Book Review: Please note, I read this novella in German, looking up translations as needed… it was not easy! My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Heinrich von Kleist, born in Frankfurt in 1777, led a troubled life, which ultimately resulted in his suicide in 1811. As a follower of several Kantian philosophies, Kleist found himself drawing deeper and deeper into depression as he aged. However, this personal crisis is what enabled Heinrich von Kleist to become such a profound creative writer. At the turn of the nineteenth century, Heinrich von Kleist published one of his masterpieces: The Earthquake in Chile. The Earthquake in Chile pushes readers to question what role God, or any higher being, will play in their lives. Kleist sets his readers up to wonder whether the earthquake was a natural, geographic event, or whether it was an act of God against all sinners. In the end, Kleist shows his readers that they are solely responsible for deciding the place of religion in their lives. The characters in this novella all contribute to this central idea and help give the readers an understanding of religion’s role in society.
NOTE: SPOILERS below…
Kleist’s novella The Earthquake in Chile effectively demonstrates the absurd qualities of man’s life, the effect of such a religion on man, and the importance of the individual man in society. Kleist used several factual earthquakes to base his work on; he took the ramifications of the disastrous earthquake that had destroyed Santiago on 13 May 1647, using it as a starting place for his short story. The short story uses the idea of an earthquake, as a sign from God, to change the destiny of the lovers Jeronimo and Josefa. The story of Jeronimo and Josefa is a tragic one because the lovers ultimately die despite being given a second chance. Originally, Jeronimo and Josefa had sinned by creating a baby when they were unmarried in the church’s eyes. As a result, they were both condemned to die by the Archbishop’s command. However, moments before they were about to be hanged (Josefa was sentenced to be hanged, and Jeronimo was trying to commit suicide in the jail cell), the earth shook, and buildings crumbled. The earthquake had saved the two lovers, and they were secretly reunited. However, after finding their way back to each other, they entered a church service to thank God for saving their lives. The Prior’s sermon directly cites the lovers as the reason that the earthquake occurred. Soon, the rest of the congregation discovered the lovers’ presence in the church. Master Pedrillo, one of the high churchmen, was outraged at their attendance in such a holy place of God’s. Jeronimo and Josefa were the ones who had caused the earthquake according to several members of the community. The lovers were then murdered in cold blood inside of the church’s walls, as was an innocent baby that belonged to a friend of theirs, Don Fernando.
One of the unanswered questions that Kleist leaves his readers with at the end of this work is whether or not there is a higher being, namely God, that watches over all of mankind. Many readers argue that there can be no God who watches over his people. If there is, how could he permit Jeronimo and Josefa to find their way back to one another only to me murdered, no less in a church, by a man from another city. God may not be in control of the lives of all the citizens of Chile, but if he isn’t, then who is? If he is, then why did he permit the earthquake to happen? Kleist lets the readers explore these questions merely by setting up a situation in which there is no definite answer. Readers must take whatever they believe, and use Kleist’s situational examples to decide how to understand the problems of the lovers.
Possibly, the higher being that sent the earthquake to the town was trying to punish the sinners, but one will never know. In the Prior’s sermon, he does tell the people of his church that the earthquake caused so much damage because of the two sinner’s misdeeds. After the Prior speaks his words, the two lovers are drawn to the center of the church, and they are then killed. Afterwards, a supposedly reverent church follower begins to chastise the two for their evil deeds, and asks for even more vengeance to be incurred. In the end, he attempts to slay their newborn baby, but unbeknownst to him, he slays the baby of a friend of theirs. What kind of God would permit this to happen? Some may see this as a punishment. Possibly Don Fernando received this blow to his family because they helped support the two sinners previously. Again, Kleist leaves this decision in the hands of the readers. It is up to them to decide whether or not there is a higher begin out there who is controlling society’s actions.
By slaying the newborn baby of the wrong man, Kleist could be showing his readers that God punishes all for their sins at different points in their life. He may not single out just the sinners, but he may feel that all deserve to suffer for the sins of another. Kleist’s personal problems helped contribute to the way in which he ended the story. He felt that no matter what one attempted to do, they were in this world on their own. He gave Jeronimo the right to commit suicide by hanging himself in the jail cell, and he gave Master Pedrillo the right to create chaos in the church, a place that is supposed to be a sanctuary for holiness. Kleist wants his readers to know that even if God is in control, it is not total control. He lends some of his power to the church, which yields it in a way that they feel necessary. Thus, Master Pedrillo, and the Prior take out their anger at the earthquake on the sinners Jeronimo and Josefa.
One last question that Heinrich von Kleist evokes from readers, which he also leaves unanswered, is whether or not the readers can feel sympathy for the sinners, and the townspeople. Another question that stems from such an idea is whether or not all of mankind is similar when it comes to punishment, or should they receive different punishments depending on their crimes. If all of the citizens had become a single family, then why were Josefa and Jeronimo killed? They had all helped each other out, and did their best to survive with what they had, but the two lovers/sinners were still killed.
Kleist brings this point up to have the readers wonder whether or not one man is any more special than another man is. Are we all equals in society? Do we each receive our own punishment for what we have done? Do the elite receive a less harsh punishment? Apparently, Kleist wishes to show readers that any one may die in an earthquake. The Abbess, the Archbishop, the nuns, etc. all die when the earthquake hits. None of them had committed any mortal sins most likely, yet Jeronimo and Josefa did. Who died? The religious people died as a result of the earthquake, but then again, it is these church folk that Kleist labels as corrupt. Is their any justice in this situation? Again, Kleist gives this decision to the reader to make. Can there really be any justice when the lovers are killed in the end after being given a second chance? Justice can been seen in several ways. The lovers received their just due for committing the sin of fornication: They were slain by Master Pedrillo. What about the innocent baby though? Did he deserve to die? No. He did not, but he died nonetheless.
In the case of sympathy, do readers feel sympathy for Jeronimo and Josefa. Of course they do. Kliest writes the story for them, and about them. They were tragically senteneced to die, or to jail for the rest of their mortal lives. However, many readers make an attempt to argue that Kleist wants no one man or woman to be more sympathetic than another. If this is so, why did Kleist focus on the situation that the two lovers were in? He could have told the tale from Master Pedrillo’s opinion, or the Abbess’ or the Archbishop’s. He did not though. Kleist was trying to show that in this deviant world, man has little choice as to their future. God, or any other higher being, gives his people a path. And they are supposed to follow this path to the best of their ability. However, if the earthquake was a sign from God, God is the one who changed their path. The sympathy must lie with the sinner/lovers because that makes most sense. They have been the ones who are physically harmed and in pain. They are the most real of all the characters. We readers, in our own ways, commit the same sins of Jeronimo and Josefa. They are reality, the others are not. And with reality is where our sympathy will always lie.
Kleist is highly imaginative and brilliant in his attempts to present a problem that has no real solution. And if there is a solution, it will certainly not unite the vast majority of readers. In this excellent story about two lovers who die not by God’s hands, but by those of an angry, religious man, Kleist is able to present a task to the readers like no other author: Is there justice? Are all men equal? Is there one God? How much control does he have over mankind? The answers to these and many more questions are, as one hates to learn, in the hands of the individual. Kleist provides no answers. He just presents a situation in which all should decide for themselves.
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