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Political Change and Human Emancipation in the Works of Heinrich von Kleist


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The German writer Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811) was an unconventional and often controversial figure in his own day, and has remained so. His ideas on art, politics, and gender relations continue to challenge modern readers, and his complex and radically open texts remain the object of vigorous scholarly debate. Kleist has often been portrayed as a "poet without a society," whose writing served as escape from the realities of his social environment. This new study challenges such a view by situating Kleist in relation to the central political and philosophical debates of his momentous age. The study first establishes the German--and Prussian--context of Kleist's day, and then provides a short introduction to Kleist's life, here seen in particular relation to the political world. Developing his argument in relation to Kleist's literary work and essays in a series of close readings, Elystan Griffiths shows how Kleist's writings responded to four pressing political issues: the relationship of national culture and the state; education and social reform; the theory and practice of war; and administration and the delivery of justice. Griffiths sheds fresh light on Kleist's writing by placing emphasis on its intricacy and rich ambiguity, which are often simplified or overlooked in political studies of Kleist. Thus Griffiths furthers the critical understanding of Kleist's political thinking by uncovering crucial tensions between a pragmatic readiness for compromise and a utopian longing for freedom and truth.

Elystan Griffiths is a Research Fellow in the Department of German Studies at the University of Birmingham.


Satisfying a long-standing need in Kleist studies, Griffiths provides a thorough analysis of the political context in which Kleist (1777-1811) lived and worked and an assessment of his writings' political implications...this study is based in sound research, rich erudition and a good sense. Highly Recommended. CHOICE

In calling critical attention to the depth, nuances, and variety of Kleist's literary and essayistic responses to political issues, Griffiths succeeds in highlighting the relevance and importance these texts have for the challenges we face in our own century.... [H]ighly readable and would make an excellent companion for scholars studying or teaching Kleist's texts in the context of his age. GERMAN QUARTERLY

The strength of Griffiths' book ... lies in its ability to trace the discussion of specific political and social debates in Kleist's works, providing a more complex and concrete picture of the author's political stance.... COLLOQUIA GERMANICA


First Published: 28 Oct 2004
13 Digit ISBN: 9781571132925
Pages: 202
Size: 9 x 6
Binding: Hardback
Imprint: Camden House

Details updated on 05 Oct 2015


  • 1  Introduction
  • 2  Prussia and Germany in Kleist's Day
  • 3  Kleist and the Political World
  • 4  The Nation, the State, and the Subject
  • 5  Education and Social Change
  • 6  The Theory and Practice of War
  • 7  Administration and Justice
  • 8  Conclusion
  • 9  Works Cited
  • 10  Index