In The Marquise of O-, a virtuous widow finds herself unaccountably pregnant. And although the baffled Marquise has no idea w hen this happened, she must prove her innocence to her doubting family and discover whether the perpetrator is an assailant or lover. Michael Kohlhaas depicts an honourable man who feels compelled to violate the law in his search for justice, while other tales explore the singular realm of the uncanny, such as The Beggarwoman of Locarno, in which an old woman's ghost drives a heartless nobleman to madness, and St Cecilia, which portrays four brothers possessed by an uncontrollable religious mania. The stories collected in this volume reflect the preoccupations of Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811) with the deceptiveness of human nature and the unpredictability of the physical world.
Heinrich von Kleist, born in 1777, came of an old Prussian military family but disliked military life and resigned his commission in 1799 to devote himself to studious pursuits. He returned to creative writing after undergoing an intellectual and personal crisis in 1801, and during the next ten years produced some of the most remarkable plays in German literature (notably the comedies Amphitryon and Der zerbrochene Krug, the tragedy Penthesilea and the problem drama Prinz von Homburg) as well as eight masterly short stories and various minor writings.
Kleist had an unstable and almost schizophrenic personality; he was intensely ambitious yet unsure of his gifts. His works reflect his passionately uncompromising nature and his periodic fits of wild enthusiasm and morose melancholia. Episodes of great lyrical beauty alternate with scenes of the most frenzied brutality, and the highly emotional style predominating in his plays is often replaced in the stories by one of clinical detachment. Kleist committed suicide in 1811.