The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

"The Foundling" (1811)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

“The Foundling” (original: “Der Findling”) was written by Heinrich von Kleist and first appeared in Erzählung 2 (1811). Kleist (1777-1811) was a poet, dramatist, and novelist, and is an important figure in the German Romantic movement. “The Foundling” is a dark conte cruel (see: “The Torture of Hope”).

Antonio Piachi is a well-to-do real-estate broker in Rome. On a business trip to Ragusa he takes his eleven-year-old son Paolo with him. Unfortunately, the plague has broken out in Ragusa, forcing Piachi to leave the city before he can complete his business. On the way out of Ragusa he sees, standing on the side of a road, a boy reaching out to Piachi imploringly. Piachi takes pity on the boy, who admits that he has caught the plague and that his parents have already died of it. Piachi intends to drop the boy off at the first inn, but the police arrest him and bring all three back to Ragusa, where they are quarantined. Piachi does not catch the plague and the boy recovers from it, but Paolo sickens and dies. Piachi, grief-stricken, returns home, taking the boy, Nicolo, with him. Piachi’s young wife Elvira is heartbroken at Paolo’s death, but she takes in Nicolo, and they raise him as their own son. Later Piachi replaces a clerk in his business with Nicolo. Piachi can only find one fault with Nicolo: he is friends with a group of Carmelite friars, who flatter Nicolo because of the wealth that Nicolo will inherit from Piachi. Elvira finds Nicolo’s penchant for loose women troubling—at age fifteen he was seduced by the mistress of a Bishop, and Nicolo persists in seeing the woman despite Nicolo having forbidden it. But at age twenty Nicolo marries Elvira’s niece and seems to calm down. When Piachi turns sixty he legally makes over Nicolo to a great deal of his property.

In Elvira’s background there is a sad incident. At thirteen years old she was caught in a burning house, and rescued only by a young Genoese nobleman, who saved her at the cost of his own life. Piachi married Elvira two years after that and always took pains never to allude to the nobleman in the slightest way, as any mention of the man’s name threw Elvira into a fit of despondency. Only Piachi knows of this incident. But one night Nicolo goes to the carnival with Xaviera, the Bishop’s mistress and his own, and his costume is the same as the nobleman who saved Elvira’s life. Elvira sees him in the costume and faints. She spends days in a fever and never mentions what she saw. A year passes, and Nicolo’s wife dies giving birth to their only child. Nicolo begins whoring without restraint, something Elvira thinks contemptible. Through a stratagem Piachi discovers that Nicolo is still seeing Xaviera and arranges an embarrassment for Nicolo. The humiliated Nicolo blames Elvira. Nicolo apologizes to Piachi and swears to stop seeing Xaviera, but begins plotting revenge on Elvia, who he lusts after—she is still young and beautiful. Nicolo manages to discover Elvira’s secret, not only about the nobleman saving her life, but that she secretly kept a portrait of the nobleman and whispered “my love” to the portrait. One night, when she is preparing for bed, Nicolo slips into her bedroom, in the costume, and strikes the pose of the nobleman in the portrait. She sees him, calls out the nobleman’s name, and faints. Nicolo is about to rape her when Piachi returns. Piachi tells Nicolo to leave the house, but Nicolo tells Piachi that it is he that should leave, since Nicolo has documents which show that he is the owner of the house. Piachi discovers that Nicolo has the help of the Carmelite friars in this, and because Nicolo has decided to marry Xaviera the government decrees that Nicolo is the rightful owner of the house. Elvira dies from the shock of seeing Nicolo. The enraged Piachi beats Nicolo to death. And when the priest asks Piachi if he wants Holy Communion, Piachi says no, since he wants to go to hell to take his revenge on Nicolo again.

“The Foundling” is von Kleist’s darkest, most disturbing story. The obvious influence on the story is the motif from European folklore of the evil changeling which elves and fairies would leave behind when they stole human children. If the changeling did not waste away and die, it would grow up to become an evil adult. The story title is also a reference to the findlings, geological formations which do not belong where they are discovered, such as boulders deposited hundreds of miles from their place of origin by glaciers. Von Kleist had a lifelong interest in science and was well-acquainted with contemporary work in the earth sciences. But like other authors of kunstmärchen von Kleist adds psychological and overtly sexual elements to the story. The absence of a balancing morality in the story–neither of the Piachis deserve their fate–and the bitterness of the story’s ending leave it in conte cruel territory.

What sets “The Foundling” apart from most contes cruel is the influence of the Gothics and von Kleist’s deliberately disruptive narration. Von Kleist had seemingly recently read Lewis’ The Monk when he wrote “The Foundling” and several other kunstmärchen, and scholars have traced the influence of Lewis and The Monk on von Kleist’s kunstmärchen, including “The Foundling.” “The original foundling is Ambrosio,”1 after all, and while the influence of German fairy folklore on “The Foundling” is an obvious one “The Monk...evidently remained in his [von Kleist’s] mind, on and off, for the rest of his life.”2 

More than the underlying morality is unbalanced in “The Foundling.” Facts are omitted, characters act inconsistently, there are gaps in the story’s internal chronology, and Nicolo’s motivation is never explained. “The Foundling” is the most artfully conceived of the horror kunstmärchen and anticipates modern attempts to unnerve the reader by creating deliberately flawed and inconsistent horror narratives. This deliberate incompleteness may have been an influence on Emily Brontë when she wrote Wuthering Heights. While no definitive answers have ever been found–or at this late remove can ever be found–to prove that Brontë was inspired by anything external when she wrote Wuthering Heights, critics believe that she was familiar with the horror stories of the German Romantics, especially E.T.A. Hoffmann, and the similarities between Wuthering Heights and “The Foundling” have raised critics’ eyebrows.3 

“The Foundling,” despite its age, retains the power to disturb.

Recommended Edition

Print: Heinrich von Kleist and David Luke, The Marquise of O--- and Other Stories. New York: Penguin Books, 1978.


1 Bridgwater, The German Gothic Novel, 253.

2 Bridgwater, The German Gothic Novel, 253.

3 See Ralf R. Nicolai’s “‘Wuthering Heights’: Emily Brontë’s Kleistian Novel,” South Atlantic Bulletin 38, no. 2 (May 1973): 23-32 for an explication of this line of thought.