Getting feminist about Kleist

Virgin Mary by Sassoferrato, 17th century. Lobkowicz Palace, Prague, Czech Republic. (Wikimedia Commons; Public domain)

In my last paper for this term in Arts One, I went the feminist-y route (my preferred route 124856% of the time) and wrote about the problematic representation of women in “The Sandman” and “Little Snow-White” (particularly with the importance beauty and appearance rather than brains). I wanted to also write about “Earthquake in Chile” but, one, I was dying; and two, I didn’t have much material to work with in terms of appearance and beauty. But I thought I had a few decent points about “Earthquake…” so consider this like a “deleted scene” from my essay.

(Preface: I’m probably going to focus on Josefa here, and it will not be focused on beauty at all. Mostly just the problematic representation part.)

First of all, I thought it was interesting that they put Josefa in the convent when her family found out about her affair. It seems like it’s common practice for women to be put in a nunnery if they deviated from or went against social norms. In Josefa’s case, it’s a way for them to rein in her sexuality, by putting her in a place when chastity was enforced. And I’m a little confused about the timeline, but it seems like Jeronimo wasn’t put in prison until after he got Josefa pregnant? It’s very vague, but I understand it to be that Josefa was put in the convent, Jeronimo somehow (“through a lucky accident” (5)) got into the convent, got her pregnant, and was then put in jail. In that case, it rubs me the wrong way that Josefa was punished and restrained for her desires while Jeronimo wasn’t (until later). Product of the times, probably. Still.

Next, there’s this passage:

“In the streets along which the procession would pass, […] the pious daughters of the city invited their girl friends to attend the spectacle offered to divine vengeance at their sisterly side” (7)

Contextually, this is the part where they’re talking about Josefa’s execution. Strange how they make a point to only mention women when discussing Josefa’s punishment and how gleeful they seem to be to be witnessing the destruction of another woman. It reminds me of the Queen in “Little Snow-white” and how determined she was to cause the downfall of Snow-white because of her beauty. It’s representative of the competition amongst women to simply be better than one another. In the Queen’s case it’s beauty, but in this case, it appears to be about piety and purity – the “pious daughters” are more chaste than poor old Josefa. Of course, especially in the context of this story, chastity is important in religion. However, if we take the religious part of it out, it comes down to the male gaze (see tangent). Beauty and chastity are both traits that are valued for being desirable to men. With beauty and the Queen, sure it probably has something to do with vanity, but beauty is a very patriarchal thing. There are a lot of really interesting articles out there, but in terms of the male gaze, the beauty standards that women are condemned to are based on what is attractive to men (and it leads to the competition and comparisons, etc.) In terms of chastity, then – have you ever thought about the obsession society seems to have with virginity? Again, thanks patriarchy! It’s about purity and the fixation on wanting to imprint on women who haven’t been tainted by another man already (hard to explain without talking about all the other baggage, such as this superiority complex between men and women, and men and other men, the objectification of women, and the overvaluing of purity, and I really WANT to talk about it, but this is already a feminist rant with too many clauses so just go and read some articles. Just take my word for it for now and roll with it.) The competition in this case is the one in which the women here compare each other for chastity and for reasons that stem from the patriarchy (and religion).

(Tangent: I realized I could have WENT OFF about the male gaze in my essay when I got Christina’s comments back on it, especially with the focus on eyes in “The Sandman”. I totally could have linked beauty with the male gaze with Nathanael with the eyes being symbolic of the male gaze. Oh my god. Christina, can I rewrite. Please. This is too good to let go.)

Speaking of punishments, they first sentenced Josefa to burning (until it was changed to beheading, “much to the indignation of the matrons and maidens of Santiago” (7) – again, see above!). I’m assuming they would be burning her at the stake, as it’s the most popular burning method of punishment we know of that they did back in those days, which is usually associated with witch hunts. I did a veeery quick google search on punishment in the 17th century and stumbled upon this site, which listed burning at the stake as a popular method of punishment for “heretics, witches, and suspicious women”. I’m assuming for Josefa, it would be because she had a child prior to marriage – or giving in to sexual temptation to begin with – which would be heresy (so much to say about restraint of women’s sexuality and chastity here but I will hold off). Interesting to see that burning at the stake seems to be a way of punishment reserved for women though. Also interesting that there was no mention of a punishment or sentence for Jeronimo…

Further interpretations can be made about the presence of motherhood and gender roles in the story, but my thoughts in that area are kind of half-baked and not directed – although none of this, really, is directed. Take this as more of a musing about a few aspects of the story I wanted to think about more. I hope you can make some sense of it and maybe let me know what you think!

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