for massive social upheaval. The manner in which it inflicts damage – from the bottom, destroying the foundations of edifices – renders it a suitable allegory of public cataclysm. Reactionary priests interpreted the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 as a “punishment” for the supposed sins of its populace.
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The French philosopher Voltaire wrote in his novella Candide (1759) that the Roman Catholic Church used the said catastrophe as an excuse to burn more alleged heretics at the stake (The Internationalist, n. pag. ). The Scottish historian, essayist and satirist Thomas Carlyle referred to the French Revolution as “(an) earthquake of Insurrection” (Carlyle, 409). In The Earthquake in Chile, an earthquake temporarily halted the implacable operation of social, civil, moral and ecclesiastical law over society (Fenves, 313).
Subsequent events exposed the futility of searching for assurance in life through reliance on loosely-argued metaphysical biases such as morals (Allan, 108). In the context of the short story, morals are detrimental to human society and relationships. It merely results in prejudices that allow the powerful to subjugate the weak. From the outset, it is already clear to the reader that patriarchal structures of authority control Santiago. Power lies primarily in the hands of the viceroy, the Archbishop and the paterfamilias.
In addition, women are perceived as valued sexual possessions and individuals whose intellect and morality must be dictated by men. But, ironically, it is women who are expected to control the sexual ardor of men (Allan, 109). Under the guise of “morality,” women are supposed to exhibit behavior that will protect her from unwanted sexual advances from men. If a woman is subjected to inappropriate sexual conduct by a man, it is believed to be her fault – she is a “loose” woman who does not deserve respect from men.
When, for instance, Don Asteron discovered that Jeronimo is having an illicit affair with his daughter, Josephe, he sternly warned her instead of Jeronimo to end the relationship. And when Don Asteron later found out through Josephe’s brother that she and Jeronimo continued their liaison, he had her banished to a convent. Josephe’s new “spiritual father,” the Archbishop, proved to be more unforgiving – he insisted that she be put to trial and condemned to death after she gave birth during the religious procession.
Both Don Asteron and the Abbess strongly opposed the death sentence, to no avail (Allan, 110). The decision to commute Josephe’s sentence from burning at the stake to beheading resulted in “indignation (from) the matrons and maidens of Santiago” (Von Kleist, 175). Because they committed themselves to the patriarchal values of feminine innocence and impeccable chastity, they believed that no punishment could be too severe for a woman like her. Furthermore, a gory execution for Josephe would allow them to bask in the illusory sense of their own moral superiority.
Her burning at the stake would affirm their belief that they were “good” women and she was an “indecent” woman (Allan, 111). The earthquake, however, transformed Santiago into an entirely different society. The catastrophe destroyed the bastions of patriarchal authority – the cathedral, the Viceroy’s palace, the court, the house of Josephe’s father and the prison. As a result, the people finally learned to work side by side in order to survive. Differences in social class, gender and religion were disregarded to attain the common goal of survival:
And, indeed, in the midst of these awful moments, in which all the earthly goods of man were destroyed and all of nature was threatened with burial, the human spirit seemed to open out like a beautiful flower. In the fields, as far as the eye could reach, people of all ranks could be seen mingled together, princes and beggars, matrons and peasant women, bureaucrats and laborers, monks and nuns. They sympathized with one another, assisted one another and cheerfully shared whatever they had been able to save to keep themselves alive, as if the universal calamity had made a single family of all who had escaped it.
(180) For Jeronimo, Josephe and their son Philipp, help came in the form of Don Fernando and his wife Dona Elvira. After Josephe agreed to Don Fernando’s request that she be the wet nurse of his son Juan (Dona Elvira was badly injured in the earthquake), he welcomed her, Jeronimo and Philipp into his family. Don Fernando and Dona Elvira treated them well despite their background: Don Fernando was very grateful for this kindness (Josephe’s consent to become Juan’s wet nurse) and asked whether they did not wish to accompany him to that group of people who were just preparing a small breakfast by the fire.
Josephe replied that she would accept that invitation with pleasure, and, since Jeronimo had no objection either, she followed Don Fernando to his family and was received most heartily and tenderly by his two sisters-in-law, whom she knew to be very respectable young ladies. (179) Dona Elvira, to whose wounds Josephe was busily attending, had at one point – just when these stories were arriving most quickly, each interrupting the other – taken the opportunity to ask her how she had fared on that terrible day. And when, with
anguished heart, Josephe recounted some of the main features of her story, she was delighted to see tears well up in that lady’s eyes; Dona Elvira seized her hand and squeezed it and gestured her to be silent. (180) Unfortunately, the rest of the town retained its bigotry. In the afternoon of the earthquake, a service was held at Santiago’s remaining cathedral. The sermon of the officiating priest likened the calamity to God’s annihilation of Sodom and Gomorrah. The earthquake, according to him, was God’s “punishment” to Santiago for Jeronimo and Josephe’s sin:
He castigated it (the city) for abominations such as Sodom and Gomorrah had not known, and ascribed it only to God’s infinite forbearance that Santiago had not been totally obliterated from the face of the earth…he…digressed, with copious imprecations, to mention the two sinners themselves by name and to consign their souls to all the princes in hell. (183-184) The heady rhetoric of the sermon, along with emotional intensity generated by the devastating effects of the earthquake, resulted in violence. When a member of the congregation recognized Josephe in the service, an angry mob went after her and her companions.
When the crowd dispersed, Jeronimo, Josephe, Juan and Dona Constancia (Don Fernando’s sister-in-law) lay dead. The Earthquake in Chile was Von Kleist’s explanation for his disbelief in the ability of science, reason and progress to influence life and humanity. He believed that science, reason and progress governed life and humanity through morals that were in favor of the powerful. The powerful, in turn, used these morals to exploit the weak and the helpless. Thus, when the powerful loses their ability to subjugate, they resort to diabolical means to regain this capability. In doing so, their real nature is exposed.
Works Cited Allan, Sean. The Stories of Heinrich von Kleist: Fictions of Security. New York: Boydell & Brewer, 2001. Carlyle, Thomas. The French Revolution: A History. New York: Modern Library, 2002. Fenves, Peter David. Arresting Language: From Leibniz to Benjamin. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2001. “Lisbon, 1755: The Earth Shook. ” January 2005. The Internationalist. 17 September 2008. <http://www. internationalist. org/lisbon1755. html>. Von Kleist, Heinrich. “The Earthquake in Chile. ” Great German Short Stories. Ed. Evan Bates. New York: Courier Dover Publications, 2003.
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