Reading Race in Kleist’s “Die Verlobung in St. Domingo”

James P. Martin


This article applies semiotic and anthropological approaches to elucidate the function of race within one of Kleist’s most controversial novellas. The analysis reveals how skin color functions as a sign within a cultural system that ultimately establishes a hierarchy of moral values. Previous scholarship has been divided on Kleist’s relation to racist assumptions prevalent in European colonial discourse and Enlightenment philosophy. Rather than attempting to establish the author’s racial opinions from an intentionally ambivalent text, this study focuses on the context in which skin color functions as a sign. By examining the intersection of cultural and semiotic systems, race is revealed as a fluid and unstable construct within Kleist’s novella. (JPM)

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