Marquise of O

Sri Aurobindo says that the Brahman manifests itself in the universe as values. Values are the expression of the Spirit in life. To live spiritually is to live a life of values. Values are powers for accomplishment. There is a gradation and hierarchy of values corresponding to different levels of accomplishment from physical to social to cultural to spiritual. Physical values such as hard work and organization are the essence of material accomplishment. Social values support civilized living. Cultural values make the full development and psychological flowering of individuality possible. Beyond this lies the realm of Spiritual living.

A German story by Heinrich von Kleist beautifully depicts the power of cultural values triumphing over social circumstances. The Marquise of O is a young French widow of noble birth living with her two children, parents and brother in an Italian castle town, which is governed by her father, a Colonel, during the Franco-Prussian War. When Russian troops overrun the castle, the Marquise is attacked by foot soldiers and nearly raped, before a Russian Count intervenes to rescue her and return her unharmed to her family. The Marquise is given a sedative to make her sleep after the harrowing experience. The Count, who calls on her to ensure her safety, is overcome with passion for her beautiful sleeping form and, unknown to the woman, rapes her while she is asleep. The Colonel’s family is deeply grateful to the Count for saving their daughter and completely unaware of his sin against her. They are heartbroken when they hear that he was killed in a battle shortly after leaving the castle.

Months later, the Count, who has recovered from a near-fatal wound, suddenly reappears. Eager to compensate for his secret transgression, he pleads for permission to immediately marry the Marquise. While the Count is warmly welcomed by this affectionate, cultured family and found both noble and attractive by the Marquise, she clings to an earlier vow not to remarry and her parents fail to understand the urgency of his plea. When his persistence in courting the Marquise threatens to damage his career and reputation, both the daughter and parents consent in principle to a future marriage, if only the Count will return to his professional duties. Satisfied by this promise, the Count departs.

Soon afterward, the Marquise experiences the early symptoms of pregnancy. Bewildered, since her husband died three years before, she confides in her mother and insists on consulting a physician and a mid-wife. When both confirm that she is, in fact, pregnant, her mother concludes that her daughter has taken a lover and is only feigning innocence. Despite the Marquise’s denial of any wrong-doing, she is rejected by her parents and banished from the family home.

The Marquise retires with her children to her country house, where she lives in total solitude and refuses to receive any visitors. Months later the Count returns and forces his way into her presence in order to confess his sin and plead that she accept him in marriage. Too ashamed of her situation to face one whom she believes so pure and noble, she escapes into the house before the Count can confess.

The Marquise is heart-broken by the estrangement from her affectionate family, but even more concerned that her innocent, unborn child not be looked down upon by society as illegitimate. So she places an advertisement in the newspaper asking the man who has raped her to come forward and accept her hand in marriage. Seeing the ad, her mother decides to lay a trap to wring a confession from her guilty daughter. Believing that her daughter already knows who her lover is and has only placed the ad to deceive others, her mother goes to her daughter and tells her that the man has come forward. But when she sees that her daughter is so genuinely eager to learn the identity of the man, she realizes the girl has been telling the truth all along. Brushing aside the social outrage, she embraces her daughter and insists on bringing her back home. Although the circumstances make it difficult for anyone to believe her innocence, the Marquise’s values of psychological purity and genuine affection conquer the compelling evidence and values of social opinion. The Colonel too relents and embraces his daughter with overflowing emotion. The emotional highlight of the story is this point at which both parents withdraw their suspicion and reaffirm their faith in their daughter, before any evidence is available to vindicate her. Such is the power of the values she represents. And so great is that power that it compels life to not only vindicate her position but also to resolve the situation in a manner most acceptable to all involved.

Soon a second ad appears from an unnamed man claiming responsibility and offering to come forward a few days later. The entire family decides that the man should be accepted into the family in order to uphold the virtue of the Marquise and the legitimacy of the unborn child, provided the man is not of too low a social standing. To their utter amazement, the man who appears is none other than the Count. The Marquise is horrified to find the culprit is one whom she held in such high regard and is at first unwilling to fulfil the offer of marriage. Ultimately, her genuine love for the Count overcomes her reluctance, the marriage is consummated, and her reputation is redeemed.

Life is filled with so many possibilities that even the most obvious and reasonable conclusion may prove false. What protection can one find from untoward accusations and social condemnation? A life of higher values provided that ultimate protection, as ultimately it preserved the reputation of the Marquise, reunited her with her family and brought her a husband whose only sin in life had been that momentary lapse against her with whom he was passionately in love.